Exodus 34:29–35 29When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not realize that the skin of his face was shining because he had been speaking with the Lord. 30When Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, they were amazed that the skin of his face was shining, so they were afraid to come close to him. 31Moses called to them, so Aaron and all the rulers of the community returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. 32Afterward all the people of Israel came close to him, and he gave them all of the commands that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses was finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. 34But whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off until he came out again. Then he would come out and tell the people of Israel what he had been commanded. 35Whenever the people of Israel saw Moses’ face, they would see that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. Then Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the Lord again.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. He gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father— to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:3–5)
Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after he had been meeting with the Lord for the past forty days (Exodus 34:28-29). He carried two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. This is the second time this has happened. The first time Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he smashed the two tablets after finding the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. The first tablets were carved by the finger of God. This time, the Lord instructed Moses to “chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones” (Exodus 34:1). Since Moses broke the first set, it was natural that he should replace them with new ones.
This time, when Moses came down the mountain, the Israelites had behaved themselves in Moses’ absence. They were gathered to hear what God had to say to them.
Except … the people were afraid to come close to Moses (Exodus 34:30). Moses had spent so much time in God’s presence that his face was shining with reflected radiance. Like the moon reflects the light of the sun, so Moses’ face reflected the light of the Creator of the sun. The people were freaked out by his glowing face.
The last time Moses came down from the mountain, there was wrath and judgment. That was without a glowing face. Naturally, the people were terrified what might happen to this time with Moses reflecting the glory of the Lord.
Out of concern for their fear, Moses began wearing a veil over his face to hide this troubling sight from his countrymen. Perhaps Moses wore this veil for the rest of his life. For every time Moses went into the presence of the Lord in the tabernacle, he would take off the veil. When he came out of the tabernacle to tell the people what God had told him to say to them, his face was shining again. Then Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the Lord again (Exodus 34:34-35).
The holy writer describes Moses’ face as “shining” when he descended the mountain. However, when the church father Jerome translated this verse into the Vulgate - the Latin Bible - something was changed in the translation. A single word was changed that changed Western art for centuries.
Exodus 34:29 reads in part: “The skin of [Moses’] face was shining.” “Radiant” or “shining forth” comes from the Hebrew word “Qaran”(קָרַ֛ן). In his Latin translation, though, Jerome, used the word “cornuta” which means “horn.” The Latin was translated as “horns were coming forth” from Moses’ head.
This single word change is reflected in Western art.
The Mosesbrunnen (Moses Fountain) in the Old City of Bern, Switzerland portrays two rays of light projecting from Moses’ head.
The Well of Moses by Claus Sluter portrays Moses with horns.
A statue of Moses in the Vilnius Cathedral in Lithuania.
A fresco of God giving the Ten Commandments to a horned Moses which is in St. Andrew Church in Westhall, Suffolk.
Some scholars believe that Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word “qaran.” Other scholars believe that Jerome knew exactly what he was doing. He purposely chose “cornuta” to mean “horn” as a metaphor. Because horns in the Bible are always a symbol of strength and power. Jerome wanted to convey that Moses was reflecting the strength and power of God.
Since the Vulgate was the only translation of the Bible available for centuries, it became standard in Western art to depict Moses with small horns. Michelangelo’s statue of Moses in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome is the most famous portrait of Moses with horns.
If you had been at the base of Mt. Sinai, would you have been more afraid that Moses had descended the mountain with a glowing face or with horns protruding from his head?!
Today, through our English translation of the Hebrew, we understand that Moses used a veil to cover the radiancy of God’s glory.
St. Paul comments that Moses put a veil over his face not only because the people were afraid, but “to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away” (2 Corinthians 3:13).
Moses wore a veil to cover the divine glory of the Lord.
Jesus wore a veil to cover his divine glory as the Lord.
The mystery of Jesus Christ is that he put on the physical veil of human nature. Moses may have worn his veil until his death forty years later on Mt. Nebo. Jesus put on the veil of human flesh and blood at his conception. He has never taken it off.
On the Mountain of Transfiguration, though, Jesus allowed his divine glory to shine through the veil. St. Luke tells us “Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothing became dazzling white” (Luke 9:28-29).
When Moses came down from the mountain, his face reflected God’s glory. The face of Moses shown with God’s radiant light. He hid his face so the people wouldn’t be frightened and to hide the diminishing glory on his face from the people.
But in Jesus we have a Man whose face did not dim. His glory is eternal. The light of Christ is no reflected light. He is the very Source of the light that reflected from the face of Moses.
