EXODUS 30:11 – 31:17
Torah places the Sabbath at the crown of its instructions, making it the seventh paragraph of the tabernacle instructions just as it was seventh in the poem of creation in Genesis. The unusual thing is Sabbath comes at the culmination of the tabernacle instructions. They are directions about making a place and its articles, but Sabbath is a time rather than a place. How can the two relate?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel resolves the seeming contradiction by calling Sabbath what it is: a palace in time. The tabernacle is God’s earthly palace in space and the Sabbath is his territory in time. “To understand the teaching of the Bible,” says Rabbi Heschel, “one must accept its premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space” (The Sabbath).
Concerning the Sabbath, God says to Israel, כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, ki ōt hi beini uveineichem ledōrōteichem, “It is a sign between me and you for all your generations.” Is he speaking here to all humanity, saying that the Sabbath is a sign between God and human beings? No, because it says also בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל beini uvein benei Yisra’el, “between me and the children of Israel.”
The Sabbath is not a universal commandment. Non-Jews need not keep it. Just as the tabernacle is not meant to limit God to any one place, neither is the Sabbath to restrict his power or holiness to any one time. It is a palace within time, a palace established as part of the relationship between Israel and God. As Rabbi Heschel says, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement” (The Sabbath).
An ancient sermon (midrash) of the rabbis is based on a play on words from the sentence immediately following the Sabbath pericope. Exodus 31:18, following immediately on the heels of the Sabbath text, says וַיִּתֵּן אֶל־מֹשֶׁה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ vayittein ‘el-Moshe kechallōtō, which in the plain sense means, “And he [God] gave unto Moses, when he had finished …” However, the rabbis long ago noted it could be translated a different way, “And he gave [it] unto Moses as his bride.”
The Sabbath is regarded in Jewish custom as a bride and keeping the Sabbath is like a wedding, notes Rabbi Heschel. It is given at the height of the Torah from Sinai, the seventh paragraph in the tabernacle instructions. It is called by God a sign forever. It is designated as the consummation of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. It is, says Rabbi Heschel, “a day on which we are called upon to share what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
The census tax (11-16), the bronze laver (17-21), the anointing oil (22-33), the incense (34-38), the skilled craftsmen (31:1-11), the Sabbath (12-17).
The census tax is in its origin a one-time event, but it later became an annual due in the Second Temple period (Sarna, JPS Commentary). This census tax is used to make the sockets for the Tabernacle (see 38:24-28). Taking a census was considered dangerous. It was a secular means of power, something kings used in order to determine how large of an army they could muster. In the Bible, a census tax is sometimes regarded by God as indicating a lack of faith. Surprisingly, attitudes toward a census outside of Israel were identical: they were considered dangerous, a potential insult to the deity (Cassuto). Therefore, the collected precious metals, silver in this case, were donated to the sanctuary as a “ransom”for the lives of the people which God could decide to require of them for the sin of taking a census!
The logic of this entire operation may escape us. Why not simply refrain from taking a census at all? In Mesopotamia, the need to muster an army and be ready to call up men for battle was too great to ignore, regardless of the religious objections. In Israel, it became a regular temple tax, an annual custom to be collected on the first of Adar in the early spring (Sarna). There is now a special Torah reading of 30:11-16 on the Sabbath before the month of Adar which is called Shabbat shekalim.
Following the census description, the text turns to another article in the sanctuary: the bronze basin. This basin or laver was for ceremonial washing of hands and feet by the priests before they would enter the holy place or carry out duties around the altar. The rationale behind requiring hand and foot washings is simple and based on the purity laws of Torah (mostly found in Leviticus, see my commentary there for extensive description). Ritual impurity was a condition that could attach to a person or object. The hands of the priest would touch the altar or other holy objects and so they should be purified. His feet would tread on holy ground, similarly needing purification. To fail to wash was to invite death due to disrespect.
