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Divine Presence

The notion of the Divine Presence is expressed in the Bible in two different senses: (1) in the corporeal sense, i.e., the actual dwelling (shakhan, שָׁכַן) of God in His abode; (2) in the abstract sense, i.e., symbolic representation by means of calling or establishing His name (shikken shem, שִׁכֵּן שֵׁם) upon the Sanctuary or the people.

The Corporeal Notion

God's presence, according to the ancient view, is confined to the Tabernacle/Sanctuary and to other visible phenomena serving as the vehicles of God, such as the Ark and the *cherubim or the cloud enveloping the Godhead in its movements. That the Tabernacle was considered an indicator for God's presence in ancient Israel may be learned from the words of Nathan the prophet to David: "… I have been moving about [mithalekh] in a Tabernacle and tent [be-ohel u-ve-mishkan] … All the time I was moving about among the Israelites…" (II Sam. 7:6–7). The same concept is given expression in the Priestly source of the Pentateuch: "I will establish My abode [mishkani] in your midst… and I will be moving about[i.e, be present]in your midst: I will be your God and you shall be my people" (Lev. 26:11–12). Similar statements are found in other parts of the Priestly literature, where shakhan, "dwelling," is used instead of hithalekh, "moving about," as in Exodus 25:8: "Let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell [weshakhanti] among them," and at the end of the inauguration of the Tabernacle in Exodus 29:45–46: "And I will dwell among the Israelites and I will be their God." The rabbinic term *Shekhinah is actually an abstraction of this concept of "dwelling," which in the sources just quoted is understood literally. Indeed the Tabernacle, as depicted in the Priestly tradition, represents a royal house with all its necessary facilities.

Within the inner recesses of the Tabernacle, removed and veiled from the human eye sits the Deity ensconced between the two cherubim and the entire conception of the service is anthropomorphic (see below). It is performed "before the Lord" (לפני ה׳) that is, in His presence.

The presence of the Deity in the Sanctuary demands a rigorous observance of all rules concerning holiness and purity; any laxity might incur the wrath of the Deity and thus invite disaster. The divine seclusion must be respected. Thus in an adjoining chamber, the high priest, the most intimate of God's ministrants, attends to His essential needs. Only the priest who ministers to the Lord may approach the divine sanctum; the "stranger" who draws near must die (Num. 17:28 etc.). Drawing near to the Deity here signifies entrance into the actual sphere of the Divine Presence and for this reason is fraught with great physical danger (cf. Lev. 10:1–2; Num. 16:35).

This anthropomorphic theology derives from early sacral conceptions. The Ark was conceived as the footstool of the Deity and God as sitting enthroned upon the cherubim (I Sam. 4:4; Ps. 80:2; 99:5, etc.) The shewbread (לחם הפנים) laid out before the Lord by the high priest, the lamp kindled before Him to furnish light, the sweet incense burned mornings and evenings for His pleasure, the offerings consumed by the Divine fire, and the danger that accrues from approaching the Divinity are all alluded to in the early historiographic narratives.

In the ancient Israelite traditions God's presence is manifested mainly by the Ark and the pillar of cloud (see below). The Ark guided the people in the desert (Num. 10:33–34) and preceded the Israelites in the crossing of the Jordan before entering the Holy Land (Josh. 3:3ff.). The Ark also accompanied the people in their battles with their enemies (Num. 10:35–36), a fact which is well exemplified in the story of the critical encounter between the Israelites and the Philistines in Aphek (I Sam. 4). When the Ark was brought into the camp, the Israelites shouted with a great shout so that the whole earth stirred (4:5), and the Philistines, hearing the shout, became terrified, saying that "God has come into the camp" (4:7). The most common expression for the manifestation of God's presence is Kevod YHWH.


