Exodus 34:29-35: Resurrecting Moses
Exodus 34:29-35 deals with vindication, validation, and restoration of Moses. Our focus these past several studies has been on Yahweh and Yahweh's response to Israel's sin. We have seen that Yahweh cannot be reduced, that Yahweh's Presence is incompatible with sin, and that at the core of Yahweh's heart is a goodness that prevails over sin. Yahweh is the compassionate and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast hesed love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast hesed love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin, yet not leaving the guilty unpunished.
We have seen afresh that Yahweh is bent on creating a covenant people: "Moses, chisel out two more stone tablets like the first, and meet me on the mountain in the morning." But having seen Yahweh's answer to Israel's sin, there is still one question left hanging: what about Moses? In 34:29-35 this question gets answered, and thus our focus is on Moses, although ultimately it reverts back to Yahweh.
The Moses question is this: would Moses' leadership of Israel be resurrected? You will recall that the event that set chapters 32-34 in motion was the construction of the golden calf. And why was the calf made? Not because Israel intended to reject or disconnect from this liberating, sustaining, promising power named Yahweh. No, the calf was made as a replacement for Moses. Israel rejected Moses as their Yahweh leader, as their Yahweh connector. They wanted a better, more controllable, more "on time" connection.
Remember their complaint when Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain? "Make us gods (connections to Yahweh). As for this fellow Moses, we don't know what has happened to him." This rejection of Moses led to an attempt to reduce Yahweh, thus breaking the covenant. Yahweh has restored the covenant; it is no longer in question. But what about the rejected Moses? Yes, he has found grace in the eyes of Yahweh, but what about in the eyes of Israel? Will Moses be able to continue on, in an effective manner, as the leader of Israel? Will Yahweh resurrect the leadership of Moses?
Before getting to the answer of that question in 34:29-35, let's look at "this fellow Moses" a little more closely. When Yahweh told Moses what Israel was doing, and that He intended to destroy Israel and make a new people out of Moses, what was Moses' response? If you were Moses, what would your response have been? If Yahweh would have included my family and friends in the deal, I probably would have said yes. But not Moses. Moses attempts to calm the face of Yahweh. He succeeds in buying a little time for Israel. He intercedes for the people who rejected him, passing up an opportunity to become the father of a great nation.
Moses made his way down the mountain and saw firsthand Israel's sin. He became as angry as Yahweh. When he called Aaron to account, Aaron basically told Moses that it was his own fault. "The people said, 'Make us gods. As for this fellow Moses we don't know what has happened to him.'" We hear between the lines: "Moses, if you had been here, if you hadn't been so long on the mountain, this would never have happened. It's your own fault for staying away so long, so get off my back." If you had been Moses, what would you have done? I probably would have gone back up the mountain and asked Yahweh if the offer was still good. But not Moses. Moses would go back up the mountain, but not to take Yahweh up on His offer. Instead, he attempted to cover/atone for Israel's sin. He even tried to leverage Yahweh into forgiveness by telling Yahweh to "blot me out" if He would not forgive Israel.
When Yahweh decided to send Israel to the promised land without actually going with them, Moses continued to probe the heart of Yahweh. Moses and Yahweh both knew that a messenger of God is no replacement for Yahweh's Presence. Yahweh decided to go with Moses. "My Presence will go with you (singular) and I will give you (singular) rest." That probably would have been good enough for me. But not Moses. Moses wanted the "you" singular to be "you" plural. He answered back to Yahweh, "If Your Presence does not go with us, don't send us up from here." Yahweh agreed, "I will do the very thing you have asked, because you have found grace in my eyes and I know you by name."
Moses is amazing. The people rejected him. Aaron (and I assume the others) blamed him. And yet he interceded for the people, even passing up a deal to be made great. He operated out of the best interests of the people (and Yahweh, from his limited perspective) even when the people had discarded him. Simply amazing. What enabled Moses to do this? To be so gracious and caring for a people that attempted to rid themselves of him?
I don't think the "early" Moses would have done this. Remember way back in chapter 2 when he intervened between two fellow Hebrews who were fighting? When they gave him no respect and he realized his slaying of the Egyptian was public news, he fled to the desert and apparently had no intention of going back. He was through with his fellow Hebrews. And in the wilderness journey from the Sea to Sinai, Moses reached his last nerve with the people. When they grumbled against Moses about no drinking water he cried out to Yahweh, "What am I to do with these people? They are ready to stone me."
