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The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire

[ by Charles Cameron — IDF terminology and the Gaza conflict, explanations of Exodus, an IDF video, Megillah 10b and the koan “with God on our side” / “with God on all sides” ]

photo credits: Schristia, Cloud; Chris Tangey, Fire


I’m curious.

The IDF calls today’s Israeli operation in Gaza “Operation Pillar of Defense” in English, but as John Cook points out in Gawker, uses the term Hebrew term “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew.

There’s a great deal of interest here, apart from the difference between their use of non-Biblical terminology in English and Biblical terminology in Hebrew. One point that catches my ear, a poet being a poet, is that the phrase “Pillar of Cloud” is in fact only one half of a double reference…

Thus in Exodus 13.21-22 we read:

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.


There are various ways of understanding the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, but it’s pretty clear that there’s only one pillar —

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud… [Exodus 14.24]

which is called a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, perhaps simply because we are speaking of theophany — the Divine Presence made visible — perhaps because smoke from a brazier is more visible in daylight and flames at night — perhaps because as Hans Goedicke, then chairman of the department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins, suggested, the source of both fire and smoke was the eruption of Santorini around 1600 BCE.

The difference in worldviews behind those explanations alone is a matter of considerable interest.


Linguistically, however — and this is where the poet being a poet comes in — there are two pillars, and I have to wonder whether the name “Pillar of Fire” is being saved for a later and perhaps more impressive (“shock and awe”) operation, or — in line with the “by day and by night” distinction — refers to the covert side of the same op?

Not that anyone would be likely to give me that information, or that I’d have any use for it if they did.

But the Biblical phrasing is powerful, and “Pillar of Defense” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — besides, cloud and fire go together in Hebrew in much the same way smoke and mirrors do in English.

Of the three choices, I’d have gone with “Pillar of Fire” myself.


An IDF spokesperson, in a response to Cook’s Gawker article, claimed:

I think that every example of Bible quotes you cited has defensive connotations, rather than “vengeful.”

One of those quotes is Exodus 14:24, which I quoted above but will now give in full, along with verse 25:

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, and took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

I think calling that “defensive” is a bit one-sided, but on the other of the two hands in question, so is calling it “vengeful”.

The Israelites saw themselves in the larger context as escaping Egyptian oppression, the Egyptians obviously considered themselves under attack in the short term — just as surely as the people of Gaza must feel under attack by the oppressive Israelis today, while the Israelis clearly feel under attack by terroristic Hamas and its rockets. But hey, the IDF spokesman only offered his explanation that the Pillar of Cloud and Defense was “defensive” as “Just my two cents”…

FWIW, those two verses from Exodus sound just a little like Quran 33.26:

And He brought down those of the People of the Book who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror in their hearts; some you slew, some you made captive. And He bequeathed upon you their lands, their habitations, and their possessions, and a land you never trod. God is powerful over everything.

That’s an ayat that has always interested me, because of the use of the word “terror” found in a number of translations including this one, by AJ Arberry — others have “awe” or “panic”, but “terror” is interesting in the context of its contemporary usage.


Here’s the current strike counter strike in two tweets:


Okay, let’s get as close to visceral as modern technological warfare permits. After the recent truce was broken and numerous rockets fired into Israel, the IDF fired a missile that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, and quickly put the video feed up on YouTube:


People are killing and getting killed. Should that be a matter for concern, or delight?

The narrative from which the IDF drew the name of their campaign in Gaza is taken from that of Israel’s escape from Egypt in Exodus, which also includes the parting of the waters and destruction of the Egyptian army:

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided…. [Exodus 14.19-21]

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians. And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. [Exodus 14.24-27]

Here again we see an instance of what I have called the two-fold logic of scriptures: In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b, R. Johanan tells us:

The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?

to which R. Eleazar responds:

He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.


To my mind, what we’re looking at here is a global koan: the immediate and eternal paradox of life and death.

But more on koans shortly.

3 Responses to “The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    For a quick look at how little attention we pay to scriptural details, see Gil Messing‘s piece for ICSR yesterday,  “Pillar of Defence” — Ahmed Jaabari the main target – 3 comments and 3 scenarios, in which we read:

    The name of the operation – “Pillar of Defence”- is derived from a biblical quote about those who guard the camp.

    Normally I respect ICSR, but off-the-cuff remarks like that don’t encourage respect.  Doesn’t Messing think that since it’s the Israeli DF we’re talking about and the quote is biblical, “those who guard the camp” falls a little short of the research mark?

  2. Derek Robinson Says:

    Parallels – http://www.jewishhistory.org/hyksos-or-hebrews/ – I hadn’t realised that the 1st Century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was first to identify the Hyksos invaders of Egypt with, maybe, the Hebrews. And so why am I thinking of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Shem and Shaun ..

  3. Jean Rosenfeld Says:

    A few or more decades ago, political scientist David C. Rapoport wrote about the origin of “terror,” which he found in the Book of Exodus, viz., God’s plagues upon the Egyptians that compelled them to release the Israelites (and, incidentally, those who wished to accompany them who were not Israelite*) from bondage.  God sent terror in defense of his chosen people under his chosen leader, Moses.
    Clearly, religion has a longer shelf life than just about any other cultural artifact.  Not I, but another historian of religion, Kees W. Bolle, remarked that the words that change most slowly over time in any language — indicating their significance (signification/referents of meaning) — are words relating to religious rituals, texts, and what is designated as sacred.  Another historian of religion, Huston Smith, contends that of all factors in human history, religion is the one most responsible for impacting that history.
    Thus, whatever is of ultimate concern to human groups, generally is expressed religiously.  This includes names given to operations of war.  By translating “cloud” as “defense,” someone is engaging in hermeneutics.  (In this case, one can construe “defense” as “apologia.”)
    One expects each side engaging in hostilities to defend its motivations and express them in terms identified with the people and their “defender,” i.e. god.
    As Yahweh “defended” the Israelites by smiting the Egyptians, so Israelis today comfort themselves by recalling that great and founding event, the Exodus.  The fact that the Exodus involved the use of “terror” in defense of God’s people goes unsaid, but is assumed via the use of symbolic language.  The Egyptians, one could say (like Hamas), were given many chances to avoid God’s plagues and the destruction of their army.  One sees where the use of religious words from ancient, founding texts both give comfort to the people and promise victory over their enemies.
    However, the translation of “pillar of cloud” as “pillar of defense” should be regarded as part of the attempt to frame the ultimacy of the crisis with Hamas as one more instance of God’s intervention in human history, in this case, once again as the god of war/ Yahweh, who rescues his people from oblivion.
    *Note:  I am aware that “Israelite” was a later name for the people in Egyptian bondage, as the text was redacted hundreds of years later.

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