The Godhead and its appearance are associated with the term kavod, a term underlying the imagery of the Divine Presence in the Bible and paralleling the term Shekhinah in rabbinic literature. The Tabernacle is said to be sanctified by the "Kavod of the Lord" (Ex. 29:43) and indeed when God enters the Tabernacle after its inauguration the Tabernacle is said to be filled with the kavod (Ex. 40:34–35). The dedication of the Jerusalem Temple is described in similar terms in I Kings 8:11. In both cases the kavod enters the holy abode, accompanied by the cloud, up to the Holy of Holies during which time Moses, on the one hand, and the Jerusalem priests, on the other, could not come in to minister. Only after the cloud departed and the kavod arrived at its place between the cherubim could Moses or the Jerusalem priests reenter the holy House.

The cloud serves as an envelope which screens the Deity from mortal view. Only Moses, who converses with God face to face, may enter into the cloud (Ex. 24:18). To the Israelites, however, God manifests Himself only when covered by a cloud. Unlike Moses they see only flames flashing forth from the cloud (Ex. 24:17). Only once does God manifest Himself to Israel without His screen of cloud – on the day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Lev. 9:23), an event whose importance parallels the Sinaitic revelation. The cloud departs from the Deity only when He assumes another mode of concealment, namely the Tent of Meeting or the Sanctuary. When the kavod enters the Tabernacle, the cloud remains outside and covers the tent. When the Tabernacle is dismantled, the kavod leaves the tent which is enveloped once again by the cloud which awaits Him and rises upward (Num. 9:15ff.).


Knowledge of the underlying imagery of the concept of kavod, which is embedded in Priestly tradition, is provided by Ezekiel whose ideology and divine imagery is grounded on Priestly doctrine. In Ezekiel 1, the kavod is described as an envelope of fire and brightness conveyed on a chariot. From afar, the apparition is like a blazing fire upon a great cloud swept by a storm wind (1:4). It is this radiance and brightness of the kavod which made Moses' face radiant after he spoke with God (Ex. 34:29–35).

This characteristic feature of God, i.e., His being surrounded by an aureole or nimbus, is salient in the description of gods in Mesopotamia. The terms denoting the halo of the gods in Mesopotamia, pulhu-melammu, actually correspond to the Hebrew kavod-yirʾah and indeed refer to the flame and fire enveloping the Godhead. Like the Tabernacle and Temple in Israel, the Mesopotamian shrines and chapels were clad with the melammu, i.e., the divine splendor. The kavod is said to cover (cf. Hab. 3:3, ksh) and fill (Num. 14:21; Isa. 6:3, mlʾ) heaven and earth. The same idea occurs in connection with the pulhu-melammu in Akkadian expressed by the verbs katāmu and malû which are identical with the Hebrew ksh and mlʾ. The Akkadian pulhu-melammu is often employed in connection with overwhelming the enemy and terrifying him. This is in fact expressed in Isaiah 2 where on the "day of the Lord" God appears in "terror" and "majestic glory" (paḥad YHWH ve-hadar geʾono) a pair of concepts which can now be better understood on the basis of the Mesopotamian parallels.

The correspondence of pulhu-melammu to kavod-yirʾah may be discerned in some other biblical descriptions. The Mesopotamian god imparts his melammu to the king who is the god's representative and thus endows him with divine power. When the god rejects the king and deprives him of the melammu, the king no longer continues to reign by divine grace. Reflections of these beliefs may also be discerned in biblical literature. Though the Priestly document describes only Moses as being endowed with the divine radiance, biblical wisdom and psalmodic literature describe man in general, in contexts in which he is likened to a king, as being endowed with the divine kavod and splendor: "Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with kavod and splendor" (Ps. 8:6). If man becomes unworthy then God deprives him of the divine kavod: "He has stripped me of my kavod and taken the crown from my head" (Job 19:9).