From census to basin, the topics of this appendix to the tabernacle description now turns to the incense and anointing oil to be made for the sanctuary. The anointing oil and incense powder were made by a sacred recipe, not to be made for any other use. The craftsmen of the Tabernacle were said already to be wise (skilled) and in addition they are now given increased skill (wisdom) by God. That is, the skillful are granted skill, leading Rabbi Johanan to say that God “imparts wisdom only to those who already possess it” (Sarna).
Finally, the seventh section of the tabernacle instructions, like the seventh day of creation, is about the Sabbath. The sections of tabernacle instructions are divided by the clause, “Adonai said/spoke to Moses,” and can be numbered as follows:
Section 1: Exodus 25:1-30:10, Instructions for building the tabernacle and its articles.
Section 2: Exodus 30:11-16, The census tax.
Section 3: Exodus 30:17-21, The bronze basin.
Section 4: Exodus 30:22-33, The anointing oil.
Section 5: Exodus 30:34-38, The sanctuary incense.
Section 6: Exodus 31:1-11, The craftsmen and their divinely received wisdom for making the tabernacle.
Section 7: Exodus 31:12-17, The Sabbath as an eternal sign between Adonai and Israel.
Exodus 31:13 and 17 put the Sabbath in its proper perspective: it is a sign between Israel and God, a sign of the unique relationship between God and his elect people. The false assumption that Sabbath is a universal law for all people overlooks its place in the Torah as a covenant sign of the election of Israel. The location of the Sabbath command here is a reminder that even sacred work should not be undertaken on the Sabbath if it can be done on the six days (thus, no Tabernacle construction on the Sabbath).
EXODUS 31:18 – 33:11
“Make us a god!” This is the cry of a people desperate for magic from the sky. It is a feeling we all have at times. “Make this happen for me, God!” is a similar cry. The idolatrous urge can happen whether we make an idol or turn our mental image of God into one.
There is nothing wrong with the desire to see God act, to ask for or even demand that injustice should end, that what is lacking should be supplied, that death should be averted. The line between idolatry and prayer is subtle.
But sometimes we are not subtle. In one kind of error, we supply our own “gods.” We practice some form of religious magic. We turn God into a formula for obtaining what we want or need. We insist that if we do X God has to supply Y. We tell the dying that they lack faith; otherwise they would receive healing. We form groups where “miracles” are practiced and advertised to attract members. We teach rules and rituals that, if followed, are guaranteed to make a good life.
Again and again, God teaches us that none of the tricks work. But irrationally we prostrate ourselves before golden calves.
“We do not now what has happened to Moses.” What are those angels doing up there? Why are the gates of heaven closed? Why are the answers we seek long in coming? Why all the hiddenness of the divine and the demand for faith and patience? It is intolerable. Let’s make gods to lead us!
Or not. Let’s wait. Let us find acceptance, reconciling ourselves to uncertainty. Let us trust during the long wait. The golden calf is a lie, but God is real.
The two tablets (18), the making of the Golden Calf (32:1-6), Moses’ intercedes (7-14), Moses’ anger (15-20), Aaron’s excuses and apology (21-24), the Levites rally (25-29), Moses intercedes again (30-34), the Presence withdraws (33:1-6), excursus on Moses’ nearness to God (7-11).
How are we to understand the timing of the Golden Calf story in relation to what is happening with Moses (who is receiving the tabernacle instructions)? One way to answer this is to look at the sources of Torah and consider, the Golden Calf story is from the E source. We last heard from E in 24:15, “And Moses ascended the mountain.” If we consider only the E version, Moses is on the mountain and we know nothing about what was happening up there while down below the people were making an idol. Another way to view the story is to look at the final form, the combined Torah account. Moses was on the mountain receiving the tabernacle instructions, which he has not yet relayed to the people.
Umberto Cassuto theorizes that the first covenant, including the command to build the Tabernacle, was rescinded at the Golden Calf and only reinstated after the people were reconciled to God. This provides one possible explanation for the repetition of the tabernacle instructions in Exodus — one of the book’s most unusual features. They are repeated at length because the covenant has been reinstitute and the tabernacle will be built under the renewed covenant. The repetition is a literary technique for representing the broken and renewed covenant.
