I’ve been reading about clouds in the Book of Exodus, amazed at how often they show up in that ancient story, always declaring, “God is with us!” In Hebrew the word for cloud is עָנָן, when transliterated is “anan,” a word that appears 20 times in the Book of Exodus. God guides and protects His people by day with a pillar of cloud. When the cloud stood in front of the people, God guided them forward; when the cloud stood behind the people, God protected them from attack from the rear. At night, the cloud pillar turned to fire to light up the night. The people of Israel looked out across the wildness of the wilderness where they were headed on foot and saw “the awesome glory of the Lord in the cloud” (Exodus 16:10). God came to the people in a thick cloud that descends upon the mountain, upon Mount Sinai. Moses, leader of the people, climbed up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence. “The glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud” (Exodus 24:16). Moses remained inside the cloud, high up on the mountain for 40 days and nights. There, within the cloud of God’s presence, Moses received the 10 commandments, along with detailed blueprints for making the Holy Sanctuary known as the Tabernacle. Later in Exodus, God came down in a cloud, and God’s glory filled the Tabernacle. God’s presence was so overwhelming, so glorious, that “Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35). Whenever the cloud lifted from the place of worship, the people pulled up their tent stakes, packed up their belongings and prepared to move on in their journey across the wilderness. “I will personally go with you,” God tells Moses (Exodus 33). Moses replies with this plea: “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. How will anyone know that you look favorably on me–on me and on your people–if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all the other people on the earth.” God’s presence among us, often seen and known by clouds. The Book of Exodus concludes with this amazing paragraph, filled with clouds: “Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted. The cloud of the Lord hovered over the Tabernacle during the day, and at night fire glowed inside the cloud so the whole family of Israel could see it. This continued throughout all their journeys” (Exodus 40:36-38).
I’ve been meditating on clouds this past year, considering how clouds reveal or veil God’s presence. One of the greatest Christian spiritual classics, known as The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous author in the 14th century, envisions God’s presence as a cloud we enter, laying aside our limited human ways of thinking about God, and coming into the living presence of God within “the cloud of unknowing.” I’ve spent the past 5 years reflecting upon this classic, translating and paraphrasing it into a newly published book titled Cloud Devotion: Through the Year with The Cloud of Unknowing (Paraclete Press, January 2020), a book of daily devotions from The Cloud. As Joni Mitchell mused in her hit song from 1969, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down and still somehow / I really don’t know clouds at all.” Whenever we enter into God’s presence, we are wise to come with humility, admitting, “I’ve looked at You God from many sides, from up and down, and yet, I still don’t know You very well at all. Teach me, reveal yourself to me. If you don’t go with me, don’t make me leave this place.” May God continue to lead us up into God’s mysterious, marvelous presence, as though we are ascending into clouds.