When it comes to stories, we love our happy endings. Think of 1998’s The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks Studios’ take on the Exodus, which boasted an all-star voice cast and an upbeat soundtrack. Stephen Schwartz’s “When You Believe,” garnered the film’s only Oscar, for Best Song, with lyrics announcing the hope-filled message that “there can be miracles when you believe.”
As the movie ends, Moses is descending the mountain with the stone tablets of the covenant in hand, looking out upon the vast sea of Israelites below. Cue the music and roll the credits: we have our happy ending!
That is, unless you happen to know what the Israelites are doing down there.
As discussed in a recent post, the apostle Paul sees himself as the minister of a new covenant. Whereas the old covenant, which was mediated by Moses, was of the letter of the law and brought death, the new covenant is a ministry of the Spirit, and brings life (2 Cor 3:6). He goes further:
Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? (2 Cor 3:7-8, NRSV)
“The ministry of death.” That’s quite a phrase for a devoted Pharisee like Paul to use when describing the ministry of the much-beloved Moses! But we need to keep his words in the context of the story of Exodus 32 to 34.
What DreamWorks edits out of the Exodus story is crucial. Despite the people’s pledge to remain faithful and obedient to the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt, they have already tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, and have cajoled Aaron into making them a golden idol to worship. Thus, when Moses descends, the scene is anything but a triumphant one: 3,000 people die that day for their idolatrous disobedience (Exod 32:28).
The problem is not with the ministry of Moses itself: the problem is with the stubbornness of the people. Indeed, after the incident with the Golden Calf, God declares that he will no longer accompany the people on their trek. This, ironically, is an act of mercy. They still get to go to the land of milk and honey, under the protection of a guardian angel (Exod 33:2). But God withdraws his presence for their protection: “I would end up destroying you along the way since you are a stubborn people” (vs. 3, CEB).
The ministry of Moses, under the old covenant, was one in which the glory of God was revealed among the people. But it was a ministry of death, because that’s what happens when the pure and radiant glory of God meets human sin.
That is, until the new covenant, at the glory of which Paul marvels. More on this in coming posts.