The story of the people making a young bull covered in gold raises many questions. The beginning to answering them lies in carefully examining what happens according the story. The people are upset in some way due to Moses’ long absence, so they come before Aaron and demand the making of a “god” (or “gods,” the Hebrew allows for either rendering). Their logic is simple: we do not know what has happened to Moses and we need a god to lead us (“go before us”). Aaron complies, using their donated jewelry, and fashions a young bull. The people (not Aaron) then proclaim, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
It is unclear how one statue leads to the people proclaiming the presence of multiple deities. It is also unclear whether the people regarded the statue as a different god, as a representation of Adonai himself, or as a throne or footstool for God/gods.
Aaron builds an altar in front of “it” (singular) and declares the next day a festival to Adonai. Is he trying subtly to bring the idolatrous rebellion of the people back toward sole allegiance to the God of the Exodus? The people hold a festival complete with dancing when the scene changes and we find Adonai telling Moses on the mountain to hurry down. Moses talks God out of annihilating the people using the argument that the promises to the patriarchs were unconditional. Moses and Joshua descend and Moses shatters the tablets he has obtained on the mountain and destroys the statue of the bull the people have made. He challenges Aaron who seems to defend himself by suggesting that the calf “magically” resulted from gold being cast in the fire (perhaps suggesting he thought the calf was the divine will, being the supernatural result of a process).
Moses then calls for those loyal to Adonai to join him. The Levites rally and at Moses’ command they slay a seemingly random assortment of people. God and Moses negotiate again about the fate of the people. A plague breaks out. God says he will send the people into Canaan with an angel, but not with his divine Presence. The people mourn and remove all jewelry (confusing since they donated their jewelry to make the bull statue). The section ends with a discussion about the way Moses would habitually go out to a simple tent (not the tabernacle, which has not yet been built) to meet with God outside the camp. This seems to be a literary prelude to the story which will follow (in two different forms, the E and then the J version) of Moses seeing a more intense theophany.
There is clearly a connection between this story and the future incident, in which Jeroboam, the breakaway king who led the northern tribes to secede and form the kingdom of Israel, makes golden calves and places them at Bethel and Dan (both ends of his new kingdom). One theory (Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?) is that the incident of the golden calf is a fiction written by the priests behind the E source to comment on politics surrounding Jeroboam and his illicit altars and statues. According to this theory, the text is critical of Aaron because the priests behind E did not believe the Aaronid priests to be loyal and true. It is worth noting, among the many connections between the golden calf and the Jeroboam stories, that Jeroboam’s sons were named Nadab and Abiyah (like Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu). A contrary theory, that of Umberto Cassuto, is that Jeroboam’s actions were based on what had happened with the golden calf incident. Jeroboam, according to this theory, decided the bull statue made in the wilderness was a good idea, so he sided against the direction Moses and the people had chosen and brought the bull statue back.
How much of God is enough? How much is too much? Where is the boundary between experiencing him personally and getting too close so that we are burned up like a bird flying too close to the sun?
No human being saw as much of God as Moses. Already in Exodus we have been treated to multiple accounts of Moses experiencing closer proximity to and a higher intensity of divine revelation than anyone. All Israel saw the thick cloud of darkness on Sinai with the fire of God in its midst. But Moses alone went inside and stayed there for days on end. Moses would speak with God “face to face” (Exodus 33:11).
Yet somehow, Moses wanted more. “Let me know your ways.” Somehow all the knowledge and insight he was gaining on top of Sinai and in the tent of meeting was not enough for Moses. He wanted more. “Please show me your Presence!” All that he had seen, it was all not enough. Somehow Moses, who went inside the cloud of mystery and saw far more than anyone in Israel, still he felt he had penetrated only the outermost layer of God’s being. He still did not count this as seeing God’s Presence.
