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In both Exodus and Nehemiah 9:12 the cloud seems to be a pillar in front of the people but Psalm 105:39 seems to indicate that the cloud traveled above them. Were there two clouds or am I misunderstanding the image?:

JPS Tanakh 1917 Psalm 105:39 He spread a cloud for a screen; And fire to give light in the night.

I find the idea of a cloud overhead very reasonable but the picture elsewhere seems to be pretty clear that it was a pillar of cloud in front of them:

JPS Tanakh 1917 Exodus 13:21 And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night:

The account in Numbers 9 seems a bit ambiguous to me:

15And on the day that the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle, even the tent of the testimony; and at even there was upon the tabernacle as it were the appearance of fire, until morning. 16So it was alway: the cloud covered it, and the appearance of fire by night. 17And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped. 18At the commandment of the LORD the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the LORD they encamped: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they remained encamped. 19And when the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD, and journeyed not. 20And sometimes the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the LORD they remained encamped, and according to the commandment of the LORD they journeyed. 21And sometimes the cloud was from evening until morning; and when the cloud was taken up in the morning, they journeyed; or if it continued by day and by night, when the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. 22Whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, abiding thereon, the children of Israel remained encamped, and journeyed not; but when it was taken up, they journeyed. 23At the commandment of the LORD they encamped, and at the commandment of the LORD they journeyed; they kept the charge of the LORD, at the commandment of the LORD by the hand of Moses. THE HOLY SCRIPTURES ACCORDING TO THE MASORETIC TEXT A NEW TRANSLATION Jewish Publication Society 1917

I'm having a hard time getting a consistent picture in my mind of what was going on.

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Rashi to Numbers 10:34:

Seven times is the word ענן used in the account of their journeys alluding to four clouds which screened them on all four sides, one that was above them, one beneath their feet, and one in front of them which leveled the elevations and raised the depressions, and killed all serpents and scorpions

Translation from Sefaria

So, according to this understanding, there was indeed one cloud preceding the people, along with six others surrounding or covering them.

[Note that Rashi's sources include the midrashic texts Sifrei Bamidbar 83 and Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 13:21, which also quote other opinions as to the number of clouds: thirteen, four or two.]

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M'tzudas Tziyun on the spot suggests a way to reconcile both descriptions as the same cloud: it led them when they were moving and covered them when they were stationary. The predictability of this behavior could facilitate picturing it, like fog rolling from one position to another.

למסך. כן יקרא הסכך אשר ממעל גם המחיצה לפנים כמו ואת מסך הפתח (שמות כז) והענן בלכתם הלך לפניהם ובנוחם סככם ממעל

It makes the point that the root ס.כ.כ in the form that it is used here - the noun masach - can mean a frontal separator, not just an overhead one. But just when you think that fact will be used to infer that it was never overhead, it returns to the explanation that the cloud had two different placements.

  • My issue with this is that when they were stationary the cloud would be upon the tabernacle, per Numbers 9. In fact, it doesn't seem particularly amenable to the 7 cloud theory either. – Ruminator Jun 5 '18 at 17:23
  • I agree that this does not accord with Rash"i in @JoelK's answer, but I think it would be reasonable to fit in the B'midbar cloud with this explanation as well, since the mishkan was within the camp, so what covers one can cover the other. This would require some direct corroboration. Unfortunately, it seems we do not have this commentary on the Torah. – WAF Jun 5 '18 at 17:31
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I believe I have found the answer to my question:

JPS Tanakh 1917 Exodus 14: 19And the angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them; 20and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud and the darkness here, yet gave it light by night there; and the one came not near the other all the night.

So the pillar of cloud interposed between the Israelis and the Egyptians. It wasn't an overhead cloud at all!

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