When Sinai Was Turned Upside Down

Among the more awe-inspiring spectacles of the Book of Revelation is the descent of the giant angel.

Then I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven wrapped in a cloud, with a halo around his head; his face was like the sun and his feet were like pillars of fire. In his hand he held a small scroll that had been opened. He placed his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and then he cried out in a loud voice as a lion roars. When he cried out, the seven thunders raised their voices, too (Revelation 10:1-3).

The angel goes on to tell John not to write down what the seven thunders have ‘said.’ And he foretells the fulfilling of ‘God’s mysterious plan.’ The encounter concludes with the angel handing John a small scroll, which he eats, in an act which prepares him to prophesy further.

Notice at the very beginning there are two images. There is the cloud enveloping the angel. And his feet are like fire. Together these two elements are among one of the most familiar signs of the divine presence in the Old Testament, especially at Mt. Sinai during the exodus and later in the vision of Ezekiel. The pillar-like contours of the fire also recalls the pillar of fire that led the Israelites by night, also during the exodus.

The connection with Sinai seems particularly key because of a third element: the scroll which the angel hands over. Here there seems to be a faint allusion to one of the central events of Sinai: the Ten Commandments. In both instances, we have the words of God, the divine decrees, delivered from heaven.

But one detail is strikingly discordant. In the case of the exodus, the cloud and the fire are distant from Israel. The pillar of fire leads from the front at night—notably never changing its position. And, at Sinai, the cloud of fire rests atop the mountain. But now in Revelation, the ‘fire’ is not remote. It’s at the angel’s feet.

This is significant when we probe deeper the symbolism of the Old Testament. In two of the above examples, the elements of the cloud and fire were both present when God’s presence was manifested. But sometimes only one was present. Job, for example, encountered God in the whirlwind. Elijah first saw the windstorm then the fire came afterwards.

And sometimes there is just the fire—as in the stories of the burning bush, the fire that devoured the sacrifice of Elijah, and the fire pot and torch that passed in between the animals sacrificed by Abraham.

There is a logic to these symbols. They are not just randomly alternated throughout the Old Testament. According to one scholar, the cloud should be conceived of as a sort of veil which covers the divine glory, which is represented as ‘a radiant, fiery substance.’ Thus the fire indicates the more immediate presence of God.

This distinction illuminates some of the differences in the Old Testament manifestations of God. For example, Moses—alone on the mountain—sees the burning bush. Later he communes with God atop the mountain while God’s fiery presence is veiled from the sinful Israelites by the cloud.

Now, in Revelation, there is a kind of inversion of the cloud and fire. The cloud is present, but rather than concealing the fire it uncovers it. The fire is not removed from the earth, but brought to it. It does not only dwell high above but descends below. What was foreshadowed in the Old Testament has now been brought to its completion and fulfillment: God’s presence has been fully manifested on earth. (On a related note, the traditional name for this book, the Apocalypse, means an unveiling.)

This is one reason that some commentators see the angel as representative of Christ, which is certainly possible. That the angel hands the words of God to John in the form of a scroll, which is then eaten, reinforces this interpretation. Christ is the Word of God Incarnate who is also eaten by believers in the Eucharistic bread.

Note that the giant angel straddles earth and water with one foot on each. Whereas the presence of God had been limited to a burning bush or the top of a mountain, it is now spreading out across the whole earth, the land and the sea.

The angel’s stand also unites the land and sea. This reverses another Old Testament pattern, in which the land and seas had been divided. It was one of the first acts of creation in Genesis. It was what Moses did at the Red Sea and Elijah later. (A complete list of related verses is here.)

Theologians sometimes speak about an exitus and reditus—all things flowing out from God and all things returning to Him. That fundamental dynamic seems to be at work here. In fact, there seems to be a twofold dynamic: not only the falling away of creation and its return, but the descent of God and His ascent that draws up creation with Him. (See John 12:32 and Ephesians 4:8-10.)

If the angel is uniting land and sea what is the focal point of this unity? As we look up we see the face of the angel, which is like the sun—an obvious reference to Christ in His divinity. And so it is to this that all creation is ultimately directed and drawn, the divine light that enlightens and enlivens all things.

(Note: Although not directly used as a source in this article, I would be remiss if I did not note that there is a further discussion of the Mt. Sinai-angel connection in my father, G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation.)  

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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