Commentary: Exodus 34:29-35
In the corner of the study where I work, there sits a large replica of Michelangelo's Moses. Casually grasping the tablets with one of his two quite muscular arms, he stares ahead--with two horns sprouting from his head.
Strange things can happen in translation! Apparently, the Hebrew noun qeren, "horn," (compare Ps 69:31) is related to a Hebrew verb qaran, which can also mean to "shine" or "radiate," hence "ray of brightness" (compare Hab 3:4). Thus the "glory of God" was manifested in Moses' person either by the growth of horns (I leave it to you to link up this portrait with that of a much less reputable biblical figure!) or a shining face (the option followed by the New Revised Standard Version, and the interpretation most in line with God's glory shining on the mountain in Old Testament and New).
Regardless of the details of the manifestation, however, its placement and purpose must be examined in order to relate them to the other transfiguration texts in Luke and 2 Corinthians.
Exodus 34 is the resolution for which Exodus 32 presents the problem.
Moses has come down from the mountain, tablets in hand, only to find the people dancing around the golden calf. Distrustful of Moses' function as mediator in their midst, and terrified at the fire and smoke of God's appearance on the mountain, the people fashion a more controllable radiance--an idol of molten gold. Moses responds to this rebellion by smashing the tablets, slaughtering the unrepentant, and interceding on behalf of those who remain. How will the relationship be restored?
Moses then goes back up the mountain, asks to know God more clearly (Ex 33:13), is promised that he will catch a glimpse of God in passing (Ex 33:21ff), then receives a verbal revelation of the character of God ("The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love," Exodus 34:6). It is follow ing this encounter that God then writes once more on two new stones which Moses carries down, face aglowing.
Thus it is important to note that Moses' second descent is more glorious than his first. Why? Because this time he has been given both a clearer picture of who God is (a God who forgives) and who God's people are (those who are forgiven). Moses' continuing glory (which is so great as to require a veil) results from continuous conversations with this God.
Is it going too far then to posit a pattern of "progressive revelation," even within the Old Testament text? The people's attempt to capture God's radiance for themselves first leads to judgment, but then through intercession toward forgiveness. The glory of the mediator before forgiveness pales beside the glory of the mediator following forgiveness.
Should we then sin more boldly that grace may abound? "By no means!" we might declare with Paul (Rom 6:15). But neither should we be surprised when we meet another glowing mediator on a mountain who shines before the cross, and who shines after the cross, that cross that declares "I forgive."
It is through Christ's glory then, as prefigured in Moses (though veiled), that we come to know most clearly who God is (a God who forgives) and who God's people are (those who are forgiven).
Based on this reading of Moses' glory in Exodus 34, I might be tempted to pair the Exodus and Lukan passages not with the obvious 2 Corinthians 3 (which interprets Moses' veil as a sign of timidity versus condescension), but with selections from 1 John.
"No one has ever [fully] seen God (1 Jn 3:12)," including Moses. But God revealed himself to Moses clearly enough in his words about mercy and love (Ex 34:6) so that his face glowed with the telling. No, "no one has ever seen God; but if we love one another [as God first loved us in Christ], God lives in us [or `goes with us,' in the language of Exodus 34:9], and his love is perfected in us [note what follows the transfiguration in Luke 9:37-43]."
Is not this a glory, a light shining on a hill, from which all people would need hide their eyes?