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Here’s What ‘Pillar of Defense’ Actually Means

The name of the IDF operation references a famous midrash

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An Israeli soldier looks on as he stands on the border with Syria at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, overlooking the Syrian village of Breqa on November 13, 2012 in the Golan Heights.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Today, the IDF launched Operation Pillar of Defense to stem the tide of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Where does the name come from? In Hebrew, the campaign has been dubbed עמוד ענן (“Amud Anan,” or “Pillar of Cloud”). The phrase is a direct biblical allusion to the divine cloud which guided the Israelites through the desert and shielded them from those who might do them harm. As a couple representative verses from Exodus 14:19-20 state:

Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.

The midrash on this section—which is cited by Rashi, the most famous Jewish biblical commentator, and taught in many Hebrew schools—elaborates:

They [the Egyptians] shot arrows and catapult stones at them, but the angel and cloud caught them.

For a campaign intended to halt the barrage of rockets currently raining down on southern Israel, “Pillar of Cloud” is thus a particularly apt title. Just as the cloud protected the Israelites from Egyptian projectiles, so to does the IDF hope to protect Israel’s citizens. However, a literal translation of עמוד ענן—i.e. “Pillar of Cloud”—fails to convey the meaning of the biblical allusion to a lay audience. As such, the IDF chose “Pillar of Defense” as the campaign’s English designation, a conceptual translation which makes clear the intended meaning of the Hebrew.

But don’t tell that to John Cook. Writing at Gawker in a post subtly titled “Israel Names Its New War After Biblical Story About God Terrorizing Egyptians,” Cook—who admits he does not know Hebrew (let alone, one can safely assume, midrash)—lists a few Googled biblical verses in which the pillar of cloud appears and concludes:

So that’s what a Pillar of Cloud is: A worldly instantiation of an all-powerful, vengeful God seeking to demonstrate the primacy of his chosen people, to guide them in their affairs, and to confound their enemies. And that’s what the people who conceived and executed this wave of strikes against Hamas officials and Gazan civilians chose to call them. If anyone was worried about the increasing religious and ethnic fanaticism of the Israeli leadership, they should still be worried. Did Israel launch this attack because there was no other rational route to maintain its security? Or was it pursuing a broader agenda rooted in ancient mysticism?

In light of the above, I think we can safely answer “no.” And perhaps we can also conclude that individuals who know nothing about Judaism should avoid publishing mendacious misreadings of its texts and traditions on prominent web sites.

There is fanaticism here—but it isn’t the fevered fiction conjured by Cook. It’s what inspired Hamas to fire 12,000 rockets at innocent civilians.

Israel Names Its New War After Biblical Story About God Terrorizing Egyptians [Gawker]
Previous: Breaking: Israel Kills Hamas Military Head (Updated)

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Rachela says:

Look up the woman that John Cook of Gawker is married to – it perfectly explains his ignorance.

    For those of us who don’t have the time or energy, why not just tell us or give us a link?

      Rachela says:

      For those who don’t know, it’s Allison Benedikt, who wrote a childish little essay on her distaste for Israel.

I feel so relieved with all of the bronze age code wording clarified now just as clear as a cloud.

    jacob_arnon says:

    another two bits from the bronze age brainless yevka.

    Bronze age isn’t just a period in archaeology it’s a state of mind in which yevka the ignorant coward is stuck.

Note: it’s Exodus 14:19-20 not 20-21 as you wrote above (but you still managed to link to the correct passage which is odd).

Daniel Rubin says:

Even this response concedes too much. You’re playing on his field: he insisted that the term Pillar of Cloud must be an anti-Egypt dig, so you explained that it’s a reference to the angel in the midrash who flings away the Egyptians’ arrows. But why get into that? To think that a reference to a Biblical verse having to do with the Exodus from ancient Egypt must be a comment on modern-day Egypt – and by extension on modern-day Arabs and Palestinians, I guess? – is bonkers in the first place. No one thinks of today’s
“Egypt” when they read of Mitzrayim in the Torah.

This guy Cook is plainly out of his mind or anti-Semitic, not merely ignorant of the midrash.

Thank you for an excellent, informative article.

My name is Eytan Buchman and I am the Head of the North American Media Desk at the IDF spokesperson’s unit. I just wanted to thank you for the great counter-explanation to Cook’s article. I corrected him but he chose to only publish a small segment of the correction. Either way, you nailed the reasoning behind the translation.

The liberal western media can never understand biblical references. Thanks for this article which explains it rather succinctly. My prayers are with the people of Israel as they endure yet another attack on their soverieignty. As you know G-d has your back
Fort Worth Texas

“it’s not as much Biblical as the rich, deep, multi-levelled linguistic culture we Jews have?” i find this post too funny.

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Here’s What ‘Pillar of Defense’ Actually Means

The name of the IDF operation references a famous midrash

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