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Drawing a veil over the Golden Calf

July 29, 2015

Exodus 34:29-35                               Wednesday 29 July 2015

Moses returns back from the mountain with two new copies of the ‘tablets of the Testimony’. Remember, Moses had smashed the original pair of tablets when he had lost his temper after coming down the mountain with Joshua and catching the people worshipping a Golden Calf.

But why were there two tablets? Were the Ten Commandments too long to fit onto just one tablet? No. The answer is that the legal procedure at the time (and indeed it is still the case today) was for there to be two copies of any agreement between two parties, with each party keeping their own copy. So where was God’s copy kept? There was only one place for it: in the Ark, the place where God resided, which became known as the Ark of the Covenant.

But what about the Israelites’ copy, on the second Tablet, where would that copy be placed? In those times, if there was treaty made between rulers of different strength, it was common practice for the lesser party to any agreement would put their copy in the temple of their god. As the Israelites were clearly less important than the one true God, they put their copy where they knew God was, also in the Ark. This is thye reason behind the tradition that the Ark of the Covenant contained the two tablets of the Commandments.

It is also of note that when Moses returned from speaking to God on the mountain, his face was gloriously radiant, but he didn’t realise it. So it wasn’t sunburn. His face shone with the reflected glory of God. Although it faded, (we’re told the effect was ‘transitory’), each time Moses came into the presence of God he would return with a brightly shining face again. And, as we hear in today’s reading, Aaron and the people wouldn’t come near him. Were they frightened? Today we have the words from Exodus translated as they ‘would not venture near him’, but other translations put it as ‘they were afraid to come near him’. Wouldn’t you be? So Moses and put a veil over his face.

We see a lot of veils nowadays, but that is much more the influence of Islamic culture – in the seventh century Mohammed laid down that women should cover themselves to preserve their modesty; so wearing the head veil, the ‘hajib’, came well after the time of Jesus; both Moses and Jesus would be surprised by the number of people covering their faces that we find in our modern society. At the time of Moses men did normally wear turbans and covered their heads with their shawls etc (presumably to protect their heads against the sun). But they would not cover their faces. In fact, they would do the very opposite to us – at times of mourning they would have their head completely UNcovered. Veils, worn by men or women, were rarely worn in Biblical times – they were only worn on very special occasions, for specific reasons, such as the bridal veil, or to conceal one’s identity, sometimes for reasons of modesty. And when veils were worn, they were not worn all the time. Indeed, you’ll notice that Moses removed the veil whenever he went for an audience with God. This is an act of boldness on the part of Moses – he has unrestricted access to God, and instead of covering his face as a sign of modesty, he embraces the moment

Why would Moses cover his face? Here are two reasons:

  • As I said, firstly to reassure the people that they could come nearer and listen to his instructions. Remember, they had only just been caught sinning, worshipping the Golden Calf. They were in disgrace; they feared punishment from God. They were terrified of coming into His presence. God understood this. The book of Exodus explicitly describes how, after the Golden Calf incident, God immediately moves OUTSIDE their camp, withdraws away from them – Tuesday’s reading tells us ‘Moses used to take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, at some distance from the camp. He called it the Tent of Meeting. Anyone who had to consult the Lord would go out to the Tent of Meeting, outside the camp.’ Thus the ordinary people were no longer allowed to be in God’s immediate presence. (This is a very common phenomenon, which we should recognise – you will not find God where there is sin: God withdraws, so as not to be associated with sin. God does not condone sin.)
  • Moses also covers his face because the radiance is transitory. He didn’t want them to see his face was fading. He knew their faith was fragile at best. They were still being weaned from superstition and magic. We understand, from St Paul, that the fading of Moses’ face was a sign that the Mosaic Covenant with God was transitory – something that would pass away and be replaced by the final, New Covenant.

And we know from the Transfiguration that Jesus’ face ‘did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow.’ Notice that Jesus, unlike Moses, did NOT cover His face. No, the glory of God, brought to us through Jesus Christ in the New covenant, is NOT to be hidden: we are all given the opportunity to be in the presence of God, given the chance to be transformed. The New Covenant is NOT transitory, it’s for everyone. Like Moses, we can be bold, and have unrestricted access to God, without covering our faces. We are God’s adopted children through Jesus Christ.

[Incidentally, we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration a week tomorrow, 6th August.]

St Paul talks about the veil[1] worn by Moses, to make this point about the New Covenant not being transitory, but even more glorious than the Old. And he laments the Jews who do not acknowledge Jesus as their God and the Messiah, noting that:

Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.

Remember, the reference to ‘hearts’ is nothing to do with our latter day cultural images of ‘feelings’; no, ‘hearts’ to St Paul are much more to do with intellect, thinking, using our brains. So, ‘a veil covers their hearts’ means those Jews who do not embrace the Holy Spirit and become Christians are ignoring the overwhelming evidence of the Truth, protecting themselves against the way in which the Book of Exodus is a foreshadowing, a prediction, a prophecy of what is to come.

[1] 2 Corinthians 3: 7-13

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