Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35
Readers of the biblical text know good interpretation begins with the question, “What does the text say?”
This question is front and center because preconceived notions can interfere with one’s understanding of biblical passages.
Preconceived notions about wedding veils1 are likely the reason why this passage regarding Moses’s shiny face is often misunderstood. Since wedding veils hide a bride’s face, it is often thought that Moses’s veil hid his face from the congregation after his encounters with God. Hiding was thought to be indicative of the holiness of God. To the surprise of many, however, Exodus 34:35 actually reads, “the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”
William Baker explains: “It is in fact when he [Moses] is doing his priestly duty of meeting with God and reading out the law to the people that he does not wear the covering.”2 The implication is that when Moses is engaged in everyday life, he wears the veil and when he is involved in priestly duties, he does not wear the covering. Whether veiled or unveiled, both signify that Moses has a unique relationship with God and in the Israelite community.
This story about Moses’s luminous face appears at the end of a narrative that covers Exodus 19-34. In Exodus 19, after their long arduous forty-year journey from enslavement in Egypt, Israel finally steps foot on the outskirts of the Promised Land, entering by way of Mt. Sinai. Here at Sinai, God makes a covenant with Israel and gives instructions for life in the new community. These instructions, including the Ten Commandments, teach the Israelites how to respect each other, each other’s property, and the land as well as how the tabernacle is to be set up (Exodus 20-31).
In Exodus 32, while Moses is on the mountaintop communing with God, in the valley the covenant is threatened by the Golden Calf incident. Not yet accustomed to worshipping a God they cannot see, weary of the forty day wait and uncertain that Moses will ever return, the people request an image to worship. Aaron, in charge during Moses’s absence, acquiesces. God informs Moses of the apostasy and tells him to go down to the valley immediately, threatening to destroy Israel and begin again with Moses. Moses intercedes, and God relents. Appalled by what he sees when he returns, Moses destroys the tablets. The Levites’ heeding of Moses’s call to put 3,000 neighbors and family members to death brings an uneasy peace to this chaotic situation.
In Exodus 33 God commands Moses and the Israelites to continue the journey to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God will not go with them. The people are grieved that God will no longer be with them. They realize that the Golden Calf incident portends that something has changed in the relationship between God and Israel. Israel has crossed the line — and they know it. As with their longing for Egypt, they may want to go back to things as they were, but this time, they don’t even raise their voices in complaint. In an act of silent repentance, even before God commands it, they take off their jewelry.
Disheartened, Moses again intercedes, this time asking for a glimpse of God’s glory. Since Moses could not see the face of God and live, God promises to let Moses see, not God’s glory (face), but God’s goodness (back). In Exodus 33, God declares Godself to be a God who is merciful and gracious. In Exodus 34, in conjunction with the promise to replace the tablets that Moses had destroyed, God further explains that not only is “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness for the thousandth generation … [God is also a God of justice] to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7). The tablets are replaced, the covenant is renewed, and three national feasts are established to solidify Israel’s relationship with God and with each other.
When Moses’s face shines at the end of this story (Exodus 34:29-35), it is an affirmation of the renewal of the covenant. The shiny face is an indicator of Moses’s relationship to God, of his openness and vulnerability before God and before the community. It is a sign that Moses trusts God and that Israel, in turn, can trust God and Moses as their leader. Rav Alex Israel observes, “the people need only to look at Moses and realize that he had experienced the ultimate communion with God in receiving the second covenant.”3
Whether veiled or unveiled, Moses’s face is a reminder of the uniqueness of his relationship with God and with Israel. It is a sign of God’s care and continual presence, that God’s grace prevailed, even in the midst of Israel’s sin. In other words, Moses’s shiny face represents a “Reversal of Outcome in the Golden Calf Episode.”4 It represents hope in the midst of a national disaster.
In a day and time of all kinds of national upheaval and disasters, one may wonder, is there any hope? No matter how dismal, no matter how unpromising the times, this story from ancient Israel is a reminder to all, even when there is much work to do, in the words of the spiritual, “Hold on just a little while longer, everything is gonna be alright.”
- Peter Krol, “Context Matters: Moses Shining Face” http://www.knowableword.com/2018/06/08/context-matters-moses-shining-face (accessed November 17, 2018).
- William Baker “Did the Glory of Moses’ Face Fade? A Reexamination of katarge/w in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 10.1 (2000): 6. https://www.ibr-bbr.org/ files/bbr/ BBR_2000_a_01_ Baker_ MosesGlory2Cor3.pdf (accessed November 17, 2018).
- Rav Alex Israel, “The Face of Moses,” https://www.etzion.org.il/en/face-moses (accessed November 17, 2018).
- Craig Evan Anderson, “The Tablets of Testimony and a Reversal of Outcome in the Golden Calf Episode,” Hebrew Studies, 50 (2009), 41-65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27913924?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=Tablets&searchText=of&searchText=Testimony&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3Ffilter%3D%26amp%3BQuery%3DTablets%2Bof%2BTestimony&refreqid=search%3A977f521284686ee2479c3054832e476b&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (accessed November 17, 2018).