Ever felt like you understood some people better than they understood themselves? What do you know of Moses? That he was a stutterer or slow of speech (Ex 4:10)? That he received the Ten Commandments from the finger of God (Ex 20; 34)? That he led a rebellious people during their exodus from Egypt (Ex 32, etc.)?
Recently, I was teaching from Exodus 32. This is where Aaron, Moses’ brother, conspired with rebellious unbelieving Israel, and fashioned the idol, the golden calf, of gold collected from the people (Ex 32:2-4). While Moses was removed from the people’s sight for forty days to be with God on the mountain, the people fell away. Moses had departed to be with the Lord of light and the mass of Israel departed to frolic in the darkness with a golden calf. And when Moses spent time with God, it showed. Moses’ face shone. God’s light was manifest upon the darkness of idolatrous Israel, but Moses didn’t even know how much he shone, how much he stood out.
It’s important to remember what God had already done for stubborn Israel at this point. He’d raised up a delivering leader, Moses (Ex 1-7); He’d sent ten plagues upon unbelieving Egypt (Ex 7-15); He’d provided water, bread, and other provisions in the desert for a stiff-necked people (Ex 32:9; 15-18); He’d given the Decalogue (Ex 20). And yet Israel disbelieved God. Even though they’d promised to follow the Lord, their words didn’t endure; their words were cheap. As recently as Sinai, the people swore, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Ex 19:8a). Reason for optimism, right?
While Moses ascended the mountain again, Israel fell away. They didn’t see their deliverer, Moses, visibly, as he’d ascended to meet with God. So, they fell captive to another leader, Aaron, and said, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex 32:1b). A golden calf was fashioned from their own jewels and they bowed to it; they worshiped it.
When God seems hidden, we are like Israel: we tend to fall away from God and fashion gods. The capital “G” God gets replaced with the lower case “g” gods.
And yet God used the mediator Moses, the temporary nexus between holy God and sinful Israel, to petition the Lord for mercy: “So Moses returned to the LORD and said, ‘Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.’ But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.’” (Ex 32:32-34)
Exodus 34 is yet another historical example of God reaching to redeem sinful rebels. Though He would have been perfectly just to damn idolatrous Israel, He chose to show mercy by using a man of His own choosing to reclaim rebels. The Lord summons Moses to the mountain again and says of Himself: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the father on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex 34:6-8)
And for forty days, Moses abides with the Lord on the mountain (EX 34:28). New tablets are written (Ex 34:28). Moses is to return to sinful Israel with the message from God.
And what do you think happened when Moses descended the mountain? How do you think we would’ve reacted, especially given our proclivity to fashion our own idols? The Scripture reads: “When 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 know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” (Ex 34:29-30)
They were afraid. They feared what the holiness of God meant. If God’s holiness means anything, it means that we’re undone. Isaiah knew it (Is 6:5). Adam and Eve knew it (Gen 3:10). We know it (Rom 1:23; 2:15).
Ever noticed the description of Moses’ face in Exodus 34? His face shone (34:29). God is light and His light transforms the darkness. He puts it to flight. When God manifests Himself in the Son, He (Jesus) came into the world (Jn 1:9). He didn’t remain on the mountain. He humbled himself to be as we are (Phil 2:8), yet without sin—the crucial difference.
The result is the same now as it was then. Some seek to cover themselves and others seek to be covered by His atoning work. Because I love the particulars of narrative, I often wonder what the people on Egyptian sands looked like that day, as families stood or knelt or laid at the foot of Sinai, and Moses descended, and his face shone, and they knew he’d been with God. Why? Because his face shone. They knew they were naked before holy God. All their wickedness was exposed before holy God (Heb 4:13). And yet, God condescended to them by way of a mediator.
Moses didn’t know, at least for a while, that his face shone (Ex 34:29). But everyone else did. Might it be so with the Christian church today.