POSTED 03 NOVEMBER, 2017
“The LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21).
“The angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them” (Exodus 14:19).
reproduced from Salvation on the Line, Volume I
Those with a cursory knowledge of the Exodus and wilderness sojourn of Ancient Israel, recognize that the people were led by a pillar of cloud during the daytime, and a pillar of fire during the night. But in the Torah narratives detailing this, who was the specific entity responsible for this? It is witnessed in some places that it was the LORD or YHWH who was responsible, and in other places His messenger or angel. Which is it? Is “the messenger/angel of the LORD” only to be regarded as a supernatural agent sent by the Lord, or might “the messenger/angel of the LORD” actually be, at least at some time, a manifestation of God proper? What is communicated to readers as it concerns the overlapping descriptions of this figure as being both the LORD or YHWH, but also being sent by Him?
Exodus 13:21 states v’YHWH holeikh lifneihem, “Now YHWH goes before them” (Fox). Following this in Exodus 14:19 it is narrated, v’yisa malakh haElohim haholeik l’fnei machaneih Yisrael, “And the messenger of God that was going before the camp of Israel…” (Alter). Later on, though, in Numbers 20:16, the Israelites are recorded as saying, “But when we cried out to the LORD, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out from Egypt; now behold, we are at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory.”
So, what are we to make of the figure which led the Israelites out of Egypt via a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire? Was it the LORD or YHWH manifest as an angel? Was it a messenger/angel sent by God? There is no agreement among examiners. Noting Numbers 20:16, “And we cried out to the LORD and He heard our voice and sent a messenger and brought us out of Egypt” (Alter), Alter concludes that “In some of the varying accounts in Exodus, not God Himself but a divine messenger leads Israel out of slavery into the wilderness.”
There is nothing in the text which requires that every time a figure such as malakh haElohim or “the messenger/angel of God” (Exodus 14:19) appears, that it be God proper manifest as an angel. God can surely authorize one of His angels, as created beings, to perform critical tasks, including facilitating the deliverance of His people from Egypt. Yet, when it is stated that God Himself is the One who led Israel in a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21), there are factors to be surely weighed about how God can choose to manifest Himself to human beings. It is hardly outside the realm of possibilities for God proper to manifest Himself in a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire, as well as some sort of perceived messenger or angel—which then various Christians and Messianic people may conclude was a pre-Incarnate Yeshua the Messiah, a member of what would then have to be a plural Godhead. Sarna usefully observes,
“A theme that recurs in the narratives of the wilderness wanderings is that God manifested his active, dynamic Presence throughout. This is conceptualized in accordance with the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a Being who transcends the limits of time and space, and thus surpasses human imagining. Hence, God’s indwelling Presence in the world is symbolized, however inadequately, by the mysterious, intangible, incorporeal elements of fire and cloud.”
 Alter, Five Books of Moses, 784.
 Sarna, Exodus, 70.