“So the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that it was glorified; and Moses put the veil on his face again until he went in to speak with Him.” (OSB)
Over and again in the life of Moses, we see the Scriptures stressing Moses’ unique proximity to God. It is Moses who receives the revelation of the Divine Name at the Burning Bush (Exod 3:14); it is Moses whom God makes “a god to Pharaoh” with Aaron acting as Moses’ prophet (Exod 7:1); it is Moses who cooperates with God to divide the Red Sea (Exod 14:16, 21); and it is Moses who, in a unique way, ascends Mt. Sinai to converse with God and to mediate God’s revelation to the people of Israel (Exod 19:20; 20:21; ch. 24).
After the Golden Calf, Moses takes on a new role as a kind of priestly intercessor, seeking to make atonement for and secure forgiveness for Israel (Exod 32:30ff). Likewise, there is the cryptic passage in Exod 33:7-11 where Moses pitches “his tent”—the “tabernacle of testimony” (martyria)—outside the camp to temporarily converse with God “face to face,” while Joshua (Gk. “Jesus”), son of Nun, does “not depart from the tabernacle” (Exod 33:11). We are then told that Moses is summoned back up to Mt. Sinai, and God reveals Himself to Moses, not directly, but “in the cleft of the Rock” (Exod 33:22)—that is, by “the Word that was made flesh for us” (St. Gregory the Theologian, Orat. 2.3).
These two images—of Moses’ ascent to and descent from Sinai, and Moses’ entrance into and exodus from the Tent—are merged in Exod 34:29-35. Upon descending from Sinai, Moses’ appearance has been transfigured and Israel cannot bear to look directly upon Moses’ face, hence Moses veils his face while speaking to Israel but removes the veil when he enters the Tent to converse with God.
This fascinating and powerful picture occupies an important place as background in the Apostles’ own teaching about our Lord’s Transfiguration and of our own deifying transformation in Him, and of the function of Scripture.
First, with our Lord, we see that Christ is a New and Better Moses. Jesus is not transfigured because He has “seen” God; the incarnate flesh of Christ is the vehicle and “container” of Deity itself (Col 2:9), Whose true glory is briefly unveiled on Mt. Tabor as the Uncreated Light of God permeates and shines forth from Christ’s divinized flesh from within.
Second, with us, we see in Moses’ derivative transfiguration, and in Christ’s ultimate Transfiguration, the pattern of our own salvation in Christ. St. Paul reflects on this in 2 Corinthians 3 when he says that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18). Having been baptized into Christ in and by the Spirit, we increase and grow into the very Image of God, Christ Himself, as we contemplate Him. We too, by grace, have our faces “ting[ed] … with a sort of brilliant radiance” (St. Basil, Hom, 14.5) and are transfigured in soul, spirit, and body, for we are beholding the Uncreated Light in the Face of Christ! This is why, as Orthodox Christians, we believe that the Relics of the Saints are precious and, at times, even remain incorrupt.
And finally, we see that this transformation is directly connected to our reading of the Scriptures. It is in Christ, by the Spirit—and thus within the Church—that the veil that covered the Old Covenant Scriptures is removed, such that we can see the Scriptures’ true meaning—that the words of Scripture form one prophetic Icon of Christ, in Whom is Life and Light.
~ By Reader Justin Gohl