Opening The Old Testament
Taking Off the Veil: Reflections on Exodus 34:29-35
Thus, Moses came off Sinai with a brightly shining face, a condition that caused "Aaron and all Israel to fear to come near him" (Ex. 34:30). Still, Moses urged all of them to come close to him in order that he might speak to them. This was very important, since Moses had such crucial information to impart, namely "all that YHWH had spoken to him on Mount Sinai" (Ex. 34:32). Then we are told that after "Moses had finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face" (Ex. 34:33). But whenever he would go in (to the moveable tabernacle presumably) to talk to YHWH, he would remove the veil (Ex. 34:34). But then after finishing his conversation with YHWH, after which his face would once again be radiant and shining, he would replace the veil in order to protect the people from the divine radiance that might impede their hearing and instituting the commands that Moses would tell them from their God.
I have always heard this little story as one that speaks of the extreme difficulty of expressing clearly and understanding easily the words that come from God. We preachers know what this story may mean for the work we are called to do. We attempt to go to the scripture, the Word of our God, and bring back from our search a word that can challenge and refresh our people. Yet, in that work too often a veil impedes both our deep searching and our clear speaking. Moses puts the veil on to help the people hear what he has to say, but takes it off when he wants to speak and listen to God. The veil, he hopes, will aid understanding.
There are times when we preachers veil ourselves as we attempt to talk to God rather than stand before God without any veil separating the two of us. And too often we take the veil off when we attempt to speak easily to our people rather than take the word of God so seriously that a veil would be helpful to communicate to our people that seriousness, that divine truth that ought not be reduced to easily digestible bits. Still, at other times in our ministries, we put a veil on before our people in order to demonstrate to them just how close we are to the God we claim to serve. In this case, the veil becomes a token of our piety and sacredness. We are too often confused about when the veil should be up and when it ought to come down!
On this last Sunday of Epiphany, just before we enter the long season of Lent, we celebrate the eternal light of God that has come in the face of Jesus. May we see his face "not in a mirror dimly" but openly, cleanly. And may we know when a veil can signal to us and to our people that God's light is never to be taken lightly but must be seen for what it is, namely the great gift of a light and a hope for our world that can never be extinguished.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.