Scripture: Exodus 34:29-35
The famed renaissance artist Michelangelo is perhaps best known for his painting of the Sistine Chapel and for his sculpture of David. However, the work that Michelangelo himself might be most proud of is the façade for the tomb of Pope Julius II. This impressive marble structure contains multiple sculpted figures, but the centerpiece is a statue of Moses. According to the story, as soon as Michelangelo finished the sculpture he said “Now speak” because it would not have been possible to make it any more lifelike. There is some truth to that. The sculpture depicts a sitting Moses, but it actually looks like he is about to stand up, the flowing of his garments look more like fabric than rock, and his stone face is somehow gives the feeling of being expressive. It very well might be Michelangelo’s greatest artistic achievement. Despite the sculpture’s lifelike realism, there is an odd little detail. Namely, Moses has horns. In Michelangelo’s sculpture there are two little nubby horns protruding out of the top of Moses head. In fact, if you toured Europe looking for other renaissance era sculptures and paintings of Moses many of them show Moses with horns.
The reason for this oddity all traces back to this morning’s scripture. The Hebrew Bible was originally written, unsurprisingly, in Hebrew. In the Late Roman Empire when Christianity was the established religion, Pope Damascus tasked St. Jerome with translating the entirety of the Bible into Latin, the official language of the Empire. This translation of the Bible, called the Vulgate, became the dominant version of the bible in Europe for over 1,000 years. When it came to translating this passage, Jerome struggled a bit. Hebrew is a language with a relatively small vocabulary. For instance, modern day English has about 171,146 words whereas biblical Hebrew only had 7,000 words. So in biblical Hebrew there was not a perfect way to write “radiated rays of light.” Our modern English translation states Moses face was “radiant”. The Hebrew literally states Moses had horns of light to communicate that his face was shining. Instead of trying to translate the idea of a shining face, Jerome just literally translated the passage to read Moses had horns.
The funny thing is by the time Michelangelo made his sculpture it was fairly well known that the idea of Moses having horns emerged from an over-literal translation, but by that point it had become an artistic convention to portray Moses with horns so artists kept doing it as a way to indicate who their sculpture or painting was supposed to be. With the reformation new translations of the bible became available, which translated this morning’s scripture more accurately, and the whole idea of a horned Moses faded into obscurity. Unfortunately, one of the reasons for that is because this morning’s scripture kind of faded into obscurity. It comes from a part of the Bible we do not often look at. Usually we know the front half of Exodus really well with the plagues and dramatic parting of the red sea, we tune back in for the Ten Commandments, but we tend to skim over a lot of details from Exodus like this morning’s scripture and the odd little detail that Moses’ face radiated after spending time with God. This morning’s scripture may be a little obscure, and as the whole confusion with horns show, it may be a little misunderstood. However, I think it can point us to more authentically live as followers of God.
This morning’s scripture is the epilogue to a perhaps better known story in Exodus. Exodus records that Moses met with God on Mount Sinai. This is where God gave Moses the law, including most famously the Ten Commandments, God also gave Moses detailed instructions on how to build a tabernacle and other instructions. He was gone for quite some time, and while he was gone the Israelites built a golden calf to worship, and as Exodus 32:25 states the people were “running wild”. In anger and disgust Moses broke the tablets upon which God had inscribe the law. After dealing with the golden calf and the idolatry of the people, Moses eventually returned to God to get replacement tablets containing the law. This morning’s scripture comes from when Moses returned.
The full context helps explain verse 30, when Moses came back and the people saw him they were afraid. He had been in the presence of God and because of that his face was radiant. Again, going back to the original Hebrew the connotation is that his face was literally glowing as it radiated light. For all they knew Moses had come back empowered by God to destroy them with divine power and that is why he was radiant. Yet, that was not the case. This morning’s scripture once again shows that God is a God forgive and God is a God of second chances, because despite their idolatry and despite their rejection of God, God gives them the law and another opportunity to follow it. This morning’s scripture is the end of a story that reveals God’s gracious and merciful nature. Yet, the majority of this morning’s scripture really focuses on the detail that Moses began covering his face with a veil. As we consider how this morning’s scripture can inform our faith today I think there are two questions to really consider. Why did Moses cover his face with a veil and why was it so radiant in the first place?
The first question, why Moses covered his face with a veil, is actually a question that bible answers for us in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians Paul writes about and references this morning’s scripture. In doing so, Paul has an astute observation as to why Moses covered his face. In 2 Corinthians 3:12-13 Paul writes, “Therefore since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.”
