Transfigured Hermeneutics 8—Moses’ Veil

Transfiguration and Exodus
Transfiguration as Theophany
Jesus as God’s Glory Face in John’s Gospel
The High Priest and the New Temple
The Climactic Word
The Bright Morning Star

This is the eighth of a ten part series on the subject of the Transfiguration of Christ. I have been exploring the significance of the event both within the New Testament and within redemptive history more generally. We will now turn to examine the Apostle Paul’s discussion of themes associated with transfiguration in 2 Corinthians.

In 2 Corinthians 3:1—4:6, Paul provides a deftly theological and richly intertextual defence of his apostolic credentials, which seem to have been called into question by his opponents. To any who might suggest that he needs letters of recommendation, Paul counters that the Corinthian church itself is his letter of recommendation, a letter written by Christ himself, on ‘tablets of flesh’, rather than on ‘tablets of stone’. That an echo to the new covenant theme of God’s writing on human hearts and replacing stone with flesh (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27) is intended here is supported by Paul’s reference to himself and his missionary companions as ‘ministers of the new covenant’ of the life-giving Spirit, rather than the death-dealing Law.

Richard Hays observes: ‘Paul’s intertextual trope hints, in brief, that in the new covenant incarnation eclipses inscription.’[1] The new covenant is ‘enfleshed rather than inscribed’ and its ministry ‘centers not on texts but on the Spirit-empowered transformation of human community.’[2] Paul is not challenging Scripture itself here—for Paul, Scripture is a dynamically living and life-giving word—but a ministry that is merely one of a disembodied ‘written code’, without the power to effect transformation.[3]

To elaborate his case, Paul turns to Exodus 34, as a passage that provides a powerful illustration of the nature of the glory of the old covenant. The old covenant and its ministry were not without glory: the face of Moses, the great mediator of the old covenant, radiated with such dazzling reflected glory that the Israelites could not bear to gaze at it. However, this reflected old covenant glory pales in comparison with the surpassing glory of the new covenant. The temporary and transitory glory of the old covenant is now being eclipsed by the enduring glory of the new. If even a ministry of condemnation displayed such glory, the ministry of new covenant righteousness should be expected to exhibit an overwhelming splendour.

Paul writes that Moses covered his countenance with a veil, ‘so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the telos of what was transitory.’ The term telos has been taken by many as referring to the ‘cessation’ of the supposedly ‘fading’ glory of Moses’ face. Hays argues that we should interpret the term as referring to the ‘goal’ or ‘purpose’ of the transitory covenant. He précises Paul’s argument in the passage:

The veil on Moses’ face hid from Israel the glory of God, which Moses beheld at Sinai, a glory that transfigured him. Israel could not bear looking at the transfigured person and concentrated instead on the script that he gave them. That text, too, bears witness (in a more indirect or filtered manner) to the glory, to the person transfigured in the image of God, who is the true aim of the old covenant. For those who are fixated on the text as an end in itself, however, the text remains veiled. But those who turn to the Lord are enabled to see through the text to its telos, its true aim. For them, the veil is removed, so that they, like Moses, are transfigured by the glory of God into the image of Jesus Christ, to whom Moses and the Law had always, in a veiled fashion, pointed.[4]

The old covenant was a covenant of veils, hiding the glory of God—the veil of Moses, the veil of the tabernacle, and the veil upon the Law. The ministry of Moses—both the man and the text—was one of concealment, providing only glimpses of the glory it harboured. The glory was present, but not manifest. The new covenant is a covenant of the removal of veils—the removal of the veil of the temple, the removal of the veil upon the text, and the unveiling of God’s Glory-face in Jesus Christ. It is also characterized by openness; what was formerly hidden and concealed is now declared freely.

