Why did Moses put a veil on his face? (and how Pharisees misinterpret it)
Exodus 34:29-35 (ESV) 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. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
The text says the skin of Moses’ face shone and the people were afraid to come near him. It’s clear that people were motivated by fear; what may not be quite so clear is what Moses’s motives were for putting on the veil.
If Moses hadn’t put on the veil before going about his daily business in the camp, he would have been given a wide berth because the people were scared of his shining face. It is logical to infer that Moses, in tender deference to the people’s fear, put the veil over his face in order to go about his daily life. He only took the veil off when he was directly communing with God and directly declaring to the Israelites the Words that God he had given. He most likely donned the veil out of sensitivity and compassion for the frightened Israelites, so they were not constantly scared like rabbits caught in the headlights.
Why were they scared? Not only because that shine was supernatural and out of the norm of their experience, they were afraid because the supernatural shine showed them how mighty and pure and powerful God is — and how sinful, impure and depraved they were compared to God’s perfection. Remember when they begged not to hear the voice of God at Mount Sinai? (Ex. 20:19) It was the same kind of fear as that.
The New Testament gives us some more information about Moses and his veil.
2 Corinthians 3:7-18 (ESV) Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
The verse that particularly alludes to Moses’ motives in wearing the veil is 3:13:
… Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.
To me, a lot hinges on what the word ‘outcome’ refers to. If the purpose of the veil was to prevent the Israelites gazing at the outcome, what is the outcome they were not to gaze at?
- Is the outcome the fading of the Old Covenant? — symbolized by the fading of that light from Moses face
- Or is the outcome the fading of Moses’ light? — the fading of Moses’ personal emblem of glory
- Is the outcome the glory of the Old Covenant?— symbolized by the light coming out from Moses’ face which was the outcome of Moses spending time in God’s presence
Let us examine these three options to see which makes most sense.
Option 1: The outcome which was veiled from the Israelites was the fading of the Old Covenant
Why would it be logical for the veil to be donned so that the Israelites would not see in symbolic form the fading of the Old Covenant? Why would they be stopped from seeing a hint of the coming transition from Old to New Covenant? Many of Old Testament prophets and God’s own words as early as Genesis 3:15 prophesied the coming of the New Covenant. Would Moses have been motivated to hide that coming from the Israelites? That makes little sense.
Option 2: The outcome which was veiled from the Israelites was the fading of light from Moses‘ face
A Christian man who is now an elder in a church once tried to tell me that Moses put the veil on his face to prevent the Israelites noticing that his shine was fading. That man thought that Moses put the veil on his face because he wanted to hide from the Israelites the fact that his face gradually lost its shine after he hadn’t been in the tent of God for a while. See how that fits the prideful mindset of so many church leaders? They are constantly trying to pose as big shot authority figures and lording it over their flock with their masks of superior righteousness and authority, so they imagine that Moses had the same mindset as them and they interpret his using the veil as a power hat, in the same way they wear their own power hats. They attribute motives to Moses through their own fleshly mindset.
This man imagined that if the Israelites saw Moses’ shine fading, they would lose faith in him and he would no longer have superior status in their eyes. His interpretation made Moses seem like a man driven by pride, a narcissist and a con artist, a man with something to hide. But this cannot be right:
Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)
It seems to me that when someone ascribes motives to Moses for wearing the veil, the motives suggested by the interpreter can often tell us a lot about the interpreter — what his heart is like and the traits that dominate his character. I have often observed that when Pharisees and abusers interpret scripture, they cannot rise above their own level of self-deluded ambition and their heart of pride which craves power and control.
with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. (Ps 18:26)
I think that man had a Pharisee mindset, or, if you prefer a “Who is the greatest?” mindset like the one which so bedeviled the disciples even up to the Last Supper.
Option 3: The outcome which was veiled from the Israelites was the glory of the Old Covenant
If the outcome that the Israelites were not to see was the glory of the Old Covenant symbolized by the light coming from Moses face (the outcome of Moses spending time in God’s presence) that is consistent with the Israelites’ fear, Moses’ meekness, and the overall biblical theological narrative. This is the option I believe is correct.
Paul did not ascribe a superiority mindset to Moses. Nor did he ascribe a secrecy to Moses that purposed to keep the Israelites like mushrooms in the dark. They were only ‘in the dark’ to the extent that their sinful hearts they could not bear the light and were afraid of it. Paul did not make them unable to see, they chose to not see: their eyes flinched from seeing the light.
Rather, Paul uses the story of Moses’s veil to illustrate how the Old Covenant (a ministry of law, condemnation and death) was glorious. It was so glorious that it made Moses’s face shine — a sign that made the Israelites, in their sin, feel afraid. Can you imagine what some of them would have been thinking? “If that’s what the experience of standing in the presence of God did to Moses, how on earth could I ever stand in God’s presence?!”
But the Old Covenant was not to last. It was going to fade and become obsolete and be replaced by the New Covenant — a covenant that was much more glorious. The Israelites could not bear to look upon the glory of the Old Covenant: even its sign as displayed in the shining face of Moses scared them. And stupendous as that glory was, that Old Covenant glory was much less glorious than the glory of the New Covenant.
The New Covenant is more glorious, but we do not have to be afraid. Indeed we can be bold, because the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin, and God has made us competent to be ministers of the New Covenant not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
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Blindness exacerbated by individual choice – part 3 of series on blindness and deception [link added Feb 2020]
Transfigured Hermeneutics 8—Moses’ Veil by Alastair Roberts [link added Sept 2016]
Spurgeon’s sermon The Shining Face of Moses.
Here are some snippets from the sermon:
He [Moses] had compassion on their folly as well as on their weakness. . . . He always sinks himself, this man Moses. The God-given Glory of his face he does not slight, nor seek to abate—but so far as it would bring him honor from men—he puts it under a veil. That he may come closer to the people whom he loves, he is content to hide his glory. . . .
[The veil] was a judicial symbol, setting forth the sentence of God upon the people. The Lord, by this token, as good as said, “You are so rebellious, so given to your idolatries, so unwilling to see, that from now on you shall not see the brightness of My Glory in the dispensation of the Law in which you live. Moses shall veil his face because the veil is upon your hearts.” . . . the veil was literally on Moses’ face, but spiritually it was on their hearts. From that time on they were not to see because they had not wished to see. He that willfully shuts his eyes will find that God takes away his sight. If you refuse to understand, justice will make you foolish. . . . Moses wore the veil as a testimony that God had given them over to judicial blindness because they refused to know His will.