If there are levels of intensity in the vision of God, even now that God is granting him greater access, Moses will ascend only a few of the levels. Kabbalah, a school of Jewish thought which is a kind of mysticism, imagines there being precisely ten levels of divine manifestation. This is all based on speculation without any solid evidence. Nonetheless the concept is revealing. At the highest level, if we could imagine it, we would see God unveiled, his Direct Being. This level is called the Ein Soph, the Endless.
God made it clear to Moses that he could not see anywhere near the level of the Ein Soph. “A human being cannot see my face and live.” Instead of this, Moses will see God’s Presence and hear the divine voice speaking God’s Name and a description of his nature. One message communicated through all of this is that we, the hearers and readers of Torah, are receiving an inside view of God through the Torah itself. We are onlookers of Moses’ insight, receiving knowledge beyond what humans usually discover.
God agrees to Moses’ request (17), Moses adds a new request: to see his Glory (18), God agrees with many qualifications (19-23).
Moses negotiates until God agrees in vs. 17 to personally lead Israel. Being led by an angel was not sufficient in Moses’ eyes. Israel must have its place as God’s distinct, elect people with the sign of God’s direct Presence among them or Moses will not relent.
Furthermore, in vs. 13 Moses had already begun to ask something for himself, something which was about Moses and God. “Let me know your ways,” was Moses’ request in vs. 13. Now, once God has granted the request on Israel’s behalf, Moses presses in further. This time he states the request more boldly. הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת־כְּבֹדֶךָ har’eini et-kevōdecha. JPS renders it, “Oh, let me behold your Presence!” It could be translated, “Please show me your Glory!”
God agrees, but with reservations. Cassuto paraphrases God’s response: “It is possible for you to hear the voice of the Lord speaking to you as one hears that of his friend (vs.11), but as far as seeing is concerned . . . there is a boundary man cannot cross.” What follows is a list of amendments to Moses’ proposal. What Moses will see will be from inside a cleft of rock, so that he will be protected. Even more than that, God will put his hand over the opening in the rock to further shield him, only removing his hand after his face has passed by and when Moses will only be able to see his back. And besides all these precautions, it is God’s “goodness” that will pass by. “Goodness” stands for some emanation or aspect of God’s character, not his direct Being. And part of this revelation will include God proclaiming his Name and expressing in words something about his nature.
None of this is even close to Moses seeing the direct Being of God. Nonetheless, the level of revelation Moses will have of God (the intensity of the manifestation or its level of proximity to God’s full Being) will be enough that Moses must be sheltered in a rock and protected. The implication is that even a glimmer of God’s Being is too much for mortals and that there are varying levels of manifestation or emanation of God (from the fire-cloud which all Israel can see to the higher levels Moses normally sees to this new level and also to level beyond what Moses can endure). Moses will see God’s attributes, a revelation leading closer to God’s essential Nature, but not too close.
Thank God for second chances. Even third and fourth chances. With the first set of tablets broken, the covenant was set aside. The people of Israel failed to even get started with their part of the pact with God. Total failure looked like the end of the relationship.
But God. God is רַחוּם rachum, compassion. He gives favor, חַנּוּן chanun. He has abundant lovingkindness and faithfulness (רַב־חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת rav chesed v’emet).
It is not God’s nature to let us fail and leave it at that. God is “in search of” man, as Rabbi Heschel puts it in the title of his best known book. His nature is to reach down and pull us up, over and over again, until we become what we are made to be.
The Thirteen Attributes of God, proclaimed to Moses via the Divine Voice on Mount Sinai, are God’s Name. The Divine Name includes these attributes. They are God’s essence, the summary in human language of who he is and what his ways are like. They are his essential qualities. And we see them repeatedly coming to bear on God’s dealings with the children of Israel. We hear that he will also deal with the nations according to this same set of qualities. He cannot deny himself.
