The context for this story of Moses’ shining face goes back to Exodus 19, where the Israelites reached Mount Sinai—and Yahweh set out the terms of the covenant—and the people promised to obey Yahweh (19:1-9a). Moses consecrated the people as Yahweh descended onto the mountain with great fanfare (19:9b-25).
Then Moses received the law from Yahweh (Exodus 20-31) and went down the mountain with the tablets (31:18), only to find the people worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32). Moses became so angry that he smashed the tablets that he had brought down the mountain (32:19). Yahweh threatened to consume the Israelites, but Moses interceded for them and God relented (32:11-14). Then “Yahweh struck the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made” (32:35).
Yahweh told Moses to lead the people to the Promised Land, but said that he would not go with them lest he destroy them (33:1-3). However, Moses interceded again, and Yahweh relented again (33:12-17). Moses asked to see Yahweh’s glory (33:18), but Yahweh replied that no one could see Yahweh’s face and live (33:20). Nevertheless, Yahweh sheltered Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered Moses with his hand as he passed by, taking away his hand so that Moses could see his back (33:21-23).
Yahweh then commanded Moses to make new tablets to replace the ones that he had smashed, and Moses did so. Then Yahweh renewed the covenant with Israel as Moses spent forty days and nights in Yahweh’s presence (34:1-28).
NEW TESTAMENT REFERENCES:
This story provides the background for Jesus transfiguration, which resulted in Jesus’ face shining and his clothing becoming dazzling white (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). It is no accident that the transfiguration took place on a high mountain, just as Moses’ encounter with God took place on Mount Sinai.
The Apostle Paul contrasted the glory of God as revealed in Moses’ face with the glory of God as revealed through Christ (2 Corinthians 3:7-18).
EXODUS 34:29-32. THE SKIN OF MOSES’ FACE SHONE
29It happened, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mountain, that Moses didn’t know that the skin of his face shone by reason of his speaking with him. 30When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come near him. 31Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke to them. 32Afterward all the children of Israel came near, and he gave them all of the commandments that Yahweh had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.
“It happened, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in Moses’ hand, when he came down from the mountain” (v. 29a). As noted above, this is the second set of tablets—Moses having smashed the first set after discovering the people of Israel worshiping the golden calf. These two tablets will later be placed in the Ark of the Covenant (1 Kings 8:9; Hebrews 9:4).
“Moses didn’t know that the skin of his face shone by reason of his speaking with (Yahweh)” (v. 29b). This is the first mention of Moses’ face shining. This verse also says that his face is shining “by reason of his speaking with (Yahweh).” The text implies that something of God’s glory has rubbed off on Moses, and that God’s glory is visible in Moses’ face.
But Moses is unaware that he has absorbed something of God’s glory. He doesn’t know that his face is shining. He doesn’t feel anything unusual, nor does he notice the radiance of his face. That radiance would be not especially noticeable to a man who has just spent forty days and nights in the presence of Yahweh’s glory (34:28). Moses’ innate humility (Numbers 12:3) is another reason why he would be unaware of his shining face.
Moses’ shining face serves several purposes:
• For one thing, it makes it clear to the people of Israel that Moses has been in the presence of Yahweh.
• Second, it serves notice to the people of Israel that Yahweh has chosen Moses to serve as Yahweh’s agent—the one who will communicate to the Israelites the word that Yahweh gives him. Yahweh has given Moses the commandments, and Moses is now ready to reveal to the people what he has received.
• Third, Moses’ shining face will serve as an antecedent for Jesus’ transfiguration (see the comments on the transfiguration above).
We should note that there is some question about meaning of the verb translated “shone.” That verb is unusual, and is derived from a Hebrew noun that means “had horns”—so the Vulgate translated it “had horns” rather than “shone.” This led to medieval art showing Moses with horns. However the Septuagint (the LXX—the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) uses the Greek word for “shone,” and Paul’s reference to this incident in speaks of “the glory of (Moses’) face” (2 Corinthians 3:7)—which is consistent with the translation “shone.” “Shone also makes better sense in this context than “had horns.” Most scholars today agree that “shone” is the better translation.
“When Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come near him” (v. 30). It is not difficult to understand why the people were afraid to come near Moses with his shining face:
• Yahweh had earlier instructed Moses to warn the people not to climb Mount Sinai or even to touch it, because anyone who even touched it would be put to death (19:12).
• Then the people saw thunder, lightning, and smoke on the mountain—evidence of Yahweh’s glory—and were afraid. They “trembled and stayed at a distance. They said to Moses, ‘ Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die” (20:18-19).
• Then, when they made the golden calf, Yahweh sent a plague on them as punishment.
So these people understand (1) that Yahweh’s glory conveys great power and (2) that they will very likely die if they get too close to God’s glory. They further appear to understand that Moses’ shining face is reflecting a portion of God’s glory. It is no wonder then that they are afraid to get near Moses and his shining face. They think that Yahweh might strike them dead if they do.
