Exodus 34:29-35

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Exodus 34:29-35,
Background to the Book of Exodus
Historical Situation: (History within the text)

The Book of Exodus tells how God took pity on the Israelites and the means where by he chose to liberate them from the Egyptians and their consequent journeys in the the wilderness. The story begins after the Israelites have been in Egypt for several generations and a new Pharaoh comes to the throne who is threatened by the number of foreigners (Israelites) in the land and takes hard measures to subdue them and stop them multiplying. We read of the call of Moses by God, the confrontations with the Pharaoh and his wise men, the subsequent release and flight of the Israelites. The pivotal event was revelation of God to Moses and God giving the Law to the people via Moses. (Put picture in here with link). The covenant set up here is conditional on the people keeping their promises (Exodus 19:5-8) - note the word "if" they do ... "then" you shall be my people.

After the initial laws in Exodus 20-23 we read the story of the wooden ark in which the tablets (which have the Law written on them) are to be housed and carried. Great detail is given about this Ark in Exodus 25-27 before going into further detail about the priests who will serve and the manner of the sacrifices. We read of the people's rebellion and Aaron's role in building a golden calf to worship. Moses returns once more from one of his mountain trips and castigates the people for their unfaithfulness. The Book of Exodus finishes with a further account of the building of the ark which sounds rather repetitious of the first one. Within the Book we are given the origins of such Festivals as Passover and Unleavened Bread.

Some people have tried to find evidence within the Egyptian chronicles that the Israelites were present in Egypt in this period but the lack of written material from that era limits any discoveries. What has been found in general terms is that foreigners did serve in Egyptian households, there were building programmes using 'apiru' and foreigners did attain high service in important households (Johnstone:17-27). Rather than trying to prove historical fact as in the old Western idea of 'facts', it is better to understand the Book of Exodus as 'historiography', that is, the remembered history of the Israelite people which is crucial to their identity as the people of God.

Literary Comments

The Book of Exodus is a mixture of very early oral material which has come from different traditions and been joined together in the one book. The events are pivotal to their faith and as we have four gospels telling us about Jesus Christ so the Jews have different memories of the same events. We have four different gospels, but in Exodus the traditions are all mixed in the same book which makes it difficult reading sometimes. For example, in Exodus 19 Moses goes up and down the mountain several times and one isn't sure if he is up or down.

Some people have tried to identify some of the traditions within the Book: a tradition that uses the name of Yahweh called 'J', another called 'E', the tradition written by the Priests called 'P' and the very easily identified "D' tradition mainly found in the Book of Deuteronomy. It makes sense that different communities as in the NT had different memories and emphases which had become important to them and so when the Scriptures are committed to writing there is a desire to incorporate the diverse memories of people and their experience of God within their lives.

PURPOSE of the Book of Exodus:

The purpose is to show how God chose Israel, gave them leaders and the Law in order to be his people. Conditions were attached to this relationship, and the worship practices were to help them stay in the covenant relationship with God. It demonstrates how soon the people were unfaithful to God. The Book of Exodus is especially important because of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai which is central to the faith of the Jewish people and the origin of Passover.
Context of Exodus 34:29-35
After the people had received detailed instruction about how to build the tabernacle and what the priests had to wear and do, Moses had received the two tablets of testimony from God (Exodus 25-31). When Moses came down from the mountain he saw the people's unfaithfulness in building an idol of gold (calf) and smashed the stone tablets (Exodus 32). God speaks with Moses and tells him to leave and go into the land which he will provide. Moses builds a 'Tent of Meeting' for those who wish to seek God (Exodus 33) and in the beginning of Exodus 34 Moses ascends the mountain once more to meet with God and the covenant is renewed. There is an interesting list of commandments in Exodus 34:11-25, a few of which are similar to the ten commandments. Moses is commanded to write down the words and remains with God on the mountain forty days and nights (Exodus 34:27-28).

After the description of the transfiguration of the face of Moses (Exodus 34:29-35), he calls the people together to remind them of the Sabbath command. He also passes on the command of the Lord which requires them to give donations in order that the instructions about building the tabernacle can now be carried out. Exodus 36-39 describe how the tabernacle is built with all the donations given by the people.

In summary there are a few chapters which divide the instruction for building the tabernacle and the actual building process. These intervening chapters give the story of the people's rebellion, Moses' reaction and the renewal of the covenant.