But this Moses has changed and grown from someone with no intention of going back, to someone who cried out "what am I to do with these people," to someone who cried out for mercy on behalf of the people. The people had not really changed that much from the beginning. But Moses had become their intercessor, and amazingly, how they (mis)treated him does not lessen his passion to intercede for the people.
How can this change in Moses be explained? All I can surmise is that spending so much time in the Presence of Yahweh has changed him. Yahweh's passion for the people consumed him, became his own passion, so that he could not discard the people even when they discarded him. Yahweh's passion became his own passion so extensively that in his intercessory work, when Yahweh appeared ready to discard the people, he held Yahweh to Yahweh's own passion. In his daily, continuous encounter with Yahweh, Moses took on the character and heart of Yahweh. From being in the Presence Moses became a man of hesed love for the people.
Moving to our text (34:29-35) we find that when Moses came down from the mountain with the "new" tablets of the Testimony in his hands, his face was radiant from speaking with Yahweh. Moses did not realize it was radiant until he saw the reaction of Aaron and the people. They backed away from him in fear. Moses called to them and they returned to him. He proceeded to charge them with all of Yahweh's commands. When he finished speaking with them he veiled his radiant face. He kept the veil over his glowing face until he entered Yahweh's Presence. Moses would speak with Yahweh unveiled, return to the people and deliver Yahweh's word still unveiled, and then put the veil back over his shining face when he had finished speaking Yahweh's word. He would remain veiled until the next Yahweh meeting.
In our day of manufactured radiance it is worth noting that the radiance of Moses' face was authentic. It was not something that Moses contrived. Moses was not trying to "shine." We live in such a star culture that we feel we have to shine in order to appeal to anyone. This clamor for twinkling has infected the church, so that church leaders and pastors will do most anything to give off a little glow. But how radiant, really, is a contrived twinkling, a fabricated shine?
Again, Moses' radiance was not Moses' own doing. He did not construct it. He did not reinvent himself to appeal to the people. It was an authentic radiance that came from speaking with Yahweh. Our tendency is to seek the glow, and worse, to reduce Yahweh as a source for glow. Not Moses. Moses wasn't seeking Yahweh so that he could return all aglow. Moses wasn't even concerned with glow. Rather, Moses was seeking and speaking with Yahweh, period. The radiance was not the goal, but a byproduct of being in conversation with Yahweh. The radiance came from Yahweh.
Did you notice that Moses was unaware of his radiance? He was so consumed with Yahweh and Yahweh's purpose that he was unaware that he was shining. Often we operate by "shine-thermometers." In politics they are called polls. They don't have such a clear-cut label in church, falling under the fuzzy rubrics of worship, testimony, and spirituality. But we often fall victim to the mentality of having to constantly check our shine, so that we become consumed with shining. When our glow temperature becomes our focus, whether out of a desire to appeal/impress others, or out of our own desire for glow, we have missed it. Glow should never be the focus. Yahweh is the focus. Moses shows us the way. He was so consumed with Yahweh that he had no idea that he was glowing.
At this point I hope you are asking a question: Why hadn't Moses' face shined before? This is certainly not his first time in the Presence of Yahweh. It's not even his first time down from meeting with Yahweh on Sinai. You might say that it was because this time he had such a glorious experience with Yahweh - Yahweh proclaimed His Name while covering Moses in the cleft of a rock with the palm of His hand. But still, Moses had other glorious Name proclaiming experiences with Yahweh that did not result in a glowing face. The burning bush encounter wasn't exactly a small thing. So why a radiant face this time?
The radiance was a new gift and sign from Yahweh, affirming Moses as Yahweh's chosen leader of Israel. Remember back in chapter 4 when Moses asked for a sign to demonstrate to the leaders of Israel that Yahweh really had appeared to him and called him to liberate the people? You know the story, about how Moses threw down his rod and it became a snake and then he picked it up by the tail and it turned back into a rod. Just as Yahweh turned Moses' rod into a sign that Moses was indeed Yahweh's leader for the exodus, so now Yahweh has given Moses a radiant face as a sign that he continues to be Yahweh's leader for this covenant people. The radiant face is Yahweh's seal of approval of Moses, a sign that Yahweh's authority continues to be invested in Moses.
