May 2008 - Vol. 19

Scripture Study and Reflection on the Life of Moses - Part IV

A Transformed Moses Sets the Stage for the Tent and Priesthood

Lessons from the Life of Moses

By Mark F. Whitters, Ph.D.

This is the fourth in a series of Scripture meditations on the life of Moses as it is presented in the Book of Exodus. The struggles of Moses as savior of the children of Israel prefigure Jesus Christ, savior of the world. 

Dr. Whitters is a member of The Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He leads the Servants of the Word household in Detroit, Michigan, USA, which serves urban youth and seeks to foster racial dialogue in the inner city. He is a lecturer in ancient history and religion at Eastern Michigan University and a regional coordinator for a scholarly guild called the Society of Biblical Literature. 

The Law Given on Sinai, painting by Vos

What God did in Moses, he also intended to do in Israel. He singled out Moses, brought him into the wilderness of Midian, and won him into a relationship represented by a mystical marriage and the burning bush experience. (See Part I and Part II in the series.) He did the same thing with Israel, bringing them into the wilderness of Sinai, making them dependent upon his miraculous provision there, and then making the people a “special possession” (segulla, an unusual Hebrew word – see Part III in the series). In this article, we find that Moses transcends his identity as a son of Israel – that he has a divine status with God as priest and sanctuary. His role for the children of Israel helps us to understand Christ as priest and sanctuary for the Church. Yet in spite of Moses’ and Christ’s lofty status, they show us our own identities and roles before God, for we all participate in their holiness as priest and sanctuary.

Moses in the Tent and on the Mountain 
as Priest (Exodus 33:7– 34:10; 34:29-35)

Moses' encounter  with God by Jen Swindle

Exodus 33:7– 34:10 
7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting. And every one who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.  8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose up, and every man stood at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he had gone into the tent.  9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses.  10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the door of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, every man at his tent door.  11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tent.  12 Moses said to the LORD, "See, thou sayest to me, `Bring up this people'; but thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, `I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.'  13 Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found favor in thy sight, show me now thy ways, that I may know thee and find favor in thy sight. Consider too that this nation is thy people."  14 And he said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."  15 And he said to him, "If thy presence will not go with me, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in thy sight, I and thy people? Is it not in thy going with us, so that we are distinct, I and thy people, from all other people that are upon the face of the earth?" 17 And the LORD said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." 18 Moses said, "I pray thee, show me thy glory." 19 And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name `The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 

20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." 21 And the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock;  22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;  23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen." 

Exodus 34:1-10 

1 The LORD said to Moses, "Cut two tables of stone like the first; and I will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables, which you broke.  2 Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain.  3 No man shall come up with you, and let no man be seen throughout all the mountain; let no flocks or herds feed before that mountain."  4 So Moses cut two tables of stone like the first; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tables of stone.  5 And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.  6 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."  8 And Moses made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshiped.  9 And he said, "If now I have found favor in thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance."  10 And he said, "Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD; for it is a terrible thing that I will do with you.

Exodus 34:29-35 

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  30 And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.  31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them.  32 And afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai.  33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face;  34 but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the people of Israel what he was commanded,  35 the people of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone; and Moses would put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Background to These Passages
From the point of view of the Israelites, God is exalted and dwells in inapproachable and inaccessible heaven. But it is also clear that God makes himself known in increasingly intensified and localized ways: in Exodus 24, he “descends” upon the mountain (Sinai) in a cloud whose center seems to be a consuming fire. He still is remote – the people are not allowed to ascend the mountain. The right of entering the presence of God on Sinai belongs to Moses alone. Then Exodus 25-31 speaks of a stunning reversal, where God tells Moses that he is interested in dwelling in a tent of meeting, an almost impossible thought for Israel to conceive. 

Tent of Meeting?
Yet in Exodus 33:7-11, God and Moses already come together in “a tent of meeting” far outside the camp. This cannot be the tent of meeting where the Ark of the Covenant will be housed, for that tabernacle is not set up until Exodus 39-40. Rather this tent is a place where God and Moses have temporary fellowship, so close that they meet as friends – and partners. Yet consider that God’s presence is marked by “the pillar of cloud” (33:10), so it is not a simple mutual or symmetrical relationship. God chooses Moses and must either humble himself or elevate Moses, so that the friendship can proceed. 

Exodus 34:29-35 goes even further, for it describes what happens to Moses in such a face-to-face partnership.  He shines with the brilliance of God.  It is almost as if Moses is so set apart, that he is now bodily filled with God. It is an experience of profound unity with God appropriate for a man who is the LORD’s own peculiar possession (see the previous article on Moses for a discussion of the special Hebrew word for “possession”), set apart for God alone. In effect, it is the daily prayer of Moses in his personal tent that becomes the archetype for the soon-to-be constructed tent of meeting and the future priesthood that will preside over sacrifices. 

What are the effects of Moses' experience of profound unity with God? For one thing, Moses now carries with him the divine presence drawing others to worship (Exodus 33:10). Whenever Moses goes to be before God in the tent, others see and worship at their tents. 

For another thing, he is so much like God now that people are afraid of him (Exodus 34:30). People notice that God is so much with him that he shines like God. This status allows him to teach them with authority; he tells them about the Law and they listen. Often in fact the text is ambiguous about who actually is speaking in many contexts, thus, implicitly equating the voice of Moses with the voice of God himself (e.g., 33:14-15)! 

Also God so unites himself with Moses that God consults Moses and changes because of Moses’ counsel.  For example, in the intervening episode about the LORD appearing to Moses and revealing his physical glory and nature (“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness….” [Exodus 34:6]), Moses immediately resorts to prayer and intercession. He says that God must take back his people: he will not move until he has God’s assurance that God will take ownership of the refugees and dwell in the midst of the people (Exodus 34:9). 

Here we see that Moses refuses to take on himself only this “set apart” condition. He unites himself with his own people so much that God cannot take Moses without taking the people with whom he is united. This is the priestly intersection of worship and intercession: Moses unites with God, but he is still united with his people. Thus, God cannot do anything against the people without going through him, and Moses represents the people to God. His role was prefigured in Exodus 33:7-11, performed in 33:12-34:9, and fulfilled in 34:29-35…and the institution he personifies has not even been established until the final two chapters of the Book of Exodus!

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul brings the story of Moses and the glory of God to its conclusion. He says that the Jewish people do not perceive the glory of God because of the veil that keeps them from seeing the true message of the Scriptures (2 Corinthians 3:13-18). The implication is that every man is to have the full view of God’s glory. 

Everyone is to enter the door of the tent, everyone is to be so filled with the divine presence that everyone’s face will shine. And everyone who takes down the veil will have the same effects in their lives, namely, they will cause others to worship and they will bring divine authority into the world and they will be able to consult with God and intercede for changes to happen. Paul expects that everyone in his audience will be a Moses with a glory in their lives that transforms not only the person who sees God, but everything around them.

Questions for reflection:
  1. How can Moses inspire us to more power in our daily prayer?
  2. How can he illustrate the dignity of our calling in intercession?
  3. Think of the parallels between Jesus and Moses, especially in terms of neither having been ordained a priest from the house of Aaron and neither doing their ministry in the institution of the tent or temple per se
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