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Fire as a Motif of Divine Presence

A number of passages in the Bible utilize the concept of fire in depicting the presence of God. Among the most familiar is Genesis 3:24, where Yahweh stations cherubim with flaming swords at the entrance to Eden to ensure the fallen Adam and Eve do not reenter. In nonbiblical portrayals of divine presence (e.g., the tablets from Ugarit), fiery messengers guard the divine presence.

In Isaiah 6, fiery guardians, seraphim, are present in the throne room of God. The word “seraphim” derives from either the noun saraph (“serpent”; compare the Egyptian word seraf) or the verb saraph (“to burn”). The two meanings likely overlap in Isaiah 6. King Hezekiah’s relationship with Egypt, which coincided with Isaiah’s ministry, influenced the royal iconography during Hezekiah’s reign. Seraphim may therefore refer to a cobra and its burning venom (Egyptians considered cobras to be divine guardians). Psalm 104:4 also refers to fiery “ministers” in Yahweh’s presence.

Aside from fiery beings, many biblical passages describe both Yahweh’s throne room and presence as fiery and full of smoke. In Exodus 3, Yahweh appears to Moses in a burning bush. After the Israelite people have left Egypt, the divine presence moves with them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night (Exod 13:21–22; 14:24). Yahweh at one point descends on Mount Sinai in fire and smoke (Exod 19:18; 24:17; compare Rev 15:8). Other passages create the impression that fire is a stock image in describing the appearance of Yahweh (Deut 4:36; Psa 144:5; 2 Sam 22:7–13). At times a rushing or stormy wind accompanies fire imagery (Ezek 1:4; Isa 28:2; 29:6; 30:27–30; Psa 50:3; compare Heb 12:18). Other passages describe God Himself as a consuming fire (Deut 4:24; 9:3; compare Heb 12:29), and Yahweh uses fiery bursts and lightning bolts as weapons against his enemies (Josh 10:11; Psa 18:7–14; 21:9; 148:8; 2 Sam 22:13–15; Isa 30:30).

This imagery carried into the New Testament, most prominently in the events of Pentecost in Acts 2:

And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in the same place. And suddenly a sound like a violent rushing wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. And divided tongues like fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability to speak out (Acts 2:1–4).

The stormy aura of “a violent rushing wind” accompanied by flaming “tongues” indicates that the gathered disciples are now in the divine presence; the throne room of God has come to them. This fire is associated with the Holy Spirit—the presence of God. As with other prophetic figures, the apostles are commissioned in the divine presence by the divine presence.

Michael S. Heiser

Further Reading

Prophetic Commissioning and the Divine Presence

Fire DBI


About Faithlife Study Bible

Faithlife Study Bible (FSB) is your guide to the ancient world of the Old and New Testaments, with study notes and articles that draw from a wide range of academic research. FSB helps you learn how to think about interpretation methods and issues so that you can gain a deeper understanding of the text.


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