Something old, something new

Photo by Jenny Rollo
Photo by Jenny Rollo

As a minister, some of my favorite memories are from weddings. I have a front-and-center perch from which to watch the processional. An infectious and glorious joy radiates from the unveiled face of the bride, and I can’t help but smile.

That, I think, is as it should be. The couple’s celebration should be the community’s celebration; the joy of the bride should be reflected in the joy of the congregation.

That’s the image that comes to mind when Paul refers to the story of the face of Moses, shining with the radiance of God’s glory.

God had miraculously rescued his people from Egypt. His presence went with them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But when the Israelites betrayed their allegiance by worshipping the Golden Calf, God was ready to send them on their way alone. So Moses moved the Tent of Meeting far outside the camp and pleaded with God to go with them.

When God finally agreed, Moses asked to see God’s glory. This wish, too, God granted, although Moses was told that he couldn’t see God’s face and live (Exod 33:20). Moses was then instructed to go back up Mount Sinai with two freshly cut tablets of stone, to receive the commandments anew. Moses obeyed, remaining on the mountain for forty days and nights (Exod 34:28).

When he finally came down from the mountain, Moses’ face was shining because he had been talking with God (Exod 34:29). The people were afraid, though Moses reassured them. Afterward, he covered his face with a veil, taking it off only when he went again into God’s presence (vs. 35).

As we saw in the previous post, Paul uses this story to help the Corinthians appreciate how much more glorious the new covenant is compared to the old.

At a wedding, the joy in a bride’s unveiled face is contagious, and to me, this is a metaphor for how the glory of God should radiate through his people. But among a sinful and rebellious people, the situation is different. As Paul says, “the Israelites couldn’t look for long at Moses’ face because his face was shining with glory” (2 Cor 3:7, CEB). In other words, the glory reflected in Moses’ face was potentially lethal and had to be veiled.

It’s not that the glory of God itself changed from the old covenant to the new. But Paul is astounded by what God has done in the new covenant to bring forth his glory in his people — without killing them.

Here, we should note an important difference in translations. When the NIV refers to the glory of God in the face of Moses, it’s described as “transitory”; the CEB has “fading” (2 Cor 3:7). The NRSV, however, refers to that glory as being “set aside.” What gives? How should Paul’s wording be translated?

It’s not clear from the book of Exodus that the glory of God ever actually faded from Moses’ face. Moreover, the word on which translations differ is used elsewhere (Eph 2:15) by Paul to depict how the old covenant has been decisively “set aside” (NIV), “canceled” (CEB), or “abolished” (NRSV).

Did the glory in Moses’ face fade? Perhaps (and the matter will come up again in verse 13). But Paul’s larger point is that God has done something new and wonderful. If only the people would understand, they too would be amazed. More on this in coming posts.