And so we know, beyond all doubt, God is never through with us. It is never too late. We have never run out of chances. Redemption cannot be lost. If we see ourselves falling short it is simply because we have not attained to it yet.
God calls Moses up the mountain to see his Glory and remake the tablets (1-3), Moses ascends (4), the Lord descends and proclaims his Nature (5-7), Moses asks for a promise of God’s future Presence with Israel (8-9).
In chapter 34, the J source returns, having been absent since chapter 19 (Moses first ascent of the mountain) with the exception of a brief note at the end of chapter 24 saying Moses was on the mountain forty days and nights. 34:1-28 is the end of the J version of the story, at least as much of it as we possess. It ends with a short version of the law code which Moses heard from God on Sinai.
The account begins with the making of tablets. In J’s version these are the first tablets, but the editor of Torah inserts language referring to the “first tablets” to harmonize the versions into one whole account. This raises the question, for readers who are taking the account of Torah as history, was there a second set of tablets? The idea makes sense. Moses shattered the first ones and once God has forgiven Israel there will be a covenant renewal including a second set of tablets. The first set were made by God, but Moses had the second set cut from rock and brought them up the mountain so God would write on them (compare 32:16 and 34:1, Cassuto).
The description here of Moses ascending to receive God’s commandments is much more concise than the first on in chapters 19-20, but contains the same basic elements. There are warnings that no one else should even approach the mountain. God’s descent in a cloud with fire inside happens again, just as at first. God’s proclamations are much shorter here than in the first ascent. The central message this time is God’s description of his own attributes which is followed by instructions for taking the land and a short summary of laws.
God’s description of his own attributes is known in Judaism as The Thirteen Attributes (Shalōsh-Esrei Middot). God begins by proclaiming his name: yod-hey-vav-hey. The way the story presents it, the thirteen attributes are to be thought of as part of the Name of God. A name is more than a label in ancient thought, but contains something of the essence or character of a person. What does the Divine Name stand for? God tells us.
His Name is his way of dealing with us by compassion (רַחוּם rachum), showing favor (חַנּוּן chanun), and having abundant lovingkindness (חֶסֶד chesed) and faithfulness (אֱמֶת emet). We will see in the Torah and the rest of the Bible again and again that God lives up to his attributes. He is long-suffering with Israel’s failures and willful rebellions. He puts away but takes back, allows the consequences of wrongdoing to happen but returns us from exile, judges but relents, denounces but still states his enduring love, and always gives us hope for redemption and full reconciliation.
The unusual contrast in vs. 7 between God extending lovingkindness (חֶסֶד chesed) to the thousandth generation but visiting iniquity (פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן pōqeid ‘avōn, perhaps “dealing with iniquity” is a better translation) to the third and fourth generation requires some explaining. First, why the difference in the extent of God’s carrying out either lovingkindness or judgment, to the thousandth in one case but to the fourth in the other? Second, with all that has been said about God’s willingness to forgive, why this negative note about holding children accountable for the sins of father and grandfathers? The key is to understand the difference between the first case, resulting in lovingkindness for a thousand generations, and the second, resulting in judgment for four generations. The principle has been stated in Torah already in 20:5-6 where we find the difference is that the generations who are judged “reject me” [meaning they reject God]. In other words, an unrepentant nation of Israel will see negative repercussions for four generations. But a nation that repents and wholeheartedly follows God’s ways will see immeasurable favor for a thousand. The unevenness in the numbers indicates God’s heavy favoring of reward over punishment and not by a small amount, but by orders of magnitude. Yet the negative note remains because an unrepentant nation will see judgment for as long as four generations. It is unclear what will change by the fifth generation, but perhaps the implication is that God will not leave his people under judgment forever but will do something to end the period of exile and retribution.
