The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.

What is the meaning of "for I will appear..."? If the text simply means to say that Lord sits on the top of the mercy seat and can be seen by anyone who enters the Holy of Holies, and for that reason the priest must not enter it whenever he pleases, why mention the cloud cover? On the contrary, if the Lord appears hidden in a cloud, then there should be no reason to fear that the priest will come to look at the face of God! (compare v. 13)

Indeed, some (e.g., Ibn Ezra) have suggested an alternate reading: "for only with a cloud must I be seen upon the mercy seat", i.e., only with the cloud of incense can the priest enter the Holy of Holies so that the face of God remains hidden and invisible to the priest who enters it. That the incense is meant to hide the face of God, which is visible upon the mercy seat, is actually evident from v. 13. According to this reading, the phrase at the end of v. 2 is not an explanation of why he must not come in, rather it is an instruction not to come into the Holy of Holies without the proper equipment.

However, the second translation is not free of its own difficulties, and most translations accept the first reading as the correct and true meaning of this verse. My question is, which reading is closer to the original meaning of the text, and how does the conventional translation explain the mention of "cloud" in this verse?

4 Answers 4


Several points:

#1) The issue (as defined by the verse) is coming into the holies. One need not read any connection with seeing God's face, a technical term found in Exodus.

#2) "For with a cloud I will appear" Cloud of course connotes opaqueness, lack of transparency. The lack of transparency can be either in space of time. In space, it simply means there has to be no or poor visibility. In time, it would indicate a prohibition of familiarity echoed in the words "let him not come at any time" Here the emphasis is not so much on a formal procedure; rather it is on opaqueness in time.

#3) The terms "Seeing God" "God's face" "seeing God through a cloud" are all metaphors, just as "God's hands" "God's eyes" etc. are metaphors. I might mention in this regard that carpenters and repair staff could come into the holies to do repairs. There was no danger of seeing something they shouldn't. Thus the verse in effect forces one to interpret the phrase "By a cloud I will be seen" metaphorically (and hence the connection listed in #2 with opaqueness in time).

#4) Whether or not the Ibn Ezra's comments have difficulties one should not ignore that the entire passage is an introduction to the Yom Kippur rituals. Bottom line: In introducing the Yom Kippur rituals, God asks Moses to speak to Aaron to warn him (under penalty of death), "Not to come at any time into the holies" the reason being that "seeing God" or "becoming aware of God's will” is a non-transparent process that intrinsically has lack of transparency and requires time to fully understand. The entry into the holies, must therefore be accompanied by all procedures in this chapter to properly prepare the High Priest for awareness of God and His Will. Some examples of preparation are the emphasis on the congregation (the atonement offerings), emphasis on the self (the atonement offering), emphasis on free will (the two goats).


The immediate context of Lev 16 is that of approaching God's presence (usually identified as a cloud of glory) with extreme care since in Lev 10 two of Aaron's own sons died. In fact, Lev 16:1 forced the reader to recall that event: "after the death of Aaron’s two sons". But yet, for the purpose of the Day of Atonement which God himself provided for Israel, his own appointed high priest must approach Him in the closest possible encounter of His glory without being killed himself.

The question is whether this "cloud" is provided by God alone, by Aaron alone (through burning incense), or by both God and Aaron?

A 2011 scholarly book especially written about God's presence by comparing the Israelite Priestly system with various ancient Near Eastern systems (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Syro-Palestinian), Keeping Heaven on Earth Safeguarding the Divine Presence in the Priestly Tabernacle authored by Michael B. Hundley, suggests that we are not supposed to know, so implicitly answering your question more along the line of instruction.

Quotes from the book (source: Google books, emphasis mine):

2.3 The Varying Intensity of Glory

YHWH's presence in the tabernacle emits a fiery refulgence, and YHWH himself controls the location and intensity of this emanation. In this way, the glory functions similarly to a modern light with a dimming switch that controls its brightness. The potency of the glory and the consequent access of Moses and Aaron demonstrate the glory's flexibility. YHWH's glory fills the tabernacle after its erection (Ex 40:34-35), barring all access to the holy precincts. With the inauguration of the priesthood and the tabernacle (Lev 8-9), Moses and Aaron may then enter the tabernacle structure (9:23). However, access into the inner sanctuary is prohibited, except for Aaron's annual entrance armed with an incense cloud as a shield.

