A Lectionary Reflection on Exodus 34:29-35, Transfiguration Sunday

Moses receiving the tablets by Marc Chagall

Prior to this pericope, we are told that Moses had been on Mount Sinai with the LORD for forty days and nights without eating or drinking. That is a long time to go without food or drink! How many people could survive such an endurance test? Perhaps inferred here is that the divine presence provided Moses with the gift of life and sustenance during this time so that it was not necessary for him to eat or drink. Another possibility is that Moses the man of faith, totally trusted in the LORD even when there was no food or drink in sight—reminiscent of the wilderness wanderings and God’s miraculous provisions for the Israelites.

For Christian readers, mention of the forty days and nights is a reminder of what is coming next in the lectionary for the first Sunday in Lent, when we read the story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13).

Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets containing the ten commandments (or ten words) suggests the role of Moses as Israel’s mediator and law/Torah-giver. In this Sunday’s gospel Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus—Moses perhaps symbolizing the law and Elijah the prophets. In any case, Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets is a sign that he has mediated with God a renewed covenant, after the episode of the golden calf, when Moses, out of rage at the Israelites’ idolatry, destroyed the first two tablets.

It is interesting that when Moses came down from the mountain he “did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Have you ever seen someone’s face shine when they have been in close communion with God, and/or when they have said or done something kind, loving, and inspirational? The appearance of one’s face often reveals information about one’s personality, nature, emotions, faith, etc. This Sunday’s gospel of course also takes place on a mountain, a place of divine revelation, theophanies, visions—and the appearance of Jesus’ face changed (Luke 9:29).

Biblical scholars have rendered the Hebrew word qaran or karan as shone and shining in reference to Moses’ face. However, some may have translated it as qeren meaning horn. One possibility is that Moses’ face “was giving off rays (horns) of light.” In any case, this reference to horns has inspired the imaginations of many artists over the centuries. When we visited Germany, we saw Moses depicted with horns in a couple of churches. Famous artists like Marc Chagall have also included horns on Moses’ head when God gave him the tablets, as the picture herein depicts him.

As Moses comes down from Sinai, Aaron and the Israelites kept their distance because they were afraid of him. Moses however speaks to them and eventually they came near to him as he gave them the commandments.

Reference to Moses putting on a veil after he speaks to the Israelites and taking the veil off when he goes into the tent to speak with the LORD may suggest a sign or symbol that highlights Moses’ role as God’s mediator and prophet. When the veil is off, there is open communication with both the LORD and the Israelites. When the veil is on, perhaps Moses required time to be alone to rest and recover from the intensity of his encounters with both the LORD and his people. As readers will remember, when God calls Moses at the burning bush, Moses claims not to be a good public speaker. This may suggest that he was something of an introvert, like many clergy are, and public speaking can be rather stressful and exhausting as well as at times ecstatic and inspirational.