For many of us, “glory” has become an abstract concept. Athletes seek glory in the sense of renown or reputation; a sunset is glorious if it’s especially beautiful; and to glorify something means to speak of it in high esteem. But when the biblical authors refer to God’s glory they have a much more specific and concrete idea in mind. In Hebrew, “glory” (כבוד; kavod) comes from כבד (kaved), which means “heavy.” According to Israel’s Scriptures, the glory of God is a weighty, physical entity that appears on earth and interacts with humanity.
For the ancient Israelites, underlying understanding of divine “glory” (כבוד; kavod) is one of weight or mass. The root on which the term is based appears when God resolves to send hail against Egypt, saying, “Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy (כבד; kaved) hail to fall, such as has never been seen in Egypt” (Exodus 9:18). Just as God sends heavy hail from heaven, the “glory” of the Lord is a weighty manifestation of divine presence on earth. Scripture describes the magnitude of Majesty when Solomon inaugurates the Temple in Jerusalem. After construction was complete, God descended into the building “so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory (כבוד; kavod) of the Lord filled (מלא; male’) the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:11; cf. 2 Chron 5:14; 7:2). The priests cannot get into the Temple because the mass of divine glory fills all the space inside!
Those who translated and interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures also understood the material and spatial nature of God’s glory. In Leviticus, God tells Israel, “I will make my dwelling among you and will not abhor you. I will walk among you” (26:11-12). The later rabbinic writers who rendered this text into Aramaic added, “I will set the dwelling of my glory (יקרי שכינת; shekhinat yeqari) among you, and my Word (מימרי; memri) will not be distant from you. I will establish the glory of my Presence among you” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Lev 26:11-12). For the Aramaic translator(s), God’s glory is a concrete manifestation of divine presence that interacts with people. John’s Gospel has this same notion of physical manifestation in mind when it states that “the Word (λόγος; logos) became flesh and dwelt (ἐσκήνωσεν; eskénosen) among us, and we have seen his glory (δόξαν; dóxan)” (Jn 1:14). For ancient Jews, the “glory” of God was not some abstract or aethereal entity, but rather a tangible appearance of the Lord on earth.