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B'Midbar/Numbers 9:18 And according to the lifting of the cloud from on the Tent, and after that the Children of Israel would break camp
It has now been a nearly a year since the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai and the community has just celebrated their first memorial Pesach in the desert, away from Egypt. Then the text steps back to remind us that "On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning" (B'Midbar 9:15, JPS); that is, ever since the Tabernacle had been formally erected and commissioned, the pillar of cloud and fire had been there, in the centre of the camp as a highly visible sign to the whole people ofHaShem's presence in the midst of the people. More than that, according to our text, the cloud also acted as a signal by which HaShem indicated to the people when and where they were to travel. The Sforno explains that "after it (the cloud) ascended, they travelled to that side (or direction) where the cloud moved". This is confirmed by Targum Onkelos, which switches the Hebrew word 'lifted' for the Aramaic , departure: "when the cloud departed ..." Jacob Milgrom says that the text uses ohel here a synonym for mishkan; the main idea of this section (15-23) is that: G-d's Tabernacle, His earthly presence, moved when He and not Israel so desired." Rabbi Hirsch sums up the traditional Jewish reading of this text: "The cloud was the Shepherd's crook by means of which G-d, the 'Shepherd of Israel', announced His will to the People He was leading, where and when they were to encamp, where and when to break camp."
Concerned as ever with the smallest detail,Rashi points out that "it would be untenable to have written , 'according to the lifting of the cloud', rather then , for that does not mean 'departure' but rather 'growth and ascent'". We should note that with clouds, the root , "to go up", in the Qal stem speaks more about formation than movement, which is usually expressed using the Niphal stem, for example, "Behold there is a small [cloud] like a man's palm rising from the sea" (1 Kings 18:44). The Baal HaTurim observes a marginal note in the Masoretic Text and reports that "this word only appears twice in the Tanakh: here, 'the lifting of the cloud'; and , 'the lifting of the exile' (Ezra 1:11). It would have been proper that a miracle be performed for them, that is the Jewish people, in the days of Ezra, just as was done for them in the days of Moshe."
The concept of the cloud lifting has entered the general vocabulary. Many people report that at significant points in their lives they have felt or seen "the cloud lift" to encourage them to move forward or take action; similarly, comments that "the cloud hasn't lifted" are used to justify delay or holding back a decision or a course of action. Although often subjective, the phrase has gained significant currency as a means of expressing a sense of G-d's presence or His direction in the affairs of men, just as it was for the ancient Israelites.
The cloud only gave direction in the specific terms of when to travel and when to stop, to break or pitch camp. The Israelites also had the Urim and Thumim as a means of determining G-d's instructions in other areas: "in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron's heart, when he goes in before the L-RD" (Shemot 28:30, ESV) and Moshe was commanded to instruct Joshua to "stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the L-RD. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation" (B'Midbar 27:21, ESV). After the exile, this was to be the way that the status of some claiming to be priests was determined: "The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food until a priest with Urim and Thummim should arise" (Nehemiah 7:65, ESV).
Many ask how are we to know, track, follow and seek G-d's presence and direction in these days without the supernatural signs that the Israelites were given in their times. The Jewish world, teaching that prophecy ceased shortly after the Second Temple was built, declares that everything is in the Torah and that Jews do not depend on miracles (b. Pesachim 64b). The Sages have derived many rules and laws from the original words of the Torah to cover almost every imaginable situation; by appropriate application of those rules, it is easy to determine what Adonai would have us do or say. There are some Christians too who follow the same principle, teaching that everything we need to know - every rule, every guidance that we might need - can be found in the pages of the Bible. For both of these groups, then, there is no need for further supernatural divine guidance today because the answers to all our questions have already been provided through the Scriptures. Both of these groups are also unlikely to accept that G-d's presence can or should be expected to be manifested in these days.
Moshe, on the other hand, argued withAdonai that "If Your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and Your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?" (Shemot 33:15-16, ESV). Adonai's presence among His people was essential so that everyone else would know that He was working among them. The Psalmist too seems concerned about losing Adonai's presence: "Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:11, ESV); he urges his people to, "Seek the L-RD and His strength; seek His presence continually!" (Psalm 105:4, ESV), but then affirms, "Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence?" (Psalm 139:7, ESV). No, he realises, there is nowhere that Adonai's presence cannot be; everywhere is within His reach. So great that the earth itself is aware of Adonai's presence: "Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the L-rd, at the presence of the G-d of Jacob" (Psalm 114:7, ESV).
Today we enter the presence of G-d, although He is always around us and
watching over us, in a number of ways:
G-d has promised to be with us wherever we go: "ADONAI will always guide you; He will satisfy your needs in the desert, He will renew the strength in your limbs; so that you will be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails" (Isaiah 58:11, CJB) and Yeshua confirmed that personally for all those who follow Him: "Remember! I will be with you always, yes, even until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20, CJB). Should we nevertheless seek the presence of G-d? The Psalmist insists that it is the only way: "You make me know the path of life; in Your presence is unbounded joy, in your right hand eternal delight" (Psalm 16:11, CJB).
Further Study: Psalm 80:14-19; Jeremiah 31:11-12; John 7:37-39
Application: Are you aware of the presence of G-d in your life? Do you experience Him guiding you each day? If not, then you are missing out on one of richest kingdom blessings. Claim that promise today and He will be there for you.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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