YEAR C: TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
(Last Sunday after Epiphany)
Today’s passage gives the story of Moses bringing the people a new set of tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (in Hebrew, ‘ten words’). This follows the account of the breaking of the first set of tablets in response to the people’s falling away. Chapter 34 is seen by some as another tradition of the covenant parallel to that in chapters 19-24. In the context of today’s passage, it can be read as the restoration of the law after the people’s apostasy.
Moses is with God on Mt. Sinai forty days and forty nights, during which time he neither eats nor drinks, but is sustained by the spirit of God. When he comes down from Mt. Sinai, he is unaware that his face is shining as a result of his having been ‘talking with God.’ It was thought that human beings could not look on God and live (Exod 19:21), so powerful and overwhelming was the divine presence. Some have suggested that Moses’ face may have been burned or scarred from the experience. So it is that Moses is revered in Judaism to this day as one who knew God face to face.
A possible misunderstanding of the Hebrew has occurred in many translations of this passage. The word used in Hebrew for rays of light ‘shining forth’ is also the word for ‘horn’. The (Latin) Vulgate translation of this passage, for example, translated the passage so that Moses was seen to ‘have horns.’ Some scholars would suggest even today that maybe the writer’s intention was to say that Moses’ face had been so badly burned in his encounter with God that he was thought to be bearing crusty scars from the encounter. In any case the translation of the Vulgate and similar versions was in turn responsible for many depictions of Moses in art as having horns, including the famous sculpture by Michelangelo.
If we take today’s reading as the restoration of the law, a gift of another set of tablets to guide the people, then there is a note of grace inherent in the story. God is yet again reaching out to the people, offering them a covenant relationship despite their initial lack of faith and their attempts to form a ‘god’ that was less dangerous, more controllable.
In the Exodus passage, Moses is described as using a veil when talking with the people, to cover the blinding light of his countenance, because they were afraid to look on him. He took the veil off when talking with God. The people continue to witness his face shining when he returns from encountering God, underscoring the divine inspiration of the messages he conveyed to them. Paul picks up the image of the veil in today’s set reading from 2 Corinthians, using the veil as a metaphor for the veiled understanding of God’s people.
In the Gospel reading for today, the transfiguration of Jesus shares many details with this earlier story of Moses. There is a mountain, clouds, and light. Moses is present along with Elijah, perhaps to indicate that Jesus had come to fulfil the law and the prophets, or possibly because the deaths of both Old Testament figures were shrouded in mystery. Jesus’ face likewise is described as shining with the glory of God, symbolic of the encounter with the divine presence within this one.
Preaching today’s passages in an Australian context, one might allude to the dazzling quality of the light we encounter in this country, similar to that described in the two transfiguration stories. The transfiguration of Moses suggests that people cannot come away from an encounter with God without being in some way profoundly altered, or even maybe scarred. In the connection with the gospel reading, there is also a sense that at times, the fabric of life tears open, the veil is rent, and the awesome glory of God, always present, shines through.
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