The Face of Moses
The Face of Moses
by William Klock
This morning we’ll be looking at Exodus 34. This is the third chapter covering the golden calf incident. In Chapter 32 we read about the Israelites, who fearing Moses was dead, made a golden calf—basically a throne for the Lord—in an attempt to bring him down the mountain and into their midst. The Lord announced he was going to destroy the people. This was their covenantal honeymoon and they were already breaking their end of the covenant. But Moses stepped in—taking up his role as mediator—and pleaded on behalf of the people. Remember, Moses appealed to the Lord on the basis of his covenant—his promises—to Abraham. The Lord relented. He would not destroy the people, but the covenant with Israel was off. The people had broken it. He would fulfil his promise to give them the promised land, but he would not go with them. He would send an angel to guide them. Instead, he would start over with Moses alone and would fulfil his promises to Abraham through him.
Moses went down the mountain to deal with the people. The Levites struck down three thousand—presumably the ringleaders who instigated the idolatry. And Moses pitched a tent, away from the camp, and there he met with the Lord and continued to plead Israel’s case. More than anything, Moses wanted to understand the ways of the Lord, and so as we ended our look at Exodus 33 last week, we read that the Lord told Moses that he would give him a glimpse of his glory. To glimpse the Lord’s glory, the God who will show mercy to whom he will show mercy and will be gracious to whom he will be gracious—somehow to see his glory is to understand—or at least to begin to understand—his ways. This is an answer to Moses’ request, but what does it mean for Israel. This is where we pick up in Chapter 34.
The Lord said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”
Does all this sound familiar? It should, because all of this—apart from the instructions for Moses to cut two stone tablets—all this repeats what the Lord had said to Moses back in Chapters 19 and 20 before he called him up the mountain the first time. Moses is to climb the mountain in the morning. The people are stay back—even the livestock—while Moses ascends and the clouds descend. There’s a reason the Lord repeats everything from the first time Moses went up: he’s chosen to renew the covenant with Israel. And so the Lord, as he did in the beginning, declares his name. Moses had asked to know the ways of the Lord and here the Lord answers that request. He passes in front of Moses, he declares his name and his character. The Lord is full of mercy and compassion, he is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. He will punish the guilty, but he will forgive the sins of those who are repentant, as Israel has shown herself to be. The Lord reveals his glory. The Lord is prepared to start afresh with his repentant people. I think it’s worth noting that Jewish tradition refers to these verses at the “Thirteen Attributes of God” and they’re recalled in the synagogue liturgy on holy days when the Torah scrolls are brought before the people to read. The rabbis saw here the birth of the people of God and understood God’s own character to be foundational to the covenant. Recalling his attributes not only reminded the people of who the Lord is, but also sets the pattern for the way they pray and petition him.
Moses, it seems though, has his doubts. The Lord declares his mercy and forgiveness, but Moses responds by pleading again on behalf of the people. I say it seems he has his doubts, because Moses addresses the Lord not as the Lord—not using the name Yahweh, that the Lord just used of himself—but by addressing him as ’adonay, using the common Hebrew word for “Lord”. Moses uses this word ’adonay four times in this way in Exodus and each time it’s when Moses is expressing his doubts to the Lord. But the Lord doesn’t reprimand Moses. He is patient and full of grace and mercy. No, the Lord goes on to explicitly renew the covenant with Israel. We read the covenantal preamble in verse 10. Notice how the Lord is promising to do again what he did when he led the people out of Egypt.
And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.
The Lord will start over with Israel. Again, this people will be birthed through marvels so that the surrounding nations will see that Israel is the work of the Lord—his people, brought forth by him, given the land by him, and in whose midst he dwells. Think back to his promises—the covenant—with Abraham. The story that immediately precedes Abraham’s introduction in Genesis is the story of the tower of Babel. The key point to that story is to highlight that humanity had lost all knowledge of our Creator. And then the Lord calls Abraham out of the pagan morass, makes himself known, and announces that through Abraham and his family he will make himself known to the world. Through Abraham’s family, the Lord will begin his project to set the world to rights. Israel is that family and Lord again promises that he will be present with this people and work amongst and through them in ways that the nations will have no choice but to take notice.
But, remember, there are two ends to every covenant. The promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people” commits the Lord to Israel and Israel to the Lord. And so the Lord reiterates again the terms of the covenant in the verses that follow. These are Israel’s obligations and he starts in verse 11 with the words, “Observe what I command you this day.” And the Lord promises, “I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” In other words, the Lord will set apart this land of Canaan for the holy use of a holy people and he will do that by driving out its current inhabitants. For Israel’s part, she must ensure the purity of the land. He goes on, and I’ll summarise, that they are not to make any covenants with these people—because a covenant was serious business and would put Israel in conflict with her covenant to the Lord. As he says in verse 12, “lest it become a snare in your midst”.
