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” ]

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photo credits: Schristia, Cloud; Chris Tangey, Fire

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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