Wednesday of week 17 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Exod 34:29-35

Today’s reading comes at the end of an account of the covenant being renewed. The first covenant had fallen through by the Israelites setting up the golden calf as an image of God and worshipping it with sacrifices and holocausts. God had been displeased and Moses was so angry at the sight of the revelling Israelites that he threw the tablets on the ground where they were smashed to pieces.

It was the end of the covenant. But it was not God who had broken it but the people who had reneged on solemn promises to keep the Lord’s commandments.

Moses now asked God who was to be their leader from now on. If they were to continue their journey, they needed the assurance that the Lord was with them.

Moses was then told to cut two new tablets so that the Lord could write on them as he did with the first pair. Then Yahweh appears and speaks consoling words: “Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining his faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin…” They are to know that this is the God they are dealing with. Of course, if they alienate themselves from him, they will be the losers. He will not force himself on them.

God then makes a covenant with the Israelites and gives them a set of instructions for them to follow. It is a summary of commandments already given. Finally, Moses is told to put all this in writing as the terms of the covenant between God and Israel.

And Moses, we are told, stayed up on the mountain with Yahweh for 40 days and 40 nights, eating and drinking nothing, and on the tablets he wrote the words of the covenant – the Ten Words, the Decalogue (Greek, deka logoi, deka logoi).

Here our reading takes up the story. It is a story of uncertain origins and records a tradition about the radiance of Moses’ face, expressed by the verb qaran, ‘horn’. The radiance is seen like two horns of light rising from the head of Moses and represented as such in many works of art, including the famous statue by Michelangelo in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Our passage makes use of this tradition to describe Moses on his descent from the mountain back to his people.

As Moses came down from the mountain with the two newly inscribed tablets, he was not aware of the radiance of his face after having been speaking face to face with the Lord. When Aaron and the people saw the face of Moses, the radiance of his skin was such that they were afraid to go near him.

Moses told them not to fear and invited them to come close. Aaron and the other leaders approached and then the rest of the people followed. And Moses passed on to them all the instructions that he had received from the Lord on Mount Sinai. Once he had finished speaking, Moses put a veil over his face.

From now on, whenever Moses went into the Lord’s presence, he removed the veil to speak face to face with the Lord. This can refer to the times when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to talk with God, which we saw in yesterday’s reading.

When he came out again, he would give the Lord’s instructions and the Israelites would see the radiance of his face but then Moses would put the veil back again until the next time he spoke with the Lord.

Paul sees in Moses’ veil a symbol of the failure of many of his people to recognise in Jesus the true Messiah and Saviour. When they read the Old Testament, it is as if a veil is concealing its full meaning from them. “To this very day, when the old covenant is read, the veil remains unlifted; it is only in Christ that it is taken away” (2 Cor 3:14). (It is significant in this context, that Moses only put on the veil after he had passed on the Lord’s message.)

The symbol of the veil also occurs in John’s description of Jesus’ resurrection. When the Beloved Disciple looks into the tomb he notices that the veil which covered the face of Jesus is now wrapped neatly into one place. On seeing this, he believed, that is, he knew that his Lord was with the Father. The veil represents the humanity of Jesus by which his disciples could look on him during his earthly life; now, face to face with the Father in glory, there is no need any more for this veil.

Finally, we might say that the veil that Christ wears now is his community. We are the Body of Christ and it is through his Body that he now communicates with the world. How well are we fulfilling this responsibility, especially on a community level?

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