A reflection on Exodus 34:29-35 and Psalm 99 for Transfiguration Sunday, February 27, 2022.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 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.
Exodus 34:29-35 (NRSVA)
The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name.
Holy is he!
Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Extol the Lord our God;
worship at his footstool.
Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the Lord, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud;
they kept his decrees,
and the statutes that he gave them.
O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Extol the Lord our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the Lord our God is holy.
Psalm 99 (NRSVA)
The psalmist describes Moses as a ‘priest’. One who mediates between God and people. An in-between person.
Moses on the Mountain of Sinai has no idea what this encounter has done to his appearance. As the author tells us, ‘Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone…’
A dramatic, unknown change has occurred.
Sadly, one of the results of this phenomenon is fear. Strangely, this is not a fear imbedded in the one who sat for days in front of the creator of the universe. The one closest to the God of Armies seems to be the only one in this account who is not described as ‘afraid’. Indeed, the words of Moses himself that enables them to gain perspective. He calls them ‘near’, presenting and explaining the ‘tablets’.
It is such a strange story – and not just because of the mysterious light emanating from this priest’s face. More telling, I would suggest, is the movement contained here. Moses descends the mountain – a respected leader returning from a deeply significant mission – moving toward the very people these instructions are designed to benefit. At the same time those who witness this evidence of encounter refuse to ‘come near’. One imagines Moses moving toward – and the people moving away.
It takes Moses’ call to bring this gathering into his orbit again where he can instruct them.
What strikes me is the apparent attraction and resistance to this ‘shining’ glow. The fact that it is both highlighted and hidden, spoken of and veiled. Everyone knows of this evidence and yet, it seems Moses finds reason to hide.
Perhaps, at least in front of the people, Moses is shy of these odd changes.
And yet, in the presence of the most powerful character in this narrative, Moses ‘…would take the veil off…’. The one who sat face-to-face with God is the one – the only one – who is most comfortable in the presence of God.
Moses knows God best and seems to only be truly at home as he returns to sit before the almighty. Again, our story displays movement – toward God.
It leaves me wondering if we have here an account of grace.
What changes are brought about when you spend time with God? How do these echo Moses’ experience?
Have you ever met someone who ‘shines’? What do you put this down to?