The people of God were afraid of Moses’ shining face. The disciples of Jesus were afraid of Jesus’ shining clothing and face (Luke 9:34).
It is only natural that sinful people would be afraid of God’s glory – even a reflection of it. After Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, they hid when their glorious God began walking in the Garden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8). When the shepherds saw the angels in the Bethlehem sky, they were terrified as the glory of the Lord shone around them (Luke 2:9). Newly risen from the grave, the first thing Jesus said to the women running quickly from his open tomb is “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10).
We would be the same way in the presence of our holy and glorious God. Sinful humanity does not want to be – nor can it be – in the presence of holiness and glory. We are like Isaiah in the presence of God’s holiness crying out, “Woe to me! I am ruined” (Isaiah 6:5)! We are like Peter in the presence of Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish begging, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord” (Luke 5:8)!
When we are feeling guilty of a grievous sin, we stay away from God’s presence in worship. When we are guilty over repeated and habitual sins, we stay away from God’s presence in prayer. When the pastor or another of Christ’s ambassadors point out that we are guilty of sins against another, we lash out at them. We cannot handle being sinners reminded of God’s holiness.
Sinful people cannot even handle the reflection of the presence of God. Even the reflection shines too brightly in the blackness of our unholiness. Moses wore a veil so the children of Israel could handle him being around. The Word became flesh (John 1:14) so the people could hand their holy God walking around in their presence. Otherwise, they would have fled in panic and terror.
Jesus rarely let his glory shine forth fully. And when he did, the people were terrified. So, the Son of God veiled his glory with human flesh so he could be with us.
Jesus did not put on this veil and take it off from time to time. The Son of God put on this veil in the womb of Mary. Jesus did allow his glory to shine through the veil at his transfiguration. But He has never taken that veil off.
The divine glory of God continues to shine through the humanity of Jesus full-time. The time of humility and lowliness for the Son of Man is over. The Son of God is displaying his glory, power, strength and every attribute of his divine nature for all eternity through his human nature.
Jesus has every right to stand among us in his full radiance. He has every right to terrify us with his holiness. He has every right to throw fear-inducing glory-bombs among us.
But he doesn’t do any of that. He wants to be in our presence. The only way for that to happen without us cowering in fear is for him to veil his glory.
Because we would be terrified if the crucified, resurrected and ascended Jesus was standing here on the mountain with us, Jesus appears to us with veiled glory. He veils his glory in Word and Sacraments.
Jesus veils his glory with the waters of Baptism. We would be terrified to approach the font if the Triune God was standing beside it. So, the Triune God veils his glory with water. Through this veiled glory, he is changing sinners into saints, heathens into Christians and those who are possessed by the devil into those who are now possessions of the heavenly Father. There is faith, strength, salvation and glory veiled with the waters of Baptism.
Jesus veils his glory with the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We would shy away from ever approaching the communion rail if the Lord of heaven and earth was standing there in all his glory. So, Jesus veils his glory with unleavened bread and grape wine. Now we are not afraid to come to the Sacrament. Instead, we are eager to come often to receive faith, new life, strength and glory as Christ’s own body and blood is veiled in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus veils his glory with the words of absolution and the words of his Scriptures. We would cower in fear if we heard the Lord’s actual voice booming from the altar, lectern or pulpit. So, the almighty God whose powerful Word created the universe, drove out demons and raised the dead, veils his voice with the vocal cords of your pastor’s voice. It is the voice of the Lord speaking in the Scripture lessons from the lectern. It is the voice of God applying God’s Word to your lives in the sermon. It is the voice of the Lord comforting you with Christ’s forgiveness in the absolution. God’s love, forgiveness, strength and glory are veiled in the words of absolution, in the Scripture lessons and sermon in worship.
Moses did not come down from Mt. Sinai displaying horns on his head. Although, Jerome rightly identified that Moses did have the strength of the Lord with him.
Jesus did not come down from the Mount of Transfiguration displaying his full glory. Instead, Jesus would reveal his greatest glory later as he went up another mountain to be crucified for humanity’s sins.
We would be terrified if we were the Israelites seeing God’s glory reflected in the face of Moses. So, Moses veiled that glory.
We would be terrified if we saw the Son of God on earth in all his glory. So, the Son of God veiled his glory in flesh and blood.
We would be terrified if the visible God was standing before us in the fullness of his glory in church. So, our gracious and loving God, who desires to be in the presence of his people, veils his glory with the words of absolution, the words in our Bibles, the waters of Baptism, and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
What a powerful and glorious God we have! One so powerful and glorious – and so gracious – that he veils his glory to be among his people! Amen.
Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and might belong to our God forever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 7:12)