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In the Shadow of God

“He who dwells in the Shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the Shadow of the Almighty.”
(Psalm 91:1)

       by Paul Sumner
  The Bible contains rich imagery depicting people who dwell under the "shadow" of God.

The imagery tells us much about the character of God. It also opens links between ancient Israel and the people and events of the New Testament.

What does it mean to live under the Shadow? Isn't it an oxymoron to live in shadow? Just the opposite. In the Bible it's the best place to be, if it's God's shadow.

As various Scripture texts reveal, the Shadow is a poetic or metaphorical description of God's Hand, Presence, or Spirit.

Here are examples of Bible people who lived under the Shadow.

(1) Bezalel, the Man

Shortly after the exodus, God called Moses up the mountain to give him the "Ten Words" (Exod 20). Later, he re-summoned Moses, along with Aaron and 72 elders, back up the mountain. There as a company they "beheld God" and shared a covenant-confirmation meal in His presence (Exod 24).

God then announced his intention to have them build a sanctuary for him, "that I may dwell [shakhan] among them…(in a) tabernacle [tent, mishkan]" (Exod 25:8–9).

The actual construction of the Mishkan — God's "among-dwelling" tent — was assigned to a chosen man.

I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God [ruach elohim] in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. (Exod 31:2–5)


Three things stand out.

(1) Bezalel was an astonishingly accomplished artisan. He was metalworker, jeweler, gem-cutter and woodworker. Exodus 35 adds that he was an engraver, designer, embroiderer and weaver, and performed "every inventive work" (melechet machashevet; vv. 33, 35). Craftsmen today, who well know how long apprenticeships take in only one craft, can attest that Bezalel was gifted.

Bezalel built the first on-earth dwelling for the Lord. His project assistant was a man named Oholiab (Exod 31:6), whose name in Hebrew—Ohali-Av—means "tent of the Father" (or "the Father's Tent"). They both knew for Whom they worked.

Bezalel's name is richly meaningful in its three Hebrew syllables: be = "in"; tzal = "shadow"; el = "God" (most ancient word for god/God).

(2) His "wisdom" (hokhmah) came from God. The New Jewish Publication Society version reads Exodus 31:3 as, "I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft." Bezalel was endowed or filled with the divine spirit or God's Spirit (ruach elohim). He was saturated with creative skill, like his Creator.

"Bezalel"—in the shadow of God—is an emblematic way of describing someone who is enshrouded with the divine spirit. God's Shadow is his Spirit.

[Consult the PDF list of occurences of Ruach in the Hebrew Scriptures.]

(3) Bezalel was from Judah.

Note the parallel: His task was to build God's earthly dwelling place. A later Judean — King David — purposed to build God's second earthly dwelling place: a house or permanent temple on Zion. He was given "the plan" for God's house "by the Spirit with him" [baruach imo], then passed the blueprints on to his son Solomon (1 Chron 28:12; 2 Samuel 7:12–16).

From this we learn that Judeans are the House builders.


(2) Servant Israel-Messiah

The latter part of Isaiah (chaps. 40–66) contains portraits of God's two servants: Israel the nation and Israel the anointed (mashiach, messiah) individual who is a member of Israel but separate from it.

Isaiah 49 contains a declaration by Servant Israel-Messiah, who is commissioned to be a prophet and mediator.

The LORD called me from the womb,
From the body of my mother he named me.
And he has made my mouth like a sharp sword;
In the shadow of his hand he has concealed me,
And he has also made me a select arrow;
He has hidden me in his quiver. (Isa 49:1–2)

Being under the shadow of God's "hand" implies protected nurturing and training. As a father uses his hand to guide the hand of his inexperienced son, so God trains his children. "The LORD is the shade on your right hand" (Ps 121:5). "You have taken hold of my right hand" (Ps 73:23). "Your right hand upholds me" (Ps 18:35).

Servant Israel-Messiah, in Isaiah 49, has been kept under the Hand until he steps forward "to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel" (v. 5). He will then be taken from God's quiver (v. 2) and shot out, so to speak, as a flaming arrow as "a light to the Gentiles" (v. 6). Though "despised" and "abhorred" by his own people (v. 7), he will succeed in the job. He is under the Hand.

Servant Israel-Nation is also under the divine Hand, undergoing apprentice concealment. This denotes prophetic enshroudment or inspiration.