It seems logical then to conclude that the glory recedes (i.e., that YHWH uses the dimmer on the light switch). At first, YHWH's glory shines so brightly that none can enter the tabernacle. This light show servers both a practical and a didactic purpose. Practically, YHWH's glory must first consecrate his tabernacle (Ex 29:43-44) before it becomes a suitable dwelling. Didactically, the effulgent glory is a visible display of presence, indicating that the deity has come to reside and that his manifest presence is awesome. Once it has served its purposes, the glory may then withdraw into the inner sanctuary, leaving in its wake the cloud and fire as a perpetual reminder of presence, so as to allow the proper interchange between human and divine. After the glory recedes, the priests and Moses can enter the outer sanctuary to serve YHWH and receive oracles respectively. The presence of pollutants and the need to purge them from the sanctuary necessitates further access. However, YHWH's glory can recede no further without leaving his house. Thus the priest is forced to bring his own 'dimmer', the incense cloud that shields the divine presence from view (Lev 16:13).

At other times, YHWH intensifies the display of glory. In Lev 9:23, the one-time inauguration of the tabernacle and its priesthood merits a special revelation of YHWH's glory, which provides tangible proof of God's approval of his home, the system designed to preserve it, and his servants the priests. It also offers assurance of his residence and suggests that the system will work if the people follow the proper protocol. At other times, the glory becomes more tangible in crisis management situations (Num 14:10; 16:19; 17:7; 20:6) when it is necessary to assure YHWH's presence and assert his authority, often to protect Moses and Aaron from the people.

2.4. The Divine Form Beyond the Glory

Although the glory ensures divine presence, it is unclear what form, if any, stands behind this effulgent veil. This circumspection is especially pronounced when discussing the divine presence in the inner sanctuary. YHWH himself appears between the cherubim to meet with the people, and unless properly screened, his presence is fatal to those who approach (Lev 16:2, 13). From this evidence, two questions emerge: 1) What form does this presence take? 2) Why is an encounter with this presence fatal, while viewing YHWH's glory is not?

Regarding the terrestrial divine form, the text is silent. YHWH's presence in the inner sanctuary may be either the glory itself and/or an invisible, anthropomorphic, or some undetermined form. One can muster arguments both for and against each of these proposals, yet ultimately a definitive answer is purposely elusive. The divine form must remain undefined since it cannot be seen and lest an approximate description mispresent it. Thus, while the glory may be described as like fire, the divine presence itself may not be described at all.

Too close an encounter with this undefined presence will prove fatal. However, it seems clear that viewing the glory itself is not fatal. In Lev 9:23, it seems the people may safely behold the glory without an attendant cloud, whereas elsewhere, even with the cloud, the people can still see God's fiery presence (Ex 24:16-17; cf Ez 1). What then makes an encounter with YHWH lethal in the inner sanctuary unless protected by one, perhaps even two, cloud covering(s)? Again the Priestly language is purposely elusive. The Priests may only speak of the lethal danger of too close an encounter with YHWH. The nature of that encounter, like the form of the deity, must remain a mystery because it can neither be described nor approximated.


Technical research not withstanding, there is a relational reinforcement in play in this verse, the key idea being "whenever HE chooses." The function of the priest is to mediate through a defined process an activity expressing involvement with the holy Almighty. That function must be initiated and carried out as a cooperative response to God's prompting...so it is instructional but not without the explanation that develops from thought stimulated by the brief reminder that it is the very Presence of the Almighty that the priest approaches.


First of all, I’d like to mention some interesting quotations from commentators, that help us to paint a picture of the entrance of the high priest in the most holy place of the Tabernacle.

