|Kīlauea - a pillar of "fire" here being bent by the trade-wind.|
I personally saw those pillars in Hawai‘i. I saw the pillar of volcanic gases rising from the Kilauea caldera and at night the view was even more mesmerizing. That pillar of gases was shining red and orange being illuminated by the incandescence of lava lake.
I have no doubts that was the image which biblical authors tried to describe. And it is not just another rationalistic explanation trying to explain biblical miracles. This recognition offers us several important insights.
The first one is factual, geologic and geographic because the Bible does not describe just any volcanism. It clearly alludes to an eruption of a shield volcano. Hawaiian volcanoes are of this kind. But the same type of shield volcanoes also exists on the western side of the Arab peninsula all along the Red Sea.
Theologians, historians and cartographers of the early 20th century were specifically locating Biblical events at Hallat al Badr volcano in the North West Arabia, but it does not fit the time. That volcano seems older than human history. There are, nevertheless, other much younger volcanoes further south. Some of them active in historical times. One eruption and its lava flow almost destroyed Medina in the XIII century CE. Another volcano on the border with Yemen erupted as recently as 1810.
I am not saying that Exodus took place in what is today Saudi Arabia. But I am convinced that some biblical authors had the first-hand experience with volcanism in this broader geographic area. Just think about it! At least part of our faith tradition, and the one as important as theophany, was anchored in the broader region of Mecca and Medina as it powerfully influenced the imagination of biblical authors.
And that is the other insight we can gain. Shield volcanism is calmer, more peaceful than destructive eruptions of stratovolcanoes (like almost proverbial Vesuvius or recent American experience with Mount Saint Helens.) Lava lakes and lava flows on lava fields last for a long time and are truly awe inspiring, especially if you get closer.
On Kilauea I finally experienced what Rudolf Otto meant by Mysterium tremendum et fascinans (Divine mystery before which we both tremble and to which we are at the same time attracted). Before I read about it, I knew about it, I studied it. On Kilauea, I experienced it in my entire body. I witnessed pillars of cloud and fire and was forever touched and transformed by this encounter and its intersection with my biblical faith. The glowing light, the radiating heat, the volcanic smell, the deep infrasonic hardly audible rumbling all of it touched not only senses, but permeated my entire body. Now I know first hand why the biblical authors used this image.
On our journey we are being led by awe inspiring, dangerous, yet benevolent, yes loving and protecting God. Come to rejoice in divine exodic liberation, divine presence, protection and guidance. The march to freedom continues.
|A "pillar of cloud" above Halemaʻumaʻu crater in the light of the rising sun.|