Shekhinah: Everybody’s favorite non-biblical Hebrew word.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 October 2021
Shekhinah sɛ.xi'nɑ American ʃɛ'kaɪ.nə noun. The glory of God’s presence.
2. God’s presence.
3. God’s dwelling place.
[Shekhinic ʃɛ'kaɪ.nɪk adjective.]

The Hebrew word שכינה/šekhiná, which English-speakers tend to spell “shekhinah” or “shekinah,” isn’t found in the bible.

No, really. It comes from the Mishna. Sanhedrin 6.5, Avot 3.2, 6 It refers to God’s presence. More specifically the weight of God’s presence; not in a literal sense, but more like its importance, substantiveness, reality, the fact the Almighty showed up is a really big deal. The King James Version tends to call it his glory.

God’s everywhere, and ordinarily not visible. But sometimes he makes his presence more visible than usual. Like when he allowed Moses to see his glory Ex 33.18 —from the back, anyway; from the front might crush Moses. Or when the Hebrews saw God’s glory in his temple, 2Ch 7.3 or when Stephen had a vision of it. Ac 7.55

None of these folks were talking about seeing God himself. The apostle John is entirely sure they didn’t see God himself. Jn 1.18 But they saw something, and what they saw was what God שָׁכַן/šakhán, “dwells in.” That’s a verb we do find in the bible, as well as its noun-forms שֶׁכֶן/šekhén, “dwelling place,” and שָׁכֵן/šakhén, “dweller.”

So where’d šekhiná come from? Well, Pharisee rabbis wanted a unique word which refers to God’s particular glorious habitation, so they coined one. Hebrew words have masculine and feminine genders, like Spanish and French, so the rabbis took the masculine word šekhén and turned it into the feminine word šekhiná. Still means “dwelling,” but now it specifically means God’s dwelling.

Thing is, because šekhiná is a feminine noun, a lot of rabbis also use it as a jump-off point so they can talk about God’s feminine aspects and qualities. Because even though God goes with the pronouns “he” and “his,” he doesn’t actually have a gender. (Spirits don’t!) And God does have a motherly side.

So when you talk about God’s šekhiná with Jews, don’t be surprised when they start talking about “the female divine presence.” And every once in a while… they get weird. And no, I’m not saying this ’cause of any chauvinist hangups. Some really do get super weird.

Of course that’s not at all what we Christians mean by shekhinah. We mean revelation. The brightest light. Clouds of glory. Overwhelming God-experiences. The tremendous power of the Almighty. We mean experiences so mighty, we lose control of our bodily functions and now we gotta steam-clean the church building. We mean seeing God.

Well again, not really seeing God, ’cause “nobody’s ever seen God,” Jn 1.18 and “no one can see me and live.” Ex 33.20 We probably won’t survive the full God encounter while we’re alive, or before we’re resurrected. But meh; close enough.

The pillar of cloud and fire.

People used to see God on a daily basis, or at least something which was meant to represent him: The pillar of cloud and fire. Looked like cloud by day; looked like fire by night. Ex 13.21

From the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. Probably didn’t look like this, but this looks neat.

Somewhere at the core of this pillar was what the writers of the scriptures called an עֲרָפֶל/arafél, “heavy cloud.” Dt 5.22, 1Ki 8.12 The KJV went with “thick darkness”—but my only objection to that translation would be John’s statement God doesn’t do darkness. 1Jn 1.5 Anyway, in the midst of that heavy cloud, where he couldn’t be seen, was the presence of the LORD himself. Ex 20.21

Hence during the Exodus, the 40 years thereafter, and whenever God decided to make the pillar visible in his tabernacle and temple, the pillar was the one place on earth where you could stand and know God was physically in the same place as you.

So when we talk about the shekhinah, Christians regularly point to this pillar. It may be our best example of it. It’s a physical thing which occupied space. It occupied space so substantially, people couldn’t physically go where it did: When the pillar went into tabernacle, Moses couldn’t go in with it, ’cause the pillar took up all the room. Ex 40.34-35 Four centuries later, when Solomon dedicated the LORD’s temple, God’s glory (not necessarily the pillar, but close enough) likewise went in and filled the space, making it impossible for the priests to go in after it. 1Ki 8.11

No, this pillar wasn’t literally cloud and fire. Only looked like it. We don’t know what it was. Most of us have walked in fog, and know ordinary fog—an ordinary cloud—doesn’t shove people aside. Humans are more substantial than clouds. Whereas the pillar was more substantial than humans.

However, in Revelation when God’s heavenly temple is filled with his glory, John described it as καπνός/kapnós, “smoke.” Rv 15.8 People can walk around in smoke—but we don’t wanna, ’cause smoke inhalation is dangerous. And maybe that’s the reason the Hebrews couldn’t go where the pillar was: God’s glory felt dangerous. The pure, unfiltered goodness and holiness of God made ’em feel all icky, impure, unworthy, and a little afraid of getting a smiting. We love his presence… but he’s scary. But this is just speculation on my part.

The pillar is what Jews and Christians point to as our best example of God’s shekhinah. He’s there. He’s sorta visible. And he’s glorious.

Where God dwells.

Now šekhiná means “dwelling.” Or “dwelling place.” But even so, when Christians talk about the shekhinah, we tend to not mean where he lives and dwells. We just mean glorious appearances.

When we talk about where God does dwell, we tend to talk about one of three ideas:

  • God is everywhere. He’s omnipresent. He’s here in the room with you. Simultaneously he’s here in my room with me. Simultaneously he’s on the far end of the universe, making more stars. There’s nowhere he’s not. He fills, and dwells in, every single point in the cosmos.
  • God dwells in the highest heaven. In the throne room we read about in Revelation. Being worshiped and praised, and making plans for human history.
  • Since the Holy Spirit is God, and the Holy Spirit indwells us Christians, God’s dwelling place is in us. Among us. Guiding, encouraging, and empowering us.

Whether God’s everywhere, in heaven, or in us, technically wherever he dwells, there’s the shekhinah. Right? Yet we might talk about the shekhinah being in heaven. And sometimes talk about the glory of the universe (well, the glory of outer space; we forget our world is part of the universe too, y’know). And rarely—but sometimes; I’ve heard sermons on it!—about how the shekhinah is now in us, ’cause the Holy Spirit lives in us.

But like I said: Christians tend to just talk about the glory. The times we really felt his presence during a particularly good worship service. The God-sightings, like the pillar.

’Cause that’s what we want. We want those God-experiences. We wanna encounter God in a more tangible way than usual. We wanna feel the Holy Spirit’s power. We want a personal visitation from Jesus. (And maybe a hug.) More than one Christian has prayed, same as Moses, “Show me your glory.” Ex 33.18 And more than once, God’s actually answered that prayer with yes.

I’ll just say this: Perhaps if we truly recognized God’s dwelling place is within us, maybe we’d find he’s not as invisible as we think.