Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35
In the Protestant lectionary, Transfiguration Sunday stands at the juncture between Epiphany and Lent, and as such, offers a glimpse forward to the Easter Season and the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.
Since the days of the early Christians, Jesus’ transfiguration has been associated with Moses, who also stood before God, and the prophet Elijah. Why these two? One can guess, but a good possibility, as seen in a famous painting by Raphael, is as a representation of the traditions of the law and the prophets, with Jesus as the Gospel. These traditions are the bedrock of our faith and a good point of contemplation on the cusp of Lent.
The lesson for today focuses on Moses, and it is an opportunity to tell the story of the Exodus, for it is only in this context that this text can be understood. The story starts with God’s great acts in the Exodus: God’s show of strength; God’s actions on behalf of slaves; God’s use of creation as the medium of that salvation; and God’s protection. The story begins well enough.
Then the people get across the sea, and the new story of God dealing with God’s people begins. The people, who have always been slaves, are thrust out into the wilderness in a rather dramatic fashion. In their defense, they are led away from the only place they had ever known, into, well, the great and scary unknown. Anyone would be frightened. But wow, could they complain! Each time it was rough, they cried out to return to Egypt. God nevertheless continued to provide and guide them to Mount Sinai.
God then tells Moses it’s time for the people to prepare to finally meet God. The next day God speaks from the mountain and instead of excitement and thanksgiving for this face-to-face encounter, the people tell Moses they do not want to talk directly with God anymore because God scares them. The people are given an encounter with God and they complain. So Moses goes up the mountain to talk with God because the people are too afraid, and while he is gone, they decide Moses has disappeared or is dead or something, and they make a god of their own that they can stand before and look at!
The irony is apparent to all. God is so angry that God considers wiping out the people and starting all over with Moses. Moses intercedes and God relents, but remains angry, refusing to travel with the people. Moses again intercedes and God makes new tablets of the law, the crucial proclamation of 34:6-7, and a new covenant. God starts again, not with Moses alone, but with the same people who refused to stand before God, disobeyed, and destroyed the covenant by their actions. God repairs the broken relationship with the people by offering a new start.
The focus text for today comes at the end of this chapter and tells that Moses’ face was transformed after speaking with God. Again the people were afraid. Much of the commentary on this text centers on the understanding of the Hebrew word, qaran. Many, including Michelangelo, interpreted it to mean “horn,” hence the famous statute of Moses with horns. In the Hebrew, “horn” seems the most likely meaning, but other early translations use the word “shining.” Whichever word is selected, the content of the change to Moses’ countenance is not the point of the text. What is clear is that Moses’ face has been transformed in a way that, just like the face-to-face encounter with God, made the Israelites afraid to come near.
This change is usually interpreted in light of Moses’ interaction with God saying Moses’ face is transformed because he was face-to-face with God on the mountain. This is certainly possible; a face-to-face encounter with God would change a person, and this change certainly would set Moses apart from, not only the people, but the leadership of Aaron, Miriam, and the elders. Moses has become unique.
However, there is another possibility; for to make this argument, one must explain why this is the only time an encounter with God caused Moses’ transformation. Moses had stood before God previously with no change. Moses had even interceded with God before with no change.
It is possible then that when God made the new covenant and gave the new tablets, God also set before the people a tangible sign of God’s presence, right there on Moses’ face! The people had doubted God’s presence again and again during their time in the wilderness, and when God’s presence was offered they were too afraid to continue the connection. Just as the clothes God made for those disobedient garden dwellers and the sign God put on Cain and rainbow in the sky, God is making a new way for the people, a tangible sign of the God who demands no images be made.
God changed the plan to suit the frightened, disobedient people. God changed God’s own creation through Moses, as a visible sign of God’s presence. Showing in deed a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” to a doubting and unfaithful people.
In a way, the transfiguration does the same. The disciples see Jesus as a Rabbi, leader, and even friend, and this prevents them from seeing Jesus as God, as the great king and ruler of the universe. Just like the doubting people in Exodus, the disciples catch a glimpse of the great God, live and in person. Also, like the people in the wilderness, the disciples do not understand and try to change the plan, the people are afraid to see God again, and Peter wishes to stay in this place and not go forward into the next 40 days. Each does not fully comprehend what God is showing them. Each shows the frailty and fear of humanity, while God demonstrates God’s character of love and faithfulness and patience with humanity.