Insights/Message of Exodus 34:29-35
Insights from Literary Structure

There are some literary incongruities in Exodus 34. One of these arises from the fact that Moses in 34:1 says he will write the same words that were on the first tablets, but in vv.11-25 they are not the ten commandments. The words in Exodus 34:11-25 have an emphasis on the early festivals: the feast of unleavened bread, feast of weeks and Passover. So when Moses comes down from the mountain in Exodus 34:29 with the two tablets they have a different ten commandments. Some people want to see this account as a parallel one to the Decalogue in Exodus 20, but coming from a different tradition (Childs: 605). This tradition in Exodus 34 wants to emphasise the rituals mentioned and yet make connections to the Decalogue.

Verses 29-33 refer to the moment of Moses descent from the mountain and vv.34-35 describe the ongoing office as divine mediator (Childs: 617). This role is accentuated by the many references in these verses to 'speaking' and 'telling', which emphasise the words of God that are given to Moses to be communicated to the people.

The incident with the golden calf could easily have been inserted between Exodus 31:18 and 34:1. If this is the case, then it relates also to the rest of Exodus story in that the people are so grateful to be on a renewed footing with God they respond generously with their gifts for building the tabernacle. In other words the golden calf incident plays an important role in getting the tabernacle built.

This story stands between Exodus 24:15-18 (Moses enters the cloud and communes with the glory) and Exodus 40:34-38 in which the glory of the Lord comes to inhabit the tabernacle after it is built. It can be named as 'glory at the mountain', 'glory brought via Moses', glory in the tabernacle' (Brueggemman: 954).

Message / Theology

The transfiguration refers to the effect of presence of God on the face of Moses which now is radiant. This radiance causes a fear in Aaron and the people. I think one can see this sort of effect on people who have experienced the joy and peace of knowing God in their lives. Some people who are dying and who have come to terms with it also show on their faces a peace and calm which is absent from others. The verb 'karen' is related to the word for horn and has a meaning something like 'put out horn like rays' (Hyatt:327). Although the radiance from the face of Moses frightened the people he speaks the words God had given him before putting on a veil. This Hebrew word, 'masweh' is used only here in Exodus 34. Scholar's comment about this covering is that priests in other religions sometimes put on masks in order to represent the deity. However, the writer is very clear that Moses does not become divine, but rather reflects the glory of God (Childs:619). This does not appear to be the case with Moses who speaks to the people before donning the covering, which is contrary to the claim of Hyatt/Noth, who suggest that Moses wore the veil to protect the people from the radiance of his face (Hyatt: 327. Noth: 267). The question for me is: why did he wear the veil after speaking to the people even although he knows they are afraid? The people would see the face of Moses shining whenever he came out of the presence of God and then Moses would put on the veil. Furthermore, it is clear from the reading that Moses didn't need to wear the veil in the presence of God: he wore it after speaking God's words to the people and before he entered into the presence of God. Fretheim (311) suggests that 'it may entail a recognition that Moses was not always functioning is this capacity (no doubt to the relief of both Moses and the people!)'.

This story reinforces the importance of Moses as the human being called by God to act as mediator of the revelation at Sinai and to speak the ongoing messages from God. This message coming from Moses is alive and something which brings life and light to the people if they are willing to hear it. The symbolism is very rich in this passage.

The Lukan reading picks up the story of the transfiguration story of Jesus and as Moses was the mediator in the past, it is now Jesus who brings the revelation of God. Both Moses and Elijah are present and speak with him as his face becomes radiant from being in the presence of God.

Childs does a very good exposition of the New Testament context for 2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2

Resources/Worship for Exodus 34:29-35

Because the Old Testament reading is the basis for the other readings it is important that it be included with some background comments about Moses for those who have little knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.

I will put a link to art in which Moses is depicted but it may not be in time for people to use.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the Book of Exodus (Johnstone).

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

*Brueggemann, Walter. "The Book of Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections". In The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 1. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary. OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, [1974].
Coats, George W. The Moses Tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
Durham, John I. Exodus. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
*Fretheim, Terrence E. Exodus. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1991.
Gowan, Donald E. Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
*Johnstone, W. Exodus. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990.
Moberly, R. W. L. At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32-34. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1982.
Sarna, Nahum M. Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: