Forecast: partly cloudy
Before I really get into the text, a little background on what's going on seems appropriate. The Israelites have left Egypt, they've received the Ten Commandments, and they're stuck in the wilderness after that nasty bit of business regarding "giants in the land" and their fear to take the Promised Land.
God could have gotten really mad with the Israelites and sent them back to Egypt; he could have let them been destroyed by the armies of the people they were afraid of in the first place. But instead, God let's them go back into hiding, wandering around the Sinai peninsula.
So here they are, thousands and thousands of people, having one heck of a camp out in the middle of the desert. They've got a great leader, Moses, and they've got a visible sign that God is with them: the pillar of cloud.
When I first started reading the passage for today, I couldn't help but think back to the days of my youth (as though I were not still young) when I first saw the movie, The Ten Commandments. Cecil B. DeMille's portrayal of the pillar of cloud was limited by the technology of 1955 Hollywood, and so they image of the pillar burned into my mind is probably not close to accurate.
Of course, here, I suppose, the emphasis is not on the miraculous pillars of cloud that hovered over the Tabernacle when God's presence was there. Instead, the biggest miracle, to me, was that God convinced the Hebrew people to move when he decided to move his cloud in the first place.
After all, these are the same people who: (1) walked through a sea on dry land; (2) literally heard the very voice of God; and (3) got to eat Heaven-Bread everyday that they picked up off of the ground.
Despite these and other equally-miraculous events (e.g., the plagues of Egypt), these stiff-necked people still complained about the taste of the Heaven-Bread (one is reminded that "manna" is Hebrew for "what is that?" -- perhaps with the empahsis on "is") and worshipped a Golden Calf that they whipped up after getting bored of waiting on Moses to bring them God's handwritten commandments.
Don't think I'm being too hard on God's people. I think the amazing part of this passage is that despite the Hebrews' continued resistance and intransigence, God was faithful to them: he had said they would be his people and he would be their God, and he was making good on his promise. I also admire the Hebrews' willingness to trust a cloud. After all, I don't know if I would be willing -- after having gotten settled in a nice little oasis, with my tent all in order -- to pick up and leave because the fog cleared around the Tabernacle.
But then, I suppose that's what God desires of us: faithfulness. And, of course, even when we are faithless, God continues to be faithful. I think that's the message of the second part of the passage, where the foreigner is invited to join the Israelites. God asks for obedience and faithfulness, and he promises to take care of us like the Father he is.