For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:38)
As the book of Exodus comes to a close, the Israelites have ended their sojourn at Mt. Sinai and are preparing to commence their wanderings in the wilderness. The mountain, of course, represents revelation – the place in which they encounter God and openly receive divine instruction. But, of course, they cannot remain at Sinai indefinitely. Sooner or later, the time must come for the Israelites to leave the mountain and venture into the wilderness.
This is where the Tabernacle becomes literally and figuratively central to the communal life of the Israelites. It is not by happenstance that the Tabernacle is marked by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. These are, after all, the very same images that are used in the description of the theophany at Sinai:
Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln… (Exodus 19:18)
In a sense the Tabernacle represents a kind of “mini-Sinai” – a portable place of revelation that will orient the Israelite community during the course of their journeys through the wilderness. The Tabernacle will allow divine revelation to be ongoing no matter where their steps may lead them. As long as the Israelites have the cloud and fire to accompany them, their steps will be be guided with spiritual purpose and direction.
Some of the final questions posed by the book of Exodus: when were your Sinai moments? When was your time to leave the mountain? What are your pillars of cloud and fire?