29 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. 30 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. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
34 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, 35 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 ESV
Moses had spent 40 days and nights on the mountaintop in his latest encounter with God. During that time, he had gone without food and water, yet somehow God had sustained him physically. His close proximity to God had supernaturally supplemented his body’s need for physical food. Moses could have easily explained his divine enablement the same way Jesus did to His disciples.
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” – John 4:34 ESV
But the time came for Moses to leave the mountaintop and return to the people. He carried in his hands the new tablets of stone containing the Decalogue, but he was unaware of a physical transformation that had taken place during his time with God.
…when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to approach him. – Exodus 43:29-30 NLT
Moses glowed. His more than month-long encounter with God Almighty had left him physically altered. No explanation is given as to the exact cause of Moses’ glowing countenance, but it came as a direct result of his interaction with God. Somehow, the glory of God “rubbed off” on Moses, causing his face to give off a luminous incandescence that was visible to all those around him. The Hebrew word translated as “shone” is קָרַן (qāran) and literally means “to send out rays” or “to grow horns.” Evidently, his face emanated shafts of light that were visible to Aaron and the rest of the Israelites, but Moses was completely oblivious to this dramatic alteration to his countenance.
In his gospel account, Matthew records a similar experience that Jesus had with His disciples.
…after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. – Matthew 17:1-3 ESV
During his time on the mountaintop, Jesus too glowed with the glory of God. And on that occasion, He was visited by Moses himself. These two servants of God had much in common, but while Moses served as the mediator of the old covenant, Jesus provided a new covenant that allowed both Jews and Gentiles to enjoy a restored relationship with God.
…dear brothers and sisters who belong to God and are partners with those called to heaven, think carefully about this Jesus whom we declare to be God’s messenger and High Priest. For he was faithful to God, who appointed him, just as Moses served faithfully when he was entrusted with God’s entire house.
But Jesus deserves far more glory than Moses, just as a person who builds a house deserves more praise than the house itself. For every house has a builder, but the one who built everything is God.
Moses was certainly faithful in God’s house as a servant. His work was an illustration of the truths God would reveal later. But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ. – Hebrews 3:1-6 NLT
But on that day when Moses descended the mountain, he held in his hands the law of God, and his face shone forth the glory of God. In a sense, the tablets reflected God’s expectations of His people, but Moses’ face reflected their need for God’s power. Their capacity to obey God’s laws would not be self-produced but God-endowed. Laws written on tablets of stone would prove to be ineffective if the hearts of the people remained hardened and their faces failed to reflect the glory of God.
Moses had spent 40 days and nights in God’s presence, going without food and water, and yet he literally radiated an aura of spiritual and physical vitality. But at the sight of Moses’ appearance, the Israelites cowered in fear. It was not what they had expected. Their fearless leader didn’t look the same and his altered appearance left them confused and conflicted. The light that showed from Moses’ face didn’t attract them; it repelled them.
This scene foreshadows another time when the Son of God made His entrance into the world. The apostle John describes the coming of Jesus this way:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV
And Jesus would later expand on this theme of light in the darkness.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:19-21 ESV
Moses was bringing the law of God and the light of God, but his own people rejected him. They turned their backs in fear and, in doing so, they demonstrated their love affair with darkness.
But Moses convinced them to return and “he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai” (Exodus 34:32 ESV). His face aglow with the glory of God, Moses imparted to them the commands of God – again. This was not new information, but it was being communicated to them in a new and unforgettable way. Moses was radiating God’s presence and this would have given his words far greater impact than ever before. This wasn’t simply a mortal man imparting legal requirements and moral mandates; it was a divinely ordained messenger from God communicating and reflecting the holiness of God. It was the apostle Paul who wrote “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT).
This time, God was communicating His holy laws through a holy vessel to an unholy people. The glory of God reflected in the face of Moses was meant to emphasize the gravity of the message and the authority of the messenger. Moses had given them the law once before and while they had vowed to obey all that God had said, they ended up violating His commands and replacing Him with a god of their own making.
The law had not changed. What Moses communicated to the people was the same as it had always been, but the deliverer was dramatically altered so that the recipients might take his words more seriously. And evidently, God continued to bestow His messenger with a supernatural outpouring of His glory for some time to come.
When Moses finished speaking with them, he would put a veil on his face. But when Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil until he came out. Then he would come out and tell the Israelites what he had been commanded. – Exodus 34:33-34 NLT
This pattern would be repeated, all so that the people of Israel might take God’s messenger and message more seriously. But the apostle Paul reminds us that this divine strategy would run its course. The time would come when the glory on Moses’ face would fade, and the people’s reverence for the messenger and the message would dissipate. Sadly, Moses would continue to wear the veil long after God’s glory had faded from his face. And the people would eventually lose their fear of the light, reverting back to their love affair with sin and darkness. The apostle Paul provides commentary and much-needed insight into this fascinating passage,
The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life? If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! In fact, that first glory was not glorious at all compared with the overwhelming glory of the new way. So if the old way, which has been replaced, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new, which remains forever! – 2 Corinthians 3:7-11 NLT
Moses wore the veil to conceal the glory of God. But Paul reveals that, eventually, that glory faded. He also states that the people’s minds were veiled by sin so they couldn’t comprehend the glory of God contained in His law.
We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away. But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:13-15 NLT
God had a better way in mind. But for the time being, the law was meant to serve as a foreshadowing of that better way. God revealed His glory through the giving of His perfect, just, and righteous commands. But the people would be required to obey them – completely and fully. And He had given His messenger an aura of His glory to validate the holiness of His message. But time would prove that the people of Israel “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.