Paul’s use of Moses in this passage is a phenomenally dextrous deployment of biblical metaphor, a scintillating juxtaposition of similarity and dissimilarity to considerable illuminative effect. While drawing a sharp contrast between old and new covenant and their respective ministries, the brilliance of Paul’s argument is seen in the way that he discloses the deep affinity between Moses and the new covenant, presenting Moses as a witness to the glory of Christ, anticipating the unveiling to come. As Paul’s argument unfolds, the ‘dialectical crosscurrents’ that Paul’s use of Moses as a dissimile introduces begin to become apparent.[5] While Moses may be a symbol of veiling, more fundamentally he is a symbol of unveiling, a point that surfaces in verse 16: ‘Moses’ act of entering God’s presence and removing the veil becomes paradigmatic for the experience of Christian believers (“we all”) who “with unveiled face, looking upon the reflected glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory.”’[6] However, what was intermittently experienced by Moses in the old covenant, is fundamentally and enduringly characteristic of the new.

When Moses turned to the Lord (an allusion to Exodus 34:34-35), he removed the veil from his face. While the precise reference of ‘the Lord’ might seem to be ambivalent, without clear Christological meaning, in light of Paul’s descriptions of Christ in the verses that follow—‘the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’; ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’—I believe it is not inappropriate to give it full Christological weight. Paul’s use of Exodus 34 is not just a clever allegorical repurposing of the Old Testament text to illustrate a theological point, but is justified by the deep reality shared by Moses and new covenant believers. The glory that Moses saw was the Glory-face of the Son, the Glory-face that has now been disclosed in Jesus Christ.

I will continue my discussion of 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 in my next post.

[1] Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (London: Yale University Press, 1989), 129.
[2] Ibid. 129-130
[3] Ibid. 130-131
[4] Ibid. 137
[5] Ibid. 142
[6] Ibid. 143

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in 2 Corinthians, Bible, Hermeneutics, Luke, NT, NT Theology, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Transfigured Hermeneutics 8—Moses’ Veil

  1. Pingback: Transfigured Hermeneutics 9—With Unveiled Faces | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: Transfigured Hermeneutics 10—Transfigural Interpretation | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Pingback: Why did Moses put a veil on his face? (and how Pharisees misinterpret it) | A Cry For Justice

  4. Alastair I’m astonished you’ve had no comments here. I just found this post. Thanks! It is so refreshing to read good stuff like this. 🙂

    I’ve written about Moses’ veil and how it is misinterpreted by people in the church who are more like Pharisees than Christians. You might like to google my article “Why did Moses put a veil on his face? (and how Pharisees misinterpret it) ”

    Here’s an excerpt—
    A Christian man who is now an elder in a church once tried to tell me that Moses put the veil on his face to prevent the Israelites noticing that his shine was fading. That man thought that Moses put the veil on his face because he wanted to hide from the Israelites the fact that his face gradually lost its shine after he hadn’t been in the tent of God for a while. See how that fits the prideful mindset of so many church leaders? They are constantly trying to pose as big shot authority figures and lording it over their flock with their masks of superior righteousness and authority, so they imagine that Moses had the same mindset as them and they interpret his using the veil as a power hat, in the same way they wear their own power hats. They attribute motives to Moses through their own fleshly mindset.

    This man imagined that if the Israelites saw Moses’ shine fading, they would lose faith in him and he would no longer have superior status in their eyes. His interpretation made Moses seem like a man driven by pride, a narcissist and a con artist, a man with something to hide. But this cannot be right:

    “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”(Numbers 12:3)

    It seems to me that when someone ascribes motives to Moses for wearing the veil, the motives suggested by the interpreter can often tell us a lot about the interpreter — what his heart is like and the traits that dominate his character. I have often observed that when Pharisees and abusers interpret scripture, they cannot rise above their own level of self-deluded ambition and their heart of pride which craves power and control.

    “with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.” (Ps 18:26)

    I think that man had a Pharisee mindset, or, if you prefer a “Who is the greatest?” mindset like the one which so bedeviled the disciples even up to the Last Supper.

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