The Lord puts emphasis on the need for Israel to remove the pagan altars and idols from the land. He will remove the people, but they must remove every last remnant of the worship of their pagan gods. After the incident with the golden calf, Israel needed to hear this. The Lord warns that if paganism is not purged from the land, the Israelites will be tempted, as he puts it using the covenantal imagery of marriage, to “whore after other gods”. He also stresses here that they are not to intermarry with the people of the land for the same reason. If you marry your son to one of their daughters, she will cause him to whore after those pagan gods. And, sad to say, this is precisely what will happen. But in verse 17, the Lord sort of sums all this up and stresses: “You shall not make for yourself gods of cast metal.”
In verses 18 through 20 the Lord commands them again to keep the Passover—the Feast of Unleavened bread. This was the sacramental meal of the Old Testament in which the Lord’s people, in each generation, recalled and participated themselves in the redeeming events of the Exodus, those events through which he’d made Israel his people. And as the Lord reminds them of their redemption from slavery, he also reminds them of what became known as the law of the firstborn. Every firstborn son—whether of human beings or of the livestock—belonged to the Lord and was to redeemed. It was a reminder of that night when the Lord’s angel passed through the land of Egypt, taking the lives of all the firstborn, but sparing the sons of the Israelites who had painted the blood of a sacrificial lamb on their doorposts. Israel belonged to the Lord. I will be your God and you will be my people.
In verses 21 through 24 the Lord commands again that they observe the Sabbath and three great seasonal feasts. Why? Because, he says, “I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders”. The Lord stresses all of this again, because the Israelites, when they made the golden calf, had declared a new “feast of the Lord” that the Lord had never commanded. Again, it can’t be stressed enough, that the Lord’s people can only come to him on his terms—never on their (or our) own.
To us it may seem repetitive and tedious to read all of this again, but it’s all here to emphasise that what the Lord is doing is renewing the covenant. Israel has sinned—and there’s a bit of the Lord rubbing Israel’s nose in the specifics of that sin here—but he is longsuffering, gracious, and merciful. In light of Moses’ intercession on behalf of a repentant people, the Lord will take them back. He will be their god after all.
I think we also get a sense of the nature of the Lord’s forgiveness in the way the surrounding narrative is structured. The last half of Chapter 31 is the Lord’s command for Israel to keep the Sabbath. He then gives Moses the tablets with the law written on them. Chapter 35 picks right up from there with Moses himself instructing the people how to keep the Sabbath. If Chapters 32-34 were missing, we’d have no hint that nothing had gone wrong. The Psalmist’s commentary in Psalm 103 on the Lord’s revelation to Moses of his mercy and grace, which I noted last week, continues:
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities…
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:10, 12)
And so the Lord commands Moses to record all of this, to write it down that the people not forget either the covenantal commitment they have made to the Lord or the gracious and merciful commitment he has made to them despite their sin. Verses 27-28:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
Moses stays on the mountain for forty days and nights. He doesn’t eat or drink. The narrator highlights the way in which, on the mountain and in the presence of the Lord, Moses has been taken into an experience beyond the ordinary. It foreshadows and explains what comes next. And the Lord inscribes the law, once again, on stone for the sake of his people.
Now look at verse 29 and following:
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exodus 34:29-35)
Moses returns to the camp and is surprised to find the people afraid to come near. It would be interesting to know how that scene went in detail. I assume Moses must have asked what was wrong and a cowering Aaron, perhaps, explained that they couldn’t bear to look at his shining face. Whatever the case, Moses carries with him not only the Lord’s law, but his glory, shining as a sort of afterglow of having been in his presence. This, too, is a reminder to the Israelites of the danger there is in being in the presence of the Lord. In making the calf, they tried to summon the Lord into their midst and they can’t even bear to look at the divine afterglow of Moses’ face. It was a mercy that the Lord did not come to them as they wanted. We also see that all those rules and regulations they’ve been given to follow not only to come before him at the tabernacle, but even to be the people in whose midst he lives, all of that is a mercy, too—given not to burden, but to protect them.
If we look at a passage like Habakkuk 3:4, the sense of this word indicating that Moses’ face shone is “rays of light”. It’s also used there in parallel with a word meaning “brilliant light”. So there’s this radiance shining from Moses face. It marks out Moses as both the Lord’s prophet and as the Lord’s mediator for the people. Think back to how this incident began with the people despising Moses, because they assumed he had somehow failed in his role as mediator. This time he comes down the mountain marked out by the Lord. Instead of being mocked, the people fear him.
There’s also a play on words going on. The word for this radiance shining from Moses face is related to and sounds like the Hebrew word for horn. The Latin Vulgate Bible, in fact, translated the word as “horns”, which is why you sometimes see Moses portrayed in medieval art with horns projecting from his forehead. But this wordplay ties in with the gold calf. The people had tried to make a mediator for themselves, but in imparting this radiance to Moses, the Lord has marked him out as the real and legitimate mediator. And, even though the Lord’s cloud of glory will descend into the tabernacle after it’s built and will dwell in the midst of the people, Moses right here becomes a sign of the return of the Lord’s presence to Israel. God is with them through the presence and prophetic and mediatorial office of Moses. In a sense, Moses has become the embodiment of the tabernacle, even as he veils his face to protect the people from the radiance of the Lord’s glory.