I have put my words in your mouth
and have covered you with the shadow of my Hand
(betzel yadi). (Isa 51:16)

My Spirit which is upon you
and my words which I have put in your mouth
shall not depart from your mouth. (Isa 59:21)


Other Prophets Under "the Hand"

Ezekiel links God's Hand with inspired communication.

The Hand of the LORD was upon me there, and he said to me. (Ezek 3:22)
He also equates God's grasp with transport by the Spirit-Ruach:
The Hand of the LORD YHVH fell upon me there...
and the Ruach lifted me up. (Ezek 8:1, 3)
• As noted above, King David says he received the "plan" [tavnit] of the first Temple directly from God: "the LORD made me understand … by his Hand upon me" (1 Chron 28:19).

This follows a pattern. When he was anointed with oil by Samuel God also anointed him and "the Spirit of the LORD came mightily to David from that day forward" (1 Sam 16:13). Toward the end of his life, he himself said, "The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me" (2 Sam 23:2).

(3) Psalmists

The hymn writers and poets of Israel repeat the metaphor of being under the Shadow of God. More specifically, they seek to be in the shadow of his wings.

Keep me as the apple of your eye,
Hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Ps 17:8)

Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,
For my soul takes refuge in you;
And in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge. (Ps 57:1)

In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. (Ps 63:7)

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty … .
He will cover you with his pinions,
And under his wings you may seek refuge.
His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark. (Ps 91:1, 4)

God's wings cast shadows of protection over the psalmists, if not prophetic endowment.


Bird Imagery
Where does this bird imagery come from? Two passages come to mind.

The Song of Moses (Deut 32) recounts how God the "Rock" fathered Jacob the nation (vv. 6, 18a). As father, the Lord was a protective bird who "encircled him … cared for him … guarded him as the pupil of his eye" (v. 10).

Like an eagle that stirs up his nest,
That hovers over his young,
He spread his wings and caught them,
He carried them on his pinions. (Deut 32:11)

Isaiah later picks up this image to describe "the LORD of armies" as the one who "hovers" (uf) in bird-like protection over Jerusalem (Isa 31:5).

The first occurrence of this God-as-bird image is in the Creation account:

The earth was formless and void,
and darkness was over the surface of the deep.
And the Ruach of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. (Gen 1:2)
The hovering (merachefet) Spirit mirrors the intense brooding that a parent eagle engages in above its nest. In Jewish mysticism, the Spirit-Ruach is God's feminine dimension (ruach is a feminine noun). So they created the term Shekhinah, to denote the Divine Presence dwelling (shakhan) on earth.

But God's hovering isn't mother imagery in Genesis 1. A father eagle also hovers and broods—and more to the point: he alone engenders life. A father is the only true giver of life.

Here at Creation it is God — as father, not mother — who brings forth life from the tohu vavohu, the pre-life chaotic emptiness. His Spirit is his creative male presence. "You send forth your Ruach, they are created" (Ps 104:30).

Summary. The presence of God's Ruach, Wings, Hand, and Shadow signifies endowment with wisdom and skill, prophetic inspiration, protective care, and the creation of life. These Hebrew substreams flow into the NT.


(4a) The Disciples in Acts

In the early days of public preaching, Yeshua's disciples used the Hebrew metaphor of the Hand to describe:

  • God's healing power: "...extend your Hand to heal" (Acts 4:30)
  • God's orchestrating inspiration: "O Lord...the Gentiles and peoples of Israel...were gathered together against your holy servant do whatever your Hand and your purpose predestined to occur" (Acts 4:27, 28)
  • God's spirit of repentance: "The Hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord" (Acts 11:21)
  • God's power to alter a human body: "Behold, the Hand of the Lord is upon you [Paul] and you will be blind" (Acts 13:11).


(4b) The Disciples at the Transfiguration

Once Yeshua took his three closest disciples "up to a high mountain by themselves" (Matt 17:1; perhaps Mount Hermon). In their presence, he was "transfigured" (v. 2) into the appearance of the occupants of Heaven (Dan 7:9; 10:5–6). Then "Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him" (v. 3).

While the disciples were caught up in reverence for the two ancient fathers and their Master, "a bright cloud overshadowed them" (v. 5).

Imagery of a cloud on a mountain reminds us of the Cloud of Glory that enshrouded God (and Moses) on Sinai and led Israel in the wilderness. God dwelled in that cloud.

