After the Israelites broke covenant with God, he refused to live with them any longer. But Moses mediated a new deal, with a new covenant, which would enable total restoration and a more intimate relationship than ever before. Moses has seen the glory of Yahweh’s new covenant identity (the one full of both grace and truth); will the Israelites be allowed to see such glory for themselves?
Observation of Exodus 34:29-35
Most repeated words: Moses (10 times), face (6x), came (5), all (4), Israel (4), people (4), skin (3), speak (3), veil (3), when (3)
- This is the first narrative unit since chapter 1 where the name Yahweh (“LORD”) is not one of the top 10 repeated words. The long speeches given by God (Ex 20-23, 25-31) also do not repeat the name Yahweh much, but mostly because Yahweh is telling other people what to do. It’s noteworthy that this climactic episode, describing the people reunited to their God, names that God only twice. Moses goes in to speak with him (Ex 34:34) and then tells his commands to the people (Ex 34:32).
- Our main character here seems to be not even Moses himself, but Moses’ face.
The setting: When Moses came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony.
- Moses’ descent from the mountain is not a part of the main plot line, but merely the backdrop for Moses’ ignorance of his shining face (Ex 34:29).
- This shining takes place in the context of Moses’ role in shaping this glorious new covenant, having literally shaped the stone tablets with his own hands (Ex 34:1, 4).
The reason for Moses’ shining face: “he had been talking with God” (Ex 34:29).
- This is the reason for the first shining, and it remains the reason for all subsequent shinings (Ex 34:34-35).
The response to Moses’ shining:
- Aaron and all the people are afraid to come near (Ex 34:30). This is the same response to had to the unmediated glory of God on the mountain (Ex 20:18-21).
The aftermath of Moses’ shining:
- Moses calls to them (Ex 34:31).
- Aaron and the leaders return to him.
- Moses talks with them.
- The rest of the people come near (Ex 34:32).
- Moses commands them all that Yahweh had spoken on the mountain.
The cycle of events from here on out:
- Moses veils his face (Ex 34:33).
- He removes the veil when he speaks further with God, presumably in the new tent of meeting, presumably no longer outside the camp (Ex 34:34).
- When he comes out, he speaks God’s words, with his face still unveiled. “The people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining” (Ex 34:35).
- Then Moses replaces the veil until the next time he speaks with God.
Interpretation of Exodus 34:29-35
Some possible questions:
- Why does Moses’ face shine only now, and not the first few times he descended from the mountain (Ex 19:14, 25; 24:3, 32:15-16)? The first tablets were written with the finger of God (Ex 31:18)! Why would there be no shining then?
- Why are the people afraid to come near, merely on account of a shining face?
- Why does Mose veil his face?
- So what does all this mean for the final New Covenant in Christ?
My answers (numbers correspond to the questions):
- Chapters 32 and 33 are remarkable in that they show Moses fully executing his mediatorial role between Yahweh and the people. According to the narrator, he persuades Yahweh both to relent from destroying the people and to move back in with the people. This special new role was pictured in Yahweh’s request for Moses to cut these new tablets himself (Ex 34:1). The flow of chapters 32-34 shows that this new covenant is far more glorious than the first covenant was, because Moses (a man) fully participates in shaping it and in beholding the glory of God, full of grace and truth (Ex 34:6-7). This greater glory now blossoms publicly through a brilliantly shining face.
- Clearly, the shining face is more than a makeover or pleasant countenance. This is the glory of Yahweh’s grace and truth, being reflected in the image of God’s appointed mediator. No-one can see God’s face and live (Ex 33:20), so even the reflection of this glory, as in a mirror dimly, is nearly as terrifying as the thing itself (Ex 20:18-21).
- Here is the narrative’s key idea, and one that is easy to miss. Moses does not veil his face to protect the people from the reflected glory. He covers his face to conceal the fading glory until he gets it recharged (Ex 34:34-35). When the glory recharges from speaking with Yahweh, Moses makes sure the people see his shining face again (Ex 34:35).
- Paul uses this episode from Exodus to make a profound point about the glory of the New Covenant in Christ (2 Cor 3:1-4:18). If we assume that Moses’ veil was covering the glory itself (when it was actually concealing the fact that the glory was fading), we miss Paul’s point. In the last year, I’ve read two otherwise excellent books by respected New Testament scholars that make this very mistake. Paul’s argument:
- The people he ministers to are themselves the proof of Paul’s recommendation from Christ (2 Cor 3:1-3).
- His sufficiency as a minister of the new covenant comes from Christ who makes him sufficient (2 Cor 3:4-6).
- While Moses’ ministry had a blazing, terrifying glory, it was always a fading glory (“the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end” – 2 Cor 3:7-11).
- Therefore, Paul is not like Moses, who tried to conceal the fact that his glory was fading (“Moses…put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” – 2 Cor 3:12-13).
- Even today, the Jews fail to see the temporary, fading nature of the Old Covenant when it’s read to them (2 Cor 3:14-15).
- But when they turn to Christ, they finally see the Old Covenant for the fading and temporary thing it is. They behold the Lord’s face and become perpetually and increasingly glorious (2 Cor 3:16-18).
- This is why the people, whose reflection of Christ’s glory never fades but always brightens, are themselves the proof of Paul’s qualification for ministering this superior covenant (2 Cor 3:1-3, 4:1-15).
- This gives Paul tremendous courage to persevere when ministry is hard (2 Cor 4:16-18).
Train of thought:
- The mediator of the new covenant brings with him a glory the world has never yet seen.
- Yet this glory is anything but permanent. Something even better must still be on its way.
Main point: Yahweh’s new and repaired covenant is far more glorious than was the first covenant, before there was any need of repair—but only if it’s here to stay.
Connection to Christ: Jesus Christ brought the final new covenant, which is forever here to stay (Heb 7:15-17, 8:13). Knowing Jesus is eternal life (John 17:3). Participation in Jesus is participation in the unfading glory of God (2 Cor 3-4, John 1:14-18).
My Application of Exodus 34:29-35
Like Paul, I need not lose heart when I face a season of harsh criticism. Of course I’m a sinner. Of course I make loads of mistakes. But my sufficiency doesn’t come from any perceived perfection on my part; it comes from Christ. And Christ is at work, replicating his glory in the people he’s transforming by his Spirit. The proof, as they say, is in the puddin’. Trails of people, being united to God through Christ, and growing perpetually in the glory of increasing Christlikeness—these folks are my letter of recommendation from Christ.
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