SHEKINAH shə kī’ nə (שְׁכִינָה, that which dwells). A non-Biblical term that appeared in the Targums and was used in the Talmud to describe the presence of God in the world and His relationship to Israel.
Origin of the term.
“Shekinah” arose among the Palestinian and Babylonian Jews, being based upon the OT doctrine of the divine presence in the world, which emphasized the immanent presence and activity of God in the world order, and in contradiction to the Alexandrian teaching that God was supramundane and extramundane in His being. “Shekinah” was a useful term to the rabbis in that it afforded a reverent means of bringing the God who was “completely other” into contrast with the material universe, and esp. into a visible or tangible relationship to His people Israel. No doubt the particular emphasis of the word upon “dwelling” grew out of the OT teaching that God chose to dwell among His people and put His name in a special place in the earth (Deut 12:5ff). It was an interpretive effort to bridge the gap between heaven as the place of God’s eternal residence and the earth as the place of His real activity, esp. His involvement in Israel’s history.
Many OT ideas fed the growth of the Shekinah concept. The Ark of the covenant was the place of God’s habitation among His people in the early days (Num 10:35, 36). When the Ark in later days was captured by the Philistines, it became their personal enemy so that they said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not slay us and our people” (1 Sam 5:11). The cloud that guided Israel in the wilderness was understood to be atestimony of the divine presence. As the tabernacle and subsequent sanctuaries (Shechem, Beer-sheba, Bethel, Shiloah) became the center of worship, so it was there that the Shekinah was found. Finally the Temple in Jerusalem became the special sanctuary, and there in Solomon’s Temple the Shekinah was truly at home. The opinion of many scholars has been that the Babylonian idea of the enthronement of a deity in an innermost or secret sanctuary of a temple, where he remained if pleased with the worship of the people but from which he departed if angered, was the source of this trait assigned to the Shekinah.
Although the concept of the Shekinah in the Talmud was essentially the same as that developed in the Targums, there was a much wider application of the teaching to the Scriptures. The Mishna, however, which is the oldest part of the Talmud (c. a.d. 135-220), contains only two references to the Shekinah. Most of the references to the term are found in the Haggadah which came later. The presence of God in the world is described as being as pervasive as light (Num. Rabbah 21:16). As the sun in the heavens reaches everywhere with its light, so God is inescapable in His world. The earth is said to shine with the glory of God, and thus to be the face of the Shekinah (Aboth d’Rabbi Nathan II). In the Haggadah the Tabernacle was esp. associated with the Shekinah; in fact, the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle was said to have been the first day of the Shekinah’s abiding in the universe, i.e., the Shekinah at last had found a home (Shabbath 85b). Solomon’s Temple was the successor to the Tabernacle as the Shekinah’s home. At the time of the Exile it was taught by some that the Shekinah went with the captives into Babylon, but others taught that it returned to heaven to which it had come. Although the Shekinah was not to be found in the subsequent to the captivity, it did not mean that it ceased to be active in the world. Both Ishmael ben Elisha and Hoshaiah Rabbah taught that after the return to Jerusalem the Shekinah was in every place.
God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush that was not consumed (Exod 3:3, 4). It was at the edge of the wilderness that God first went before His people as a pillar of cloud by day to lead them, and a pillar of fire by night. This pillar was cloud and fire (Exod 14:24). During the day the cloud was visible, and at night it was the fire. It was in this cloud that God was visibly present as the angel of the covenant (Exod 14:19). From the cloud God spoke to both Moses and Israel, and it was the cloud that rested upon (Exod 24:15-18).
The angel of the Lord was clearly God Himself. Exodus 13:21 took note of God’s going before Israel, and later the statement was recorded that “the angel of God who went before the host of Israel moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them” (Exod 14:19) which obviously equated the angel with God. The Shekinah was represented as the angel of the Lord apparently when Jacob wrestled with God at Peniel. The confronted Hagar as she fled from Sarai (Gen 16:7-14). Likewise the angel of the Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18).
The lighting of the perpetual lamp symbolized the Shekinah, and there was the tradition that from his birth Moses was under the wings of the Shekinah. Since the Shekinah was felt to dwell between the wings of the cherubim over the mercy seat, which was the top of the Ark of the covenant, it may be that the Shekinah was also identified with the cherubim, at least having wings such as they had. The term “face” was also applied to the Shekinah. In fact, Isaiah 63:9 united the concept of the Shekinah’s face with that of the angel in the statement “and the angel of his presence saved them.”
The Midrashim lit. in the later period made the Shekinah almost an independent personality who stood between God and the world in a mediatorial role. Maimonides taught that the Shekinah was a fiery created being who was the agent of divine activity in the world.
John’s gospel is also noteworthy because of parallels to the Shekinah concept. That gospel begins with a passage that is most interesting because it speaks of the “word” having “tabernacled” among men (John 1:14). The phrase recalls the Shekinah through which God appeared to His people in the Tabernacle during the wilderness wanderings. The passage developed the idea further in that it seemed to regard the Shekinah as dwelling in the tabernacle of the flesh of Jesus, for it was said “we have beheld his glory,” which was the manifestation of the Shekinah among men. The Johannine Word was the light which lighted every man. The Shekinah was upon every man as the light of God. Numbers 6:25, “The Lord make his face to shine upon you,” was interpreted, “May He give thee the light of the Shekinah.”
The concept of “abiding” was very significant to John. “Abode” was a technical term among the rabbis for the presence of God. Pirqe Aboth read in connection with Psalm 82:1, “When ten sit together and occupy themselves with the Torah, the Shekinah abides among them, as it is said, ‘God standeth in the congregation of the godly.’” The name of God in Jewish thought was not just a grammatical term; it was the essence of God Himself, “name” stood for “person.” Pirqe Aboth in the passage cited above continued to explain Shekinah’s abiding with the words, “And whence can it be shown that the same applies to me? Because it is said, ‘In any place where I cause my Name to be remembered I will come to thee and I will bless thee.’” The Didaché contains the prayer: “We give thanks to thee, holy Father, for thy holy Name, which thou didst make to tabernacle in our hearts” (10:2). This echoes John 17:4, 6, where the manifestation of the name of God was the same as the glorification of the Father, the bringing of the Shekinah to earth. In John Jesus also prayed for His followers to be kept in the name which had been given to Him, and in which He had kept them (John 17:11f.).
Hebrews declared Christ to be the “brightness of God’s glory” (Heb 1:3). James 2:1 referred to Jesus as “the Lord of glory.” 1 Peter 4:14 spoke of “the spirit of glory” and 2 Peter 1:17 described God as “the Majestic Glory.”
A. B. Davidson,
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
This word is not found in the Bible, but there are allusions to it in Isa 60:2; Mt 17:5; Lu 2:9; Ro 9:4. It is first found in the Targums.