Ezekiel in his divine chariot vision describes the divine animals as endowed with terror (yirʾah; 1:18). The passage appears to employ the term in the sense of a dazzling and aweinspiring covering or dress of heavenly and divine beings as does its Akkadian counterpart in Babylonian and Assyrian literature (see Oppenheim, in bibl.). The obscure expression in the Song of the Sea noraʾ tehillot (Ex. 15:11a) is also best rendered in this sense. The word tehillot in this verse does not mean "praises" but "radiance" (cf. Job 29:3; 31:26, 41:10) as it does in Habakkuk 3:3: "His splendor covered the heavens and the earth was full of his tehillah." The tehillah of God fills the universe as does His kavod (cf. Num. 14:21; Isa. 6:3). The terms yirʾah and kavod, then, are used synonymously in biblical literature as are their Akkadian counterparts pulhu and melammu in Babylonian literature.

The Abstract Notion

In contradiction to this corporeal representation of the kavod, Deuteronomy promulgates the doctrine of the "Name." The Deity cannot be likened to any form whatever, and He cannot therefore be conceived as dwelling in a Temple. God has caused the Temple to be called by His name or has caused His name to dwell therein, but He Himself does not dwell in it. The Deuteronomic school used the word shem, "name," to indicate the incorporeal aspect of God in a very consistent manner and never made the slightest digression from it. There is not one example in the Deuteronomic literature of God's dwelling in the Temple or the building of a house for God. The Temple is always the dwelling of His "name." This consistency is seen most clearly when a Deuteronomic text is interwoven with an earlier text which does not know the "name theology." Thus the account of the building of the Temple and the ancient story of its dedication speak plainly about building a house for God (I Kings 6:1, 2; 8:13), while the Deuteronomist whenever he mentions the building, describes it as being for the "name" of God (I Kings 3:2; 5:17, 19; 8:17, 18, 19, 20, 44, 48).

The most definitive expression of this theology is to be found in the prayer of Solomon in I Kings 8. The Temple is not God's place of habitation but serves only as a house of worship in which Israelites and foreigners alike may deliver their prayers to the Lord Who dwells in heaven. The idea that God's habitation is in heaven is here articulated most emphatically to eradicate the belief that the Deity sat enthroned between the cherubim in the Temple. Whenever the expression "Thy dwelling place" (mekhon shivtekha) is employed it is invariably accompanied by the word "in heaven" (8:39, 43, 49). The Deuteronomic editor is here disputing the older view implied by the ancient song that opens the prayer (8:12–13) and that designates the Temple as God's "exalted house and dwelling place [or pedestal] forever." The word ba-shamayim, "in heaven," is consistently appended to the expression mekhon shivtekha to show that it is heaven which is meant and not the Temple as the ancient song implies.

In actual fact, however, the term "thy dwelling place" in the early sources as well as in Solomon's song (8:12–13) denotes the Sanctuary; it is the editor who is here attempting to alter this meaning and thereby wrest the song from its natural sense. This may be apprehended from the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15) in which the poet declares: "Thou wilt bring them in, and plant them on Thy own mountain, the foundation, O Lord, which Thou hast made for Thy abode [makhon le-shivtekha] the Sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established" (15:17). The Israelites can only be planted in YHWH's own mountain. The latter denotes not the Temple mount alone but the entire Holy Land (cf. Isa. 11:9; 14:25; 25:6, 7, 10; see *Isaiah), but "the place for You to dwell in" and "the Sanctuary" means naturally the Temple, and one suspects an adaptation of Solomon's dedication with "you made" substituted for an original "I made" and "Your hands" for an original "my [i.e., Solomon's] hands" (cf. Eretz-Israel, 9 (1969), 45 n. 4). Indeed, Isaiah who visualizes God as seated upon a throne in the Temple (chapter 6), designates the Temple as the "foundation [mekhon] of Mount Zion" (4:5) and elsewhere explicitly describes the Lord as dwelling on Mount Zion (ha-shokhen be-har Ẓiyyon; 8:18; cf. 31:9). The expression "a place to dwell in," or rather the concept of a permanent abode for the Deity, goes back to the period of the United Monarchy when the House of the Lord was first erected, and constitutes an innovation in the Israelite conception of the Divinity. The psalms which extol Zion and Jerusalem, most of which are rooted in the court theology of the United Monarchy, consistently stress the idea that Jerusalem and its house of worship are the place of God's domicile (Ps. 46:5; 48:9; 50:2; 76:3, etc.). Thus, Psalms 132, which describes the transfer of the Ark to Jerusalem, expressly declares that "the Lord has chosen Zion, for He has desired it for His habitation [moshav]" (132:13). It is in the Temple of Jerusalem that God found, in a sense, His true place of rest, hence the Psalmist declares in the name of the Lord: "This is My resting place for ever, here will I dwell, for I have desired it" (132:14).