The first section of this ascent story ends in vs. 9 with Moses asking for something more than what he has already obtained from God (Cassuto). God was ready to destroy Israel after the golden calf incident and Moses obtained a promise of God’s continuing Presence. Now Moses as asking for yet more: that he would promise to send his Presence not only in the next endeavor, but into the future, and to keep Israel as his inheritance. Thus, Moses has won great favor for Israel in stages: that God would go with Moses and help as he leads (33:12-14), that God will go with all Israel and not just Moses (33:15-17), and that God’s Presence with Israel will remain (34:9).
“I will work such wonders as have not been done in any nation . . . you must not make a covenant with any of the inhabitants of the Land.”
Israel was not supposed to be like any other nation. Of course, the Israelites were every bit as human as anyone else. But God held out to the early generations of Israel a potential for something the world has never seen. Things technology and many centuries of progress have not managed to achieve, God offered to this tiny nation long, long ago in the Bronze Age.
“Threshing season,” for grain, “will overlap with wine season,” God promised (Lev 26:5). “You will eat your fill of bread.”
“I will give you peace in your land,” the promises continued, “and you will lie down carefree” (Lev 26:6). “No sword shall cross your land.”
“I will establish my dwelling place in your midst; I will not reject you. I will be ever present among you” (Lev 26:11-12).
“Adonai will take away from you all sickness, and you will not experience any of the diseases of Egypt” (Deut 7:15).
God gave an ideal on Sinai which gives us still a different worldview and a hope unlike any other. The basest desires of humanity are not our true identity. As a human race we may never have been able to escape our flaws, but the potential to be something better does exist. At one time and in one place God did call a people to rise above all that. Neither are our typical conditions — hunger, poverty, epidemics, wars — a necessary part of human existence.
When we achieve the potential for which we were made, none of these will exist any longer. Each of us as individuals can to some degree rise above it by living for something higher and more lasting. Each of us in our own way may be able to make on a small scale a circle of relationships and ways of relating to each other that are directed toward the world to come. To make a covenant with the inhabitants of the Land is to settle for baser goals, selfish aims merely to grab what we can at the expense of others. To be a people among whom God will work such wonders as the world has never seen is to live for the Ideal, the dream, the way that may seem impossible until that very day when God brings it about.
Promise of wonders and conquest (10-11) Laws of apostasy (12-17), restatement of festival laws (18-26).
Moses has negotiated for more from God. He gets an affirmation in vss. 10-11 that God will do wonders such as no people has ever seen. The tiny people, Israel, who are escaping slaves from Egypt, will possess the land of the well-established Canaanites who currently dwell there. God will cause his small and seemingly insignificant nation to triumph.
Some commentators (e.g., Sarna, JPS Commentary) read the laws of vss. 12-17, as a stricter statement of the danger of apostasy (religious unfaithfulness) given in light of the incident with the golden calf. According to this reading, we have here a sort of second giving of Torah, a Torah of renewal following the rebellion of the children of Israel. And this second giving emphasizes more clearly the danger of apostasy once Israel is in the land where Canaanites may become a bad influence. In the first giving of the law (according to this reading), the people received a brief and simple injunction not to worship their gods and to destroy their cultic objects (23:23-24). Now they are instructed in more detail and also told not to make any covenant with the Canaanites in the land (Sarna). Furthermore, they are told that God is jealous (or impassioned). Incidents like the Golden Calf incite his wrath. Idolatry is like adultery and God like the jealous husband.
The festivals are the next subject because in the Golden Calf incident the people proclaimed a festival (Sarna). Likewise, when Jeroboam later made Golden Calves he proclaimed a festival (1 Kgs 12:28-33). Unleavened Bread appears first because the people had declared the Golden Calf to be the God that led them out of Egypt (Sarna). These festival laws do not add anything to what had been given in 23:12-19.
But another way of reading this section of laws is to realize it is the version from the J source. It is not a “second” giving of Torah, but a parallel to the E version we read in chapters 20-23. J’s version is much shorter and does emphasize the danger of assimilation to Canaanite idolatry more than E did.