Now, let’s talk about that. In the first week of our look at this part of Exodus we looked at the covenantal nature of Israel’s relationship with the Lord. Then last week we asked that important question, “Does God change his mind?” And I said that this week we’d look at Moses’ role as a mediator—something we’ve seen through all three of these chapter.
But first, we need to understand the problem in these chapters. It’s easy for us to see the problem as the Lord. What a lot of people latch onto here is the Lord’s anger and his announcement that he will destroy the people. We read the story selectively and start thinking of God as if he’s arbitrary or petty or loses his temper. We forget or ignore the context. Brothers and Sisters, Exodus is a story of recreation. The calling of Moses and Israel are told so that they mirror the creation story itself. Israel is even brought into being as a people through the parting of the sea. Everything highlights their uniqueness, their specialness as a people. If the first thirty-one chapters of Exodus connect Israel’s deliverance with creation, their sin here represents the “fall” of God’s people—it mirrors the sin of Adam and Even in the garden.
I think this helps us understand the Lord’s angry response. Yes, he is holy and they have sinned, but more specifically, the Lord has poured himself into these people. He has manifested his power to Pharaoh and to them. He’s literally brought heaven to earth in the giving of the tabernacle and the law. And in response they have rejected him. So what we have to explain isn’t the Lord’s anger; it’s why the Lord turns from his anger at Moses’ intercession for the people.
We were told in 32:30 that Moses approached the Lord to make atonement for the people. This was to be the purpose of the tabernacle—the place where sacrifices were made for atonement—but even before it’s been built, Moses steps in as both high priest and as tabernacle to make atonement for the sins of the people. Do you remember how he did that? He pleaded with the Lord: “Blot me out of your book”. Kill me instead. Right here we see where the sacrificial system and the whole of the old covenant is leading as Moses offers to take the Lord’s anger himself that that the people be spared. One death can bring life to the many.
Just as the Lord is preparing to establish a system of sacrifices for sin involving animals, in this selfless act of Moses, we get the first hint of what’s truly needed for atonement for sin—not the sacrifice of animals, but of a person. As one commentator puts it very well, “At the very inception of the sacrificial system, it is a glimpse into the heart of the heavenly reality to which the earthly sacrificial system points.” In the New Testament we see Jesus fulfil that system, but here the people of God are prepared for that, more than a thousand years before it happened. Moses shows us that the specific manner in which the old covenant sacrifices would be fulfilled will be through a personal sacrifice.
And yet the Lord rejects Moses offer. Why? Well, he says to Moses that only the guilty can be punished. Moses isn’t the one who sinned. Guilt can’t simply be transferred from one person to another. And we read that and think, “But…but…that’s just what Jesus did. He took on himself the guilt of his people.” But, you see, this underlines the difference between Moses and Jesus—a difference that the animals sacrifices also pointed to. Moses was not a suitable sacrifice. To be a substitute for sins, one has to be—like the animals offered on the altar in the tabernacle—without blemish. Moses was the mediator between the Lord and his people, but he was not perfect. He could not bear the guilt of another. You see, Jesus was worthy to bear his people’s sin, precisely because he was himself sinless—and we find this truth all the way back here in Exodus.
Brothers and Sisters, it’s increasingly common for Christians to write off the Old Testament as irrelevant. We talk as if it was God’s “Plan A” and he gave it up and went with Jesus instead. That’s simply not true and we see it right here. The Lord rejected Moses as a substitute for the sins of the people. He couldn’t meet the criteria. This is the mystery of the cross. Jesus was guilty. The sins of his people were removed and taken up by him. How? Because he was worthy to bear those sins and to offer himself as a sacrifice, because he was himself without guilt. Friends, there is no grasping this, no understanding this, no making sense of this without the Old Testament. The story of the Lord and Israel is not only what leads us to the cross, but is also what makes sense of the cross. It is also in light of Moses’ bearing a fading glory of God that, I think, we gain a true appreciation for Jesus when we read, for example, in Hebrew 1:3 that Jesus himself “is the radiance of the glory of God”. Jesus embodies perfectly that which faded from the face of Moses. “In him,” as St. John writes, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Why? That he might “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Let’s pray: Father, in our collect today we acknowledge your bountiful goodness, which we’ve seen again as we read about your renewal of the covenant with Israel, but which you also revealed to Moses—your goodness passed by as he hid in a cleft of the rock—leaving his face radiant with your glory. Considering that Jesus is the fullness of your radiant glory and that we are united with him, cause us to radiate your glory into this dark world as we bear the fruit of your Spirit, as we proclaim the good news about Jesus, as we lift the veil lift the veil on your new creation. Through him we pray. Amen.
 Rosh Hashanah 17b
 Peter Enns, The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), page 590.