This conception appears to have been first contested during the period of the Hezekian-Josianic reforms, in all probability by the circle which was then engaged in the final crystallization of Deuteronomy. It is interesting that the very book which elevates the chosen place to the highest rank of importance in the Israelite cult should at the same time divest it of all sacral content and import. With remarkable consistency it resorts again and again to the phrase "the place where He shall choose to cause His name to dwell" (le-shakken/lasum shemo) so as to emphasize that it is God's name and not God Himself who dwells within the Sanctuary, as against the Priestly tradition which speaks of God's dwelling in the midst of the children of Israel (Ex. 25:8; 29:45; Num. 16:3).

It appears then that it was the Deuteronomic school that first initiated the polemic against the anthropomorphic and corporeal conceptions of the Deity and that it was afterward taken up by the prophets Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah. It is by no means coincidental that the only passages which reflect a quasi-abstract conception of the Deity and negation of His corporeality are to be found in Deuteronomy and Deutero-Isaiah: Deuteronomy 4:12: "You heard the sound of words, but saw no form [temunah]" (cf. 4:15) and Isaiah 40:18: "To whom will you liken God or what likeness compare Him," and similarly in Isaiah 40:19 and 46:5.

These later conceptions, then, are diametrically opposed to the earlier views articulated in the JE and P documents and in the prophetic books antedating Deuteronomy. Thus Exodus 24:9–11 refers to the leaders, elders, and so on seeing God; in Exodus 33:23 Moses is said to have beheld God's back, and Numbers 12:8 speaks even more strikingly of Moses as gazing upon "the form [temunah] of the Lord." Amos similarly sees the Lord "standing beside the altar" (9:1), and Isaiah beholds God sitting upon a throne with His train filling the Temple (6:1; cf. I Kings 22:19–20).


In contrast to the account in Exodus 19 of God's descent upon Mt. Sinai (19:11, 20), Deuteronomy 4:36 says: "Out of heaven He let you hear His voice, that He might discipline you; and on earth He let you see His great fire and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire." In other words, the commandments were heard from out of the midst of the fire that was upon the mount, but they were uttered by the Deity from heaven. Deuteronomy has, furthermore, taken care to shift the center of gravity of the theophany from the visual to the aural plane. In Exodus 19, the principal danger confronting the people was the likelihood that they might "break through to the Lord to gaze" (19:21); it was to prevent this that there was need to "set bounds for the people round about" (19:12) and to caution them not to ascend the mountain. Indeed, the pre-Deuteronomic texts always invariably speak of the danger of seeing the Deity: "For man shall not see Me and live" (Ex. 33:20), and similarly in Genesis 32:30: "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved" (cf. Judg. 13:22; Isa. 6:5). Deuteronomy, on the other hand, cannot conceive of the possibility of seeing the Divinity. The Israelites saw only "His great fire" which symbolizes His essence and qualities (Deut. 4:24: "For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God"; cf. 9:3), whereas God Himself remains in His heavenly abode. In Deuteronomy the danger threatening the people and the greatness of the miracle is that of hearing the voice of the Deity: "Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and survived" (4:33; cf. 5:23).