NET Bible notes (on Lev 16:2; bold is mine): “tn Heb ‘into the holy place from house to the veil-canopy’. In this instance, the Hebrew term ‘the holy place’ refers to ‘the most holy place’ (lit. “holy of holies”), since it is the area ‘inside the special curtain’ (cf. Exod 26:33-34). The Hebrew term פָּרֹכֶת (parokhet) is usually translated ‘veil’ or ‘curtain’.” […] “tn Heb ‘to the faces of the atonement lid’. The exact meaning of the Hebrew term כַּפֹּרֶת (kapporet) here rendered ‘atonement lid’ is much debated. The traditional ‘mercy seat’ (KJV, ASV, NASB, NRSV) does not suit the cognate relationship between this term and the Piel verb כִּפֶּר (kipper, ‘to make atonement, to make expiation’). The translation of the word should also reflect the fact that the most important atonement procedures on the Day of Atonement were performed in relation to it. Since the LORD would ‘appear in the cloud over the atonement plate’, and since it was so closely associated with the ark of the covenant (the ark being his ‘footstool’; cf. 1 Chr 28:2 and Ps 132:7-8), one could take it to be the place of his throne at which he accepts atonement. See J. Milgrom, Leviticus (AB), 1:1014; J. E. Hartley, Leviticus (WBC), 234-35; and R. E. Averbeck, NIDOTTE 2:691, 699. Cf. NIV ‘the atonement cover’; NCV ‘the lid on the Ark’; NLT ‘the Ark’s cover – the place of atonement’.

Keil & Delitzsch (bold is mine): “The death of Aaron’s sons, as a punishment for wilfully ‘drawing near before Jehovah’, was to be a solemn warning to Aaron himself, ‘not to come at all times into the holy place within the v[e]il, before the mercy-seat upon the ark’, i.e., into the most holy place (see Exo 25:10.), but only at the time to be appointed by Jehovah, and for the purposes instituted by Him, i.e., according to Lev 16:29., only once a year, on the day of atonement, and only in the manner prescribed in Lev 16:3., that he might not die. ‘For I will appear in the cloud above the capporeth.’ The cloud in which Jehovah appeared above the capporeth, between the cherubim (Exo 25:22), was not the cloud of the incense, with which Aaron was to cover the capporeth on entering (Lev 16:13), as Vitringa, Bähr, and others follow the Sadducees in supposing, but the cloud of the divine glory, in which Jehovah manifested His essential presence in the most holy place above the ark of the covenant. Because Jehovah appeared in this cloud, not only could no unclean and sinful man go before the capporeth, i.e., approach the holiness of the all-holy God; but even the anointed and sanctified high priest, if he went before it at his own pleasure, or without the expiatory blood of sacrifice, would expose himself to certain death. The reason for this prohibition is to be found in the fact, that the holiness communicated to the priest did not cancel the sin of his nature, but only covered it over for the performance of his official duties, and so long as the law, which produced only the knowledge of sin and not its forgiveness and removal, was not abolished by the complete atonement, the holy God was and remained to mortal and sinful man a consuming fire, before which no one could stand.”

Alter’s Bible note on Lev 16:2 (bold is mine): “Only on this most sacred day [of Atonement] […] is the high priest granted access to this dangerous space, and only when he follows a strict regimen of dress and action.”

