The Tabernacle Cloud and Pillar of Fire Hid God's Presence

Inauguration of the Tabernacle (Exodus 40), wood engraving, published 1886

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God appeared in a cloud and pillar of fire to the Israelites after he freed them from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 13:21-22 describes the miracle:

By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.
Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. ( NIV)

Besides the practical purpose of leading the people through the wilderness, the pillar also comforted the Hebrews with God's protective presence. When the people were waiting to cross the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud moved behind them, blocking the Egyptian army from attacking. God gave light to the Hebrews from the cloud but darkness to the Egyptians. 

Burning Bush, Burning Pillar

When God first chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery, he spoke to Moses through a burning bush. The fire blazed but the bush itself was not consumed.

God knew the long trek through the desert wilderness would be exhausting for the Hebrews. They would be afraid and filled with doubt. He gave them the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire to assure them he was always with them.

Some Bible scholars theorize the pillar of cloud shaded the people from the intense desert sun and also contained droplets of moisture which refreshed the travelers and their livestock. The pillar of fire at night would have provided light and warmth if there was no wood available for fires.

The cloud came down on the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the desert tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34). When the cloud covered the tent of meeting, the Israelites encamped. When the cloud lifted, they moved.

God warned Moses not to let Aaron, the high priest, enter the holy of holies in the tabernacle whenever he wanted because he would die. God appeared on the mercy seat, or atonement cover of the ark of the covenant, in the cloud.

Fire Foretells the Light of the World

The pillar of fire, illuminating the way for the Israelite nation, was a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, the Messiah who came to save the world from sin.

In preparing the way for Jesus, John the Baptist said, “...I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Luke 3:16, NIV)

Fire can symbolize purification or God's presence. Light stands for holiness, truth, and understanding.

“I am the light of the world." (Jesus said)  "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." ( John 8:12, NIV)

The Apostle John repeated this in his first letter: "This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." (1 John 1:5, NIV)

The light Jesus brought continues to guide and protect Christians today, just as the pillar of fire guided the Israelites. In Revelation, the final book of the Bible, John tells how Christ's light shines in heaven"The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp." (Revelation 21:23, NIV) 

Bible References


The cloud and pillar of fire accompanied the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt.


  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, general editor
  • Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor
  • The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, R.K. Harrison, editor
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Zavada, Jack. "The Tabernacle Cloud and Pillar of Fire Hid God's Presence." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). The Tabernacle Cloud and Pillar of Fire Hid God's Presence. Retrieved from Zavada, Jack. "The Tabernacle Cloud and Pillar of Fire Hid God's Presence." Learn Religions. (accessed April 1, 2023).