This attempt to eliminate the inherent corporeality of the traditional imagery also finds expression in Deuteronomy's conception of the Ark. The specific and exclusive function of the Ark, according to Deuteronomy, is to house the tables of the covenant (10:1–5); no mention is made of the Ark cover, kapporet, and the cherubim which endows the Ark with the semblance of a divine chariot or throne (cf. Ex. 25:10–22 [P]). The holiest vessel of the Israelite cult performs, in the Deuteronomic view, nothing more than an educational function: it houses the tablets upon which the words of God are engraved, and at its side the Book of the Torah is laid from which one reads to the people so that they may learn to fear the Lord (Deut. 31:26; cf. 31:12, 13). The Ark does not serve as God's seat upon which He journeys forth to disperse His enemies (Num. 10:33–36), but only as the vessel in which the tables of the covenant are deposited. This becomes quite clear when Deuteronomy 1:42–43 is compared with Numbers 14:42–44, a tradition on which the Deuteronomic account is based. Numbers 14:44 states that after the incident of the spies "the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord departed not out of the camp" and that this was the reason for the Israelites' defeat in their subsequent battle with the Amalekites and Canaanites. The Deuteronomic account, on the other hand, completely omits the detail of the Ark and ascribes the Israelite defeat to the fact that God was not in their midst, without referring to the whereabouts of the Ark.

The author of Deuteronomy similarly relates that it was God who went before the people to seek out new resting places (1:33), whereas the earlier source, upon which Deuteronomy was dependent, relates that it was the Ark which journeyed forth before the people to seek out new resting places for them (Num. 10:33). The absence of the Ark is especially striking in the Deuteronomic law of warfare (23:15). One would expect a passage which speaks of the presence of the Divinity within the military encampment to make some mention of the Arkwhich accompanied the warriors on their expeditions, as in I Samuel 4:6–7 (see above). The Deuteronomic law, however, speaks of the Lord as moving about the camp but does not make any allusion to the Ark or the holy vessels.

A similar conception is encountered in Jeremiah, for example, in 3:16–17: "They shall say no more, 'The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord.' It shall not come to mind… At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord." In other words, the Ark of the Covenant shall no longer serve as God's seat, as the people were previously accustomed to believe, but all of Jerusalem shall be "the seat of YHWH," that is in a symbolic sense. In another passage the prophet declares: "Do I not fill heaven and earth, says the Lord" (23:24), recalling the words of Deutero-(or Trito-) Isaiah when he expressly repudiates the notion of the Sanctuary as the place of God's habitation: "Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool, what is the house which you build for Me, and what is the place of My rest" (66:1). This view is also encountered in the Deuteronomic prayer of Solomon: "Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee; how much less this house which I have built" (I Kings 8:27). The Sanctuary is here conceived as a house of prayer and not as a cultic center.

Although the abstract notion of the Divine Presence associated with the so-called "Name" theology found its full expression in Deuteronomy and in the Deuteronomic school, it should be pointed out that traces of it are already found in some of the earlier sources, especially in E (see *Pentateuch). The latter source does not contain theophanies in which God appears visibly in human form but revelations through various media, such as the dream or the angel. In one particular case, the angel, representing God, is said to contain God's "name" in himself (Ex. 23:21), which is at least an anticipation of the Deuteronomic "Name" theology.


A.L. Oppenheim, in: JAOS, 63 (1943), 31–34; G.E. Wright et al., in: BA, 7 (1944), 158–84; 10 (1947), 45–68; G. von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy (1953), 37–44; M. Haran, in: IEJ, 9 (1959), 30–38, 89–98; idem, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1961), 272–302; R.E. Clements, God and Temple (1965); M. Weinfeld, in: Tarbiz, 37 (1968), 116–20, 131–2; idem, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (1971); J. Milgrom, Studies in Levitical Terminology, 1 (1970).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.