The Cambridge Bible (bold is mine): “the mercy-seat] Heb. kappôreth, here and in Lev 16:13-15, a solid gold plate of the same size as the top of the ark (2½ by 1½ cubits), to which the two cherubim were fixed, as described in Exo 25:17-21. It was the place where the Lord appeared (Lev 16:2); from which He gave His commands (see note on Lev 1:1); the most holy spot in the most holy place, the ‘footstool’ of the Lord who sitteth enthroned upon the cherubim (1Ch 28:2; Psa 99:5, cp. Lev 16:1; Psa 132:7, cp. Lev 16:5). The Heb. word is formed from kipper, to make propitiation, and means that which propitiates. The Gk. ἱλαστήριον exactly corresponds, and from the Vulg. propitiatorium the word ‘propitiatorie’ was used in Wiclif’s translation. This word is the best English equivalent for the Heb., and indicates the nature of the solemn rite performed within the veil on the Day of Atonement. As ‘oratory’ is the place of ‘oration’ or prayer, so ‘propitiatory’ in the sense of ‘place of propitiation’ would fitly express the Heb. word which is rendered in EVV by ‘mercy-seat.’ See note on Exo 25:17 (C.B.); Art. Mercy-seat in Enc. Bib.; and Art. Tabernacle in HDB. iv. 665 a. The mercy-seat is described as ‘upon the testimony’ in Lev 16:13. ‘The testimony’ is the name given to the two tables on which the Ten Words were written, so called because they contain the ‘testimony’ or witness of God’s will for man. See note on Exo 25:16, and Intr. to Pent. App. II. pp. 221 f.”

After this roundup of scholars clarifications, we must return to the Bach-asked direct questions.

As in other instances, this questions can be solved through a correct understanding of Hebrew particles. In this case, כי (KI), according a NET Bible’ note (on Gen 5:24) denotes “a primitive particle (the full form of the prepositional prefix) indicating causal relations of all kinds, antecedent or consequent”.

The manner to translate כי (KI) depends on the (omnipresent) context, as well as from the logical wording flow.

Anyway, this particle can be rightly translated as ‘because, forasmuch as, inasmuch, since as’, and alike.

Some examples: Gen 5:24 (where כי is translated as ‘because’: DRB, Good News Bible, ISV, Louis Segond [French transl.], Reina-Valera [Spanish transl.].

Gen 32:12 (כי sense: ‘due to the fact’, ‘because’), ‘for’, as in a lot of translations.

2 Sam 19:8 (כי sense: ‘since’), ‘for’, as in a lot of translations.

So, the final sense is:

Since [כי (KI)] the presence of God was over the Ark (placed inside the Holy of Holies), was not allowed to the high priest to enter there as he prefer - under death penalty - but only on a time and by a manner fixed by God.

John Gill aptly wrote (bold is mine): “[…] this one would think should be a reason why he should not die, when he came into the most holy place, because there was the mercy seat, and Jehovah on it: and besides the cloud of incense on it, he went in with, for so many understand by the cloud, the cloud of incense: thus Aben Ezra says, the sense is, that he should not enter but with incense, which would make a cloud, and so the glory not be seen, lest he should die: and Jarchi observes, that the Midrash, or the more mystical and subtle sense is, he shall not go in but with the cloud of incense on the day of atonement; but the more simple meaning, or plain sense of the words is, as the same writer notes, that whereas he did continually appear there in the pillar of cloud; and because his Shechinah or glorious Majesty is revealed there, he is cautioned not to use himself to go in, i.e. at any time; with which agrees the Targum of Jonathan,’for in my cloud the glory of my Shechinah, or divine Majesty, shall be revealed upon the mercy seat’. And this being the case, such a glory being there, though wrapped up in a cloud and thick darkness, it was dangerous to enter but by divine order.”

Addenda for the Christians readers:

It seems to me that John of Zebedee – in the Revelation – linked this miraculous phenomenon causing a supernatural light (the Shekinah, named so by non-biblical writers) inside the Holy of the Holies with the vision he had about a town ‘in which the night does not exist’. As the Holy of the Holies was illuminated entirely by God, so the lighting of ‘New Jerusalem’ depends on God (Rev 21:22-25).

A little (final) gem: it seems that the text did intend a pun between the two pivotal terms of this Leviticus’ passage. In fact, we find here פרכת (PRKT, the ‘veil’, or ‘curtain’), as well as כפרת (KPRT, the ‘lid of propitiation’), where the only difference (devoid the Masoretes’ diacritical system) is a metathesis, that is a transposition of the consonant kaf from the third position (inside the term) to the first position.

I hope this answer to your dilemma.

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