Saturday, July 11

The Cloud Rider and Biblical Imagery

The sacred Scriptures are known to have a number of images, type-scenes and motifs, and there is one particular image that occurs a multitude of times: the imagery of God riding on the clouds. Perhaps we picture a man sitting on a throne in the form of a cloud, perhaps we picture a stormy sky which the Lord of All has set into motion. Perhaps none of these images, perhaps all. Here, we will review the relevant passages in Scripture that refer to this image, and then we can further extrapolate meaning as a result. Further, by briefly considering Near-Eastern parallels and parallels with other religious traditions, we may seek to gain insight into how the original readers of these texts may have understood the image. The following are the relevant passages:
  • Deuteronomy 33:26, “There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.”
  • Psalm 18:9-10, “He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind.”
  • Psalm 68:4, “Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him – his name is the LORD.”
    • Alternate reading “prepare the way for him who rides through the deserts”
  • Psalm 104:3, “…He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.”
  • Isaiah 19:1, “A prophecy concerning Egypt: See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them.”
  • Daniel 7:13-14, “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
  • Nahum 1:3, "The LORD is slow to anger but great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds" (possible reference).
  • Mark 13:26-27, “’At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”
  • Matthew 24:30, “At that time the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.”
  • Matthew 26:64, “’You have said so,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • Revelation 1:7, “’Look, he is coming with the clouds,’ and ‘every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’; and all peoples on earth ‘will mourn because of him.’ So shall it be! Amen.”
These passages are indicative that God riding on a cloud is symbolic of his sovereignty. But we may also see parallels of this in various religious traditions. In Greek mythology, Helios, the personification of the sun, rides a horse-drawn chariot through the heavens, hence why the sun ascended and descended each day. In Norse mythology, Odin rides his ram-driven chariot through the skies. The Hindu god Indra, as one of his many epithets, is Meghavahana "the one who rides the clouds."[1] Thus, we see that there is already a precedent for deities riding a chariot of some sort through the heavens. But the most relevant and enlightening for our reading of Scripture comes from a Near Eastern parallel. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, "Clouds serve as God's war chariot in the imagination of the OT poets and prophets... This image of the warrior god riding a chariot into battle is an ancient one, antedating the Bible in Canaanite mythology, where Baal is given the frequent epiphet 'ride on the clouds.'"[2] In fact, "Baal was the god of the thunderstorm in the Ugaritic pantheon. His cloud riding was appropriate to his function."[3]

The picture of God riding on the clouds and across the heavens, we may surmise, was a polemical symbol directed against the Canaanite god Baal. It was a statement of authority and sovereignty. Further, we may see this evidenced by Elijah - the same prophet who denounced worship of the Baals, was taken up in a whirlwind along with chariots of fire. We may separately note that the "NT use of the cloud theme, however, returns to the theophanic, or more specifically Christophanic, function. At the transfiguration God spoke out of a cloud to identify Jesus as 'my Son, whom I have chosen' (Lk 9:35). Jesus, like God in the OT, rides on a cloud (Acts 1:9). One of the most pervasive images of Christ's return is as one who rides his cloud chariot into battle."[4] This cloud imagery is indeed an ancient one, and in fact, "is as old as the Exodus and the pillar of cloud by day and the fire by night (Ex. 13:21). During the climactic theophany on Sinai, the mountain was covered by a cloud (19:16). In the tabernacle, God appeared in the cloud that was present in the Holy of Holies (Lev 16:2). We learn of the vehicular cloud, however, in the psalms and prophets."[5]

But it is also important to note that this epithet, or imagery used of God as the rider of the clouds, is one among many examples throughout the Bible of the writer taking an image used to describe another deity, and attributing it to God as a way of showing his superiority. For example, Psalm 104 is often speculated to be modeled after an Egyptian hymn to the god Aten. Given the Jewish familiarity with the Egyptian gods, this was written as an argument of sorts - a polemical hymn - against Aten, yet for the sovereignty of God. Some similar is found in the plagues of Egypt, where each plague represents a sort of polemic or judgment against the Egyptian pantheon. This is borne out in Scripture itself - in Exodus 12:12 where God says, "I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt," and does so through the plagues. For example, by demonstrating God's control over the Nile, he shows the inferiority of the Egyptian god Hapi.

Therefore, this image of God as the cloud rider or divine warrior may be seen as an image which the Hebrews used to shower the superiority of God and the inferiority of the Canaanite god, Baal. Clouds are also very important imagery in relation to eschatology and other prophetical and apocalyptic works. The image of a cloud can be very powerful in the human imagination - consider Job 38, where God shows up to Job in a powerful whirlwind. Clouds are often associated with strong storms, particularly thunderstorms and hurricanes. We can perceive them as signs of God's power - but we must not forget his appearance to Elijah in 2nd Kings 19, where God shows up not in the earthquake, nor the gust of wind, but as a still, small voice. Thus, we can conclude that this singularly powerful image of the divine warrior riding the clouds was useful for the Hebrews in their context, and today we may then ask, which images of God have a similar effect on our human imagination? How do we describe God?[6] How do we understand God? Therein lies the love that we may seek to find, shrouded in a deep cloud of mystery.

[1] Wilkings, W.J. Hindu mythology, Vedic & Puranic. Calcutta: Elibron Classics, December 2001. 52. Print.
[2] Edited by Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. 1998. 157. Print.
[3] God Is a Warrior. Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid. Print. 
[4] Ryken, Wilhoit and Longman.
[5] Longman and Reid.
[6] One anonymous medieval work known as the Cloud of Unknowing suggests that the way we come to know and understand God is through unlearning the concepts, constructs and images of God that we have crafted, and therefore come to truly know God through unknowing. This is in line with the Christian mystical apophatic tradition.

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