Unveiling Moses

Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God in this painting by Gebhard Fugel circa 1900. After Moses conversed with God, he veiled his face, Scripture says — an action that has much significance in both the Old and New Testaments.

A rather peculiar thing happened to Moses while he was on Mount Sinai receiving the law. Scripture says: “As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the LORD. When Aaron, then, and the other Israelites saw Moses and noticed how radiant the skin of his face had become, they were afraid to come near him….” (Exodus 34:29-30).

So different was Moses’ appearance that Aaron and the people were afraid to come near him. Moses then began an interesting ritual. Moses put on a veil when speaking to the people.

As Exodus 34:34-35 tells us: “Whenever Moses entered the presence of the LORD to converse with him, he removed the veil until he came out again. On coming out, he would tell the Israelites all that had been commanded. Then the Israelites would see that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; so he would again put the veil over his face until he went in to converse with the LORD.”

There are a few interesting side notes about this episode. The Hebrew text describes the brilliant radiance of Moses using the word qeren, a word that is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for the horns of an animal (e.g., Psalm 69:32). When St. Jerome encountered this word, he translated it into Latin as “horns,” so that Exodus 34:29 reads: “And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.” St. Jerome wasn’t alone. An ancient Jewish translation called Aquila also translated it “horned.” Jerome’s translation is the reason why sometimes in Christian art Moses is depicted with horns on his head, as is the case with Michelangelo’s Moses. What the Hebrew was trying to express was that Moses’ face emitted beams of light.

Another interesting feature is that whenever Moses “turned to the Lord,” he would take off his veil, but when he turned away from the Lord to speak to the people he would put the veil back on. Both St. Paul and the early Church fathers saw this action as significant. In 2 Corinthians 3:12-16, Paul says:

“Therefore, since we have such hope, we act very boldly and not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites could not look intently at the cessation of what was fading.”

Where God revealed his Law through Moses, who was veiled, the ministers of Christ speak boldly and without a veil so that God’s glory would be fully revealed.

Paul likewise saw Moses’ instruction of the people while wearing a veil as a sign that the fulfillment of the Law was partially obscured. Paul continues:

“Rather, their thoughts were rendered dull, for to this present day the same veil remains unlifted when they read the old covenant, because through Christ it is taken away. To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.”

We can relate to Paul’s point. There is an old saying: Hindsight is 20/20. It’s always easier to see things more clearly in the past than in the present. Before the messiah came, the prophecies about him and the New Covenant were difficult to make out. However, once Christ did come and gave the Holy Spirit to his disciples, the obscure things in the Law became recognizable as if a veil had been removed.

This episode with Moses also teaches us one more thing: Encountering God transforms a person. Moses physically was changed after his encounter with the Lord. Likewise, we, too, are changed when we draw closer to God and know him more. We become more like him and we are transformed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18). When Moses returned to the people, they immediately noticed that he was different. If you consider yourself close to God, do people notice that you’re different?

 Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.