The final editor of Torah, perhaps Ezra the scribe, was served well by this emphasis in J. It makes sense to place J’s summary of Torah after the golden calf story. The difference we see between the E code of laws and the J summary of God’s laws could be read as a progression in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Whatever the origin of th two versions of the law code may have been, they are now incorporated into one larger narrative. The overall message is that God greatly desires for the children of Israel to attain to his covenant, to make something happen on earth that no one has ever seen in history. Ultimately we realize that Israel as a nation did not achieve this glory.
There are things we have yet to experience that we cannot fathom. Our glimpses of the mystery of existence are paltry and in poverty of knowledge we are quick to declare that there is no unknown. Our science and philosophy have discovered the final layer and there is little to no room for wonder.
Our certainty as a human race is laughable. All of us catch sight at times of obscurity and what lies beyond our awareness. “We are all surrounded by things which we apprehend but cannot comprehend,” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man). One reaction of human thinking has been to declare the universe meaningless. Heschel calls it the way of beginning with humans and their needs and then seeing the universe as a waste of energy because it does not appear to be designed to supply our wants. The other way, he says, is to begin with amazement and assume “that the universe is full of a glory that surpasses man and his mind.”
What was it like for Moses on Sinai forty days and nights? Having all been through boring and tedious religious observances, we may be quick to assume it was dreadful and that he could not wait for it all to end so he could be free again. What if, just perhaps, we have it backwards? What if it was a rapture so intense, a heightening of the mind beyond the usual limits, that could not possibly have lasted long enough? The usual laws of entropy were suspended. His body needed no food. The fabric of being changed in the Presence of the Maker of all existence.
We catch glimpses sometimes which Maimonides (and through him also Rabbi Heschel) compared to lightning flashes. As if we are in the dark and pouring rain, when an ephemeral second of light shows us a scene only to have it removed before we can comprehend what we have just observed, so at times we get an insight into the Eternal. Imagine that mind-surpassing revelation lasting for forty days.
We have not yet scratched the surface of meaning.
Moses rewrites the Ten Words (27-28), the Glory of the Lord on Moses’ face (29-35).
We find out something unusual in vss. 27-28. The words God has just spoken to Moses (in vss. 10-26) are called the Ten Words (also known as the Ten Commandments). But these words are quite different from the Ten Words in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. As Richard Elliott Friedman observes (The Bible with Sources Revealed), Exodus 34:10-26 is the J version of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20 is by an unknown source, which he thinks predates E or J (in other words, it could go back to Moses’ time). The version in Deuteronomy is nearly identical to Exodus 20. But the Exodus 34 version has only three commandments in common (and even then with different wording): that God alone is to be worshipped, that no idols shall be made, and that the Sabbath must be observed.
An alternative way to read the text, if you prefer to harmonize the story, is that vs. 27 refers to a separate act of writing Exodus 34:10-26 and vs. 27 refers to engraving the Ten Commandments on the tablets.
Moses remained a second time on the mountain with the Presence for forty days and nights (see 24:18 for the first forty). Cassuto argues that the account of the second period on the mountain emphasizes Moses being with the Presence, whereas the first emphasized him receiving revelation. During this second forty day period, Moses does not eat or drink but is just “with” Adonai.
With vs. 29, the P version of the story resumes. We last heard from P in 31:18, where Moses had just received the two tablets of the “testimony” (Friedman observes that P never refers to the Ten Commandments and also never tells us what the “testimony” is).
When Moses descended, he was unaware that the radiance of the divine Glory remained on his face. The word describing the shining of divine light from his face pictures the radiance as beams, using the same root (קָרַן qaran) as horns (as in the horns of an ox).
The story has an unexpected feature to it. The people shrink away from Moses, afraid of the remaining divine light coming from his face. Yet Moses speaks with them about all that God told him on the mountain and only after he is done does Moses put a veil on his face to cover up the awe-inducing glory. This led to an interpretation which we see reflected in the writings of Paul in the New Testament, that Moses was actually not trying to hide the radiance, but rather wished to conceal the fact that it would fade away after a short time.