At first glance Aaron and company backed away from Moses in fear. But notice what happened when Moses called to them. And notice the language used to describe it. "Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him." The word for came back, often translated "return", can operate in the technical sense of "returning after having gone astray." In other words, I think the point is that Aaron and the leaders did not just come back to Moses from their withdrawal due to his shining face, but they returned to him from their rejection of him as leader. When they returned, "he spoke to them"; that is, he once again instructed them. Having regained the leaders, "all the Israelites came near him." Again, they didn't just come near from their fear of his radiance; they came near from their rebellion against his extended stay on Sinai. Having regained the people, Moses "charged them with all the words Yahweh had spoken to him on the mountain."
From this gift of a radiant face Israel recognized that "this fellow Moses" was still Yahweh's chosen instrument to lead them. Yahweh reestablished Moses as leader of Israel. Yahweh validated, vindicated, affirmed, commended - whatever word you want to use - Moses. I prefer to think of it as a resurrection of sorts. Yahweh sent Moses down the mountain not just with two freshly inscribed stone tablets, but with a radiant face, thus resurrecting Moses' leadership of Israel.
Israel learned a lesson here that we shouldn't pass over too quickly: Yahweh chooses Yahweh's leaders. It is not Israel's prerogative to select their "connectors" to Yahweh. Moses was called by Yahweh, not Israel. It was imperative for Israel to recognize Yahweh's call upon Moses. Failing to recognize Moses' call did not undo his call; it undid Israel, so to speak. God calls God's leaders of God's people. The people do not call the leaders. The church does not call the leaders, nor have a choice, really, of who God's called are. The church can only recognize, affirm, follow and be in position to be blessed – or ignore, challenge, reject and rebel, thus ending up under judgment. And God often calls those whom we would not call, even those whom we would discard. I'm sure you can think of some biblical examples as well as some personal ones.
There is also a lesson in the veil. Moses veiled his face except when speaking with Yahweh or speaking Yahweh's word to the people. Whenever Moses spoke his own words, his face was veiled, thus hiding Yahweh's radiant seal. Moses did not use the shining from Yahweh for his own ends. He did not take Yahweh's radiance in vain, using it to underwrite his own agenda and desires. It must have been very tempting for Moses to use this glow to get whatever he wanted. "Thus says Yahweh, Give me a free order of rolled tacos and a free burrito." "Yes sir, Moses. Whatever Yahweh wants." But Moses veiled his face whenever speaking his own words. Moses did not abuse his radiance, his Yahweh seal of authority. Would that all of us would operate with the same restraint, refusing to use our callings for vain purposes.
I've focused a lot on Moses with this passage. We would do well to imitate Moses in his faithful, hesed love leadership as we serve the people that Christ entrusts to us, interceding for them no matter how they might treat us. We would do well to imitate Moses in spending time seeking Yahweh/Christ, rather than in attempting to manufacture a shine. We would do well to imitate Moses in his humble, appropriate use of God's radiant call and seal of approval, as opposed to misappropriating it for our own ends. Yes, we would do very well to imitate Moses.
But as I mentioned earlier, the focus ultimately reverts back to Yahweh. The good news of this passage is that Yahweh validates, commends, vindicates, and resurrects Moses! Yahweh radiantly declares, "Moses is my chosen leader, whom I love. Listen to him." The episode reminds me of three points in Jesus' life: (1) Jesus' baptism where he hears the heavenly voice, "This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased." Especially (2), the mount of transfiguration, where Jesus himself becomes radiant and Moses and Elijah meet with Jesus to bear witness to him, and the heavenly voice says, "This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him." And (3), the resurrection of Jesus, in which God vindicated and validated Jesus as His Son.
In the fullness of time, God validates God’s called leaders. Moses certainly had a lot to go through, but in the fullness of time his "called-ness" was vindicated. He was resurrected. The words were spoken, "Keep doing well, my good and faithful servant." Jesus certainly had a lot to go through, surpassing Moses' rejection by far. But in the fullness of time, his "Son-ness" was vindicated. He was resurrected. The words were spoken, "This is my beloved Son. With him I am well pleased."
The good news for us is that in the fullness of time God will validate us in our various callings. In whatever arena you find yourself as God's called disciple-leader, take heart, for no matter what opposition you may be facing now, in the fullness of time you will be vindicated. You will be resurrected, somewhat as Moses was. No, the troubles won't all be over - they weren't for Moses and neither will they be for us - but the words will be spoken, "Keep doing well, my good and faithful servant."
My prayer for you is that some time this week you will receive fresh affirmation in your leadership calling, that someone will let you know that there is a certain glow about you, a glow that you weren't even aware of, a glow that is unmistakably Christ's seal of approval.