When Bezalel and staff finished the Tabernacle, "the Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the LORD filled the Mishkan" (Exod 40:34). The Cloud was synonymous with God's Presence, so much so that the Hebrew text says "it [the Cloud] would speak with Moses" (Exod 33:9).

Similarly, Matt 17 says the disciples heard "a voice out of the cloud" (v. 5). The voice's author isn't identified but is clearly implied: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Hear him!" (v. 5b). God himself spoke from the cloud.

The Shadow of God that enveloped the disciples is not mere poetic symbolism. It is the earthly Presence of the Creator himself, overshadowing these men with light and glory in time and space. It also envelopes and changes Yeshua, as if to confirm to the disciples his true origin and to validate God's presence with him.

In his report of this event, Luke adds that the three disciples "were afraid as they entered the Cloud" (Luke 9:34). No surprise. Israel was too, at the foot of Sinai. They "trembled and stood at a distance" when they saw the Cloud enveloping Moses (Exod 20:18). God's overshadowing cloud is not at first a welcome sight to the small of faith.

The apostle Paul may also allude to Holy Shadow imagery. "He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for Power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, will I rather boast about my weaknesses, that the Power of Messiah may dwell upon (lit. over-dwell, episkenao) me" (2 Cor 12:9).


(5) Miryam

The Shadow associations we saw with God's inspiring, guiding, training, protecting, nurturing and life-creating Ruach all focus in the person of Yeshua's mother.

When a messenger of the Heavenly Court goes to this young woman at her home in Nazareth, he says she will have a child who "will be called the Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:30–32). In her incredulity she asks, "How can this be?"

The divine agent explains,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
even the Power of the Most High will
overshadow [episkenao] you,
and for that reason the holy offspring
shall be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

This is classic Hebrew parallelism. "Holy Spirit" and "Power of the Most High" are synonymous terms. (A capital "P" on "Power" here brings out the parallel; its absence in English translations breaks the link.) God's life-creating Spirit/Power overshadows, envelops and fills Miryam's body—where new life begins.

We could say that Miryam too built a house for God. The Hebrew word for "son" (ben) and "house" (beit) come from the same root verb banah meaning to build. A son is a building in which his father will live on. Parents build their son or daughter (the ancient word for daughter, bant, also comes from banah).

But Miryam's experience isn't entirely surprising. For in the rest of the story in Luke 1–2, we see a woman who previously dwelled in the shadow of God every day as a disciple. Her hymn of praise proves this (Luke 1:46-55).

The creative overshadowing that engendered her child comes almost as a natural progression of her faithful obedience and trust.

"Bezalel" was a way of life for Miryam. She experienced God's faithful nurturing, as well as the hovering, life-giving Power of his Spirit. She joined Israel's uniquely blessed and Shadowed few. 1


The Wings of the Dawn

The Shadow transcends Israel's history, because God does not change. He extended his Presence over those who trusted him and expressed willingness to dwell beneath its canopy.

The Hand of God, the Wings of God, the Wind/Breath/Spirit of God all convey his hovering, boundless loving interest in those who fear him—and his drive to create life from void.

The psalmist said, "If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there your Hand will lead me, and your Right Hand will lay hold of me" (Ps 139:9-10). He knew, as a child and servant of God, that there was no place on earth where he could conceal himself from the Spirit and Presence of the Creator (v. 7). And he didn't want to.

Astronomically, the "wings of the dawn" [kanfey shachar] may be the light rays that streak across the sky when the sun rises above the horizon. (Anyone who has spent a cold night sleeping outside knows the joy, in body and soul, of seeing those first rays bursting across the land.)

Many others in ancient Israel experienced the bracing Presence of God themselves. They too chose to walk Be-Tzal-El.

• Paul Sumner


The Grandparents of Messiah
Boaz, the great grandfather of David, blessed his future wife Ruth with these words:

May the LORD reward your work,
And your wages be full from the LORD, the God of Israel,
under whose wings [kenapayim] you have come to seek refuge.
(Ruth 2:12)
Ruth grew in love with Boaz and asked him, "Spread your covering [kanaf, lit. wing] over your maid, for you are a go'el (a close relative redeemer)" (Ruth 3:9). He did just that.

Boaz took Ruth under his wing for protection, yes, but also for comfort, love, and for producing a family in Judah that will include King David—and Miryam and her Son. [return to text]



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