In other words, Paul claims that Moses covered his face so that the people would not see his face stop being radiant. If we take a look at this morning’s scripture Paul’s take fits. Starting at verse 34 this morning’s scripture states that when Moses enter the Lord’s presence he unveiled his face, and then when he came back to the Israelites he would make sure they saw his face was radiant, before he covered it back up until the next time he went back before God. There does seem to be an implication that the radiance faded, and so that the people were not aware of that Moses hid his face behind a veil. On one hand that seems kind of vain, but the on the other hand can we really blame Moses? After all, it seems people have been following his example ever since then.
Moses literally put his best face forward, and we often do the same thing today. We regularly try to present a public version of ourselves that we feel is somehow better than our real selves. This is especially true in churches, we gather in our Sunday best, and we do all that we can to portray ourselves as radiant. We present ourselves as someone who has it all together and who is coming to worship because we are so blessed. We say we are good when in truth we hurt and we say we are fine when the reality is we are not. Like Moses, we hide behind a veil of smiles and good mornings hoping that no one sees our brokenness, our doubts, or any other part of us that is less than radiant.
This has long been a problem with Christians collectively. Trying to put forth a radiant and righteous public persona that might be different than how we are when others are not looking as long been an enticing shortcut. This is why it has never been hard to find detractors and critics of Christianity who are quick to describe us as hypocritical and self-righteous. Often these criticisms are pointing to how Christians can be like Moses and only put the most radiant face forward and try to hide the rest behind a veil. As followers of Jesus we have not always been as authentic as perhaps we should be.
As followers of Jesus we should be authentic about who we are. We should not try to only show a blessed, radiant persona but we should be honest about struggles as well as our triumphs. Stephen Alphin wrote about the need for authenticity in the Christian life in an article published by Relevant Magazine last year. He wrote, “Thus, authenticity in the Church is the quality of our exposure of brokenness and adornment in God’s grace. An authentic person is one who is both privately and publicly putting off the old self and, by God’s grace, putting on the renewed self.”
The way we can be this more authentic follower of Jesus is by realizing just why Moses face was radiant in the first place. It had nothing to do with Moses and everything to do with who Moses was with. The radiant light that shone from Moses was a result of him being with God. He was simply reflecting the glory of God. We should not try to cultivate an image of perfection, or righteousness, or having it all together. We should not put effort into putting our best self forward for other to see. Instead we should just seek to reflect the glory of God. Every clear night we get a visible reminder of how to do this.
While it is possible, it takes a lot of cloud cover to hide a full moon. There are some times the moon is absolutely radiant and shines brightly enough to bring illumination to the darkness of night. It does not matter bright the moon looks in the night sky, it is still just a rock in space. The moon is incapable of generating any light on its own. The illuminated moon we see at night is only possible because the moon reflects the light of the sun. The light from the moon comes completely from the sun. In the same way, our lives should radiate the glory of God. As Christians we should reflect the light of our savior, of God’s only son, into the world. In the depth of night the moon acts as the intermediary that continues to reflect light into the dark world. In the same way, we as Christians should reflect the light of God’s love into the world.
We do not have to be perfect or have it all together to do this, because again look at the moon. It is a flawed heavenly body. It is scarred and cratered but when we see it in the night sky, we do not pay attention to the imperfections. What we pay attention to is the how radiant it is. In the same way, we can be authentic about our struggles, we can be honest about how we do not have it all together, we can be forthright about mis-steps, and we can still reflect the light and love of God to a world that needs to see it. Both publically and privately, On Sunday morning and on Monday morning, at all times we should seek to reflect the love, the light, and the glory of God. We may not always get it right, we may sometimes not shine as brightly as others. But remember it is not about us, because we are not the light we are just reflecting the light from the Son. When we reflect that light, then through us others will see God’s unveiled glory.
In this morning’s scripture, Moses hides his face behind a veil because he only wanted others to see him at his best. May we seek to break that cycle and live authentically. As followers of Jesus, the Son of God, may we seek to reflect the Son. Moses’s face radiated whenever he spent time with God, so may we likewise spend time daily in prayer and scripture seeking God, so that we radiate as well. In the way we live, in the way we act, and in the way we treat others may reflect the goodness, the love, and the light of our savior Jesus. So that through us all eyes will see the glory of our God and king.