At the end of Exodus 33, Moses asked to see God’s glory. God’s reply was something like: “I can’t do that Moses. It would kill you. I’ll tell you what. There’s a rock nearby with a cleft in it. You stand in there, and I’ll cover you with my hand as I pass by. Then I’ll move my hand and you can see my back.” (paraphrase mine).
Chapter 34 opens like this:
The Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.”
God had chiseled the stone tablets the first time, but now, God told Moses to do it. I have to wonder if that was to give Moses time to think about his temper that sent the first tablets crashing down the mountain.
So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. “Lord,” he said, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.”
Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (Ex 34:4-11)
I’m not sure if Moses was in the cleft of the rock when this occurred; it really doesn’t say, but God passed in front of Moses and proclaimed Himself. In response, Moses hit his knees and worshiped God. Once again he asks God to go with them. God says He will make a covenant, or agreement, with Moses, to do incredible things for the people, and drive out the people already living in the promised land. The condition was that they had to obey God’s commands. In verses 12-26 God gives some of those commands, most of which are familiar to us, such as not worshiping other gods, not making any idols, keeping the sabbath, etc.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments. (Ex 34: 27-28)
For 40 days and 40 nights, Moses was in such deep communion with God that he went without food or water. This isn’t the only record in the Bible of someone going without food for 40 days.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (Matt 4:1-2)
Today, the general consensus is that a human being can go 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Yet, both Moses and Jesus went way past those limits. Obviously, God sustained them during that time.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.
When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord. (Ex 34 29-35)
After all that he experienced on the mountain, Moses was literally glowing. The radiant Moses frightened Aaron and the others, and they didn’t want to come near him. Moses reassured them, and then gave them the Lord’s commands. Then he covered his face with a veil. From the way this reads, I would assume that from then on, Moses kept his face covered unless he was speaking with the Lord.
I have two thoughts about this: one is that Moses covered his face because the glowing unnerved the people and they didn’t want to see it. The other is that Moses feared they might start worshiping him instead of God. Actually, there is no evidence of the second one; unless it is simply the way that people tend to behave. I think that is also why God buried Moses Himself. If the people knew where he was buried, they may have created a shrine of the tomb and, in time, began to worship Moses instead of God.
As for the first thought; Paul, in his second letter to the church at Corinth, says this:
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Cor 3:7-16)
The Israelites really didn’t want to see the glory. They really didn’t want to experience the presence of God. Yes, they were frightened that such an experience might kill them, but I wonder if they weren’t more afraid of the changes that kind of experience might produce in their own lives.
Moses was reflecting the glory of God, and he had to hide his face. How sad.
Paul continues with this:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18-19).
Christians are supposed to be reflecting the glory of God too, and we aren’t supposed to cover it. We are to let it shine as it changes us daily; transforming us until we look just like Jesus.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:14-16)
Let it shine!