“Moses called to them” (v. 31a). The text doesn’t tell us what Moses says, but the fact that Aaron and the leaders respond by returning to Moses suggests that Moses assures them that they will be safe in his presence.
“and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned to him” (v. 31b). Aaron is Moses’ brother, whom Yahweh appointed as Moses’ spokesman when Moses claimed to be “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10-16). He was the one who instigated the making of the golden calf (Exodus 32), but seems to have been forgiven for that—he is still Moses’ second-in-command. While Moses was on the mountain receiving Yahweh’s commandments, Yahweh told him to call Aaron and Aaron’s sons to serve Yahweh as priests (28:1 ff.).
Initially, it is just Aaron and the other leaders who join Moses to hear what he has to say.
“and Moses spoke to them” (v. 31c). Again, the text doesn’t tell us what Moses said. In the next verse, we will learn that Moses gives the people the commandments that Yahweh gave him on the mountain. It seems likely, then, that Moses gives Aaron and the other leaders a preview of those commandments when he meets with the leaders privately.
“Afterward all the children of Israel came near” (v. 32a). Just imagine how these people must feel. They believe (with good reason) that they will die if they come too close to Yahweh’s glory—and now they find themselves gathered around Moses, whose face is radiating that glory. They can have no doubt that Yahweh has appointed Moses to be Yahweh’s spokesman, but they must be concerned coming too close to Yahweh’s glory.
“and he gave them all of the commandments that Yahweh had spoken with him on Mount Sinai”(v. 32b). It isn’t Moses’ job to manufacture inspiring things to tell the people. Yahweh has called Moses to receive Yahweh’s commandments and to convey those to the people—and that is precisely what he does.
The account of Moses receiving Yahweh’s commandments fills twelve chapters (Exodus 20-31), and is full of intricate detail. It is difficult to imagine the people standing and listening attentively through a comprehensive verbal report of that encounter. Most likely, Moses gives to the people those parts of the commandments that most concern them in their daily lives—but that is just a guess—we don’t really know.
EXODUS 34:33-35. MOSES PUT A VEIL ON HIS FACE
33When Moses was done speaking with them, he put a veil (Hebrew: masweh) on his face. 34But when Moses went in before Yahweh to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and he came out, and spoke to the children of Israel that which he was commanded. 35The children of Israel saw Moses’ face, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
“When Moses was done speaking with them, he put a veil (masweh) on his face” (v. 33). The Hebrew word that is translated “veil” is unusual, occurring only here in the Hebrew scriptures. However, the context makes it clear that this is some sort of covering over Moses’ shining face, and there is no scholarly controversy regarding this word.
Moses did not wear the veil when in the presence of Yahweh, nor did he wear it while speaking to the people. It is only after he is finished speaking to the people that he dons the veil. It is clear, then, that he does not wear the veil to protect the people’s eyes from the radiance of his face. Why then does Moses wear this veil? There are at least two possibilities:
• The Apostle Paul, whose interpretation reflected popular rabbinic interpretation, said that Moses veiled his face “that the children of Israel wouldn’t look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away” (2 Corinthians 3:13).
• Given that Moses does not wear the veil while receiving Yahweh’s words or delivering Yahweh’s words to the people, it seems that the absence of the veil (Moses’ shining face) signifies that Moses is acting in his official role as a mediator between Yahweh and Israel. If this is the intent, then the veil indicates that Moses is off-duty—not acting in his official capacity as Yahweh’s spokesman.
“But when Moses went in before Yahweh to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and he came out, and spoke to the children of Israel that which he was commanded” (v. 34). Moses removes the veil when going into the presence of Yahweh and leaves it off while speaking with the people. We aren’t told how often this pattern is repeated, but it is possible that it was repeated as long as Moses was alive.
“The children of Israel saw Moses’ face, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (v. 35). This verse makes it sound as if Moses frequently repeats the cycle of receiving Yahweh’s word and communicating that word to the people. His shining face serves as a reminder to the people that Yahweh has chosen him to serve as mediator between Yahweh and the people. It means “that whatever instructions he received from God from within the tent of meeting or tabernacle were just as authoritative for the people of Israel as instructions he received while on the mountain” (Stuart).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bruckner, James K. New International Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008)
Brueggemann, Walter, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Brevard S. Childs, The Old Testament Library: Exodus (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1974)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Craghan, John F., Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Book of Exodus (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985)
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Exodus (Dallas: Word, Inc., 1987)
Durham, John I., Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 3 (Dallas, Word Books, 1987)
Fretheim, Terence E., Interpretation Commentary: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Goldingay, John, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Westminster Bible Companion: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Janzen, Waldemar, Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Exodus (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
Stuart, Douglas K., The New American Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan