Jacob Milgrom on the Fire-Cloud (Numbers 9:15-23)

“God leads Israel in its wilderness march not by voiced commands but by a cloud-encased fire (cf. Exod. 40:38).   During the day, only the cloud is visible, the fire, presumably, dimmed by sunlight.  But night renders the cloud invisible, and the luminous fire (also called kavod, “glory”) can be clearly seen.

“When the fire-cloud descends upon the Tabernacle ( Exod. 40: 34) or leaves it ( Ezek. 10: 4a), it expands into the courtyard ( Ezek. 10: 4b) so that the consecrated personnel cannot enter ( Exod. 40: 35). In effect, the power of the numinous is increased when in motion. Our passage states unequivocally that it is the ascending and descending fire-cloud that determines whether Israel moves or encamps.  (Num 9:18).  As soon as the Tabernacle is reassembled, it is enveloped by the cloud.”

There’s a lot here that is suggestive.  There are contrasts between day and night, cloud and fire, rest and motion, with no suggestion of better or worse: they are equally holy, part of the rhythm of life.  This principle of undulation and alternation is nicely articulated by Emerson, in one of his journal entries (we might even associate “solitude” with “rest” and “society” with “motion”)

Solitude is naught and society is naught. Alternate them and the good of each is seen. You can soon learn all that society can teach you for one while. Then retire and hide; and from the valley behold the mountain. Have solitary prayer and praise. Love the garden, the barn, the pasture, and the rock. There digest and correct the past experience, blend it with the new and divine life, and grow with God. After some interval when these delights have been sucked dry, accept again the opportunities of society. The same scenes revisited shall wear a new face, shall yield a higher culture. And so on. Undulation, Alternation, is the condition of progress, of life.

Another facet of this undulatation is expressed by the Hebrew phrase rotzo v’shov, taken from Ezekiel 1:14, which means “running and returning.”   In Jewish mysticism this denotes the necessary alternation of mystical and mundane awareness.

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