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According to the Hebrew text of Exo. 34:33,

וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה מִדַּבֵּר אִתָּם וַיִּתֵּן עַל פָּנָיו מַסְוֶה

did Moshe speak to the Israelites with a veil upon his face or without a veil upon his face?

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What would you give for a more legible Hebrew font on BH.SE, eh? :/ –  Davïd Mar 3 at 7:39
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I'd like to see some SBL BibLit...don't know if that's possible though. :) –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 3 at 7:46
    
I believe this is one of the better questions I have seen on BH. The AV has it as "till he was finished speaking," most others have it as "when he was finished speaking." I even consulted Matthew Henry on the issue, and his addition was not helpful, but I will quote it for you here nonetheless. "Moses put a veil upon his face, when he perceived that it shone, v. 33, 35." I suspect that you are going to need someone far more skilled in Hebrew than myself. –  DrFry Mar 3 at 19:32
    
@Davïd you could just use a different font on BH.SE yourself, no? –  Sparr Mar 5 at 20:20
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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

So, in Exodus 34:33,

did Moshe speak to the Israelites with a veil upon his face or without a veil upon his face?

I think the short answer is "yes".* The longer answer follows.

* That is: yes Moshe spoke with a veil (eventually); and yes, Moshe spoke without a veil (in the instance of Ex 34:33, etc.). See the end of this answer for a small excursus on the problem here.

The wider context is the complex of events involving the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-34), framed by the Sabbath notices of Ex 31:12-17 (31:18 has a significant narrative connection to ch. 34) and 35:1-3. (On either side of the Sabbath notices are the instructions for and execution of tabernacle construction -- a nicely nested literary structure.)

The immediate context is Moshe's descent from the mountain with the replacement tablets. The major Tanakh division falls between 34:26 and 27, with the verb of speaking in v. 27 providing the occasion for the petucha. On this reading, the covenant recapitulation of vv. 27-28 introduces the scenario with Moshe's shining face that follows.

Most modern versions and analyses (as a brief survey of commentaries and translations suggests) puts the division at vv. 28/29, signalled by the וַיְהִי [wayĕhî] (= NASB: "It came about when...") of v. 29, so that vv. 27-28 conclude the giving of the so-called cultic decalogue that precedes.

Whatever the division (and it's an interesting question in its own right), the "action" that bears on the interpretation of v. 33 commences in v. 29. There is a narrative sequence "launched" by wayĕhî:

  • 29a = scene setting : Moshe's descent from the mountain
  • 29b = offline : Moshe unaware of his altered state
  • 30aα = narrative moves : וַיַּרְא [wayyarʾ] Aaron and the rest see him
  • 30aβ = offline : Moshe's shining skin
  • 30b-31 = narrative movement :1
    • וַיִּירְאוּ [wayyîrĕʾû] they feared Moshe (and ran?),
    • וַיִּקְרָא [wayyiqrāʾ] he called them,
    • וַיָּשֻׁבוּ [wayyāšūbû] and they returned,
    • וַיְדַבֵּר [way(y)ĕdabbēr] and Moshe spoke to them.
  • 32a = temporal marker/outcome : וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן נִגְּשׁוּ [wĕʾaḥărê-kēn niggĕšû] “following that, they came near...” (ʾaḥărê-kēn is used 49x in the Hebrew Bible, always signalling consequent action)
  • 32b = narrative continues : וַיְצַוֵּם [way(y)ĕṣawwēm] and Moshe commanded them...
    • 33a = וַיְכַל [way(y)ĕkal] he finished,
    • 33b = וַיִּתֵּן [wayyittēn] and put on the veil.

That completes the immediate narrative scenario. Given the verb sequence, it seems unambiguous to me that the "veiling" in 34:33b is the next action, following on from the conclusion of Moshe's conveying the divine message to his audience. In that sense, the most direct answer to the question "Did Moshe speak with or without a veil in 34:33?" is: without.

We come, then, to Exodus 34:34-35: it is introduced with וּבְבֹא [ûbĕbōʾ] "so whenever" (Moshe entered the LORD's presence, etc.) -- using the preposition be- plus infinitive construct -- and the account continues with verbs either in yqtl ("imperfect") or wqtl ("'modal' perfect"). This is not part of the narrative sequence, but now recounts what typically happened (sometimes styled "frequentative") whenever Moses followed the same pattern:

  • veil OFF to (1) confer with the LORD, and (2) report this information back to the people;
  • but otherwise, veil ON.

The two elements here (i.e., the narrative account of Moshe's arrival back in the camp + the generalized picture of his speaking with LORD/to people thereafter) consistently show Moshe's behaviour with the veil:

When speaking "prophetically", the veil is OFF; otherwise the veil is ON.

As Umberto Cassuto put it,2

It was precisely when Moses was speaking to the people as God's messenger and when he was alone with the Divine Presence (v. 34) that he did not put the veil over his face, whilst in his daily life he covered his face with it.

It is similarly characterized by Brevard Childs:3

...the veil covers his face only in the period in which he is not performing his office of receiving or communicating God's word.

Thus, Moshe's actions in using the veil (or "mask" as some commentaries put it)4 are consistent and reasonably plain. What is less clear is why he did this, or what it was meant to achieve. On this larger question -- which is a different one from that posed here -- see the specialist bibliography attached, especially Philpot's 2013 article which is (I think) available in full-text PDF.

Excursus. One of the presenting problems in this little narrative (Ex 33:29-33 specifically) was noticed at least by Calvin's time. If the source of Aaron & Co's fear was Moshe's "shining face", why was the veil left off while speaking to them? Surely, if the "shining face" was the issue, he would cover it, and then speak with Aaron and the rest of the congregation, no? Or so the thinking went. One solution was to "play" with the Hebrew tenses, another was to implicitly re-order the clauses of 34:33. See Calvin's commentary, and click fn. 389 to see the useful information added by Calvin's Victorian-era editor. (What concerned Calvin and later readers in that tradition did not register as a problem to Rashi, since (a) Rashi understood these verses to be the generalized case, not a sequential narrative, and (b) he attached different value to the "rays" emanating from Moshe's face.)


Notes

  1. Rashi understands the "generalized" scenario to begin here: [from this point] "this entire passage is in the present tense". Most modern readings restrict this to 34:34-35.
  2. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (The Magnes Press, 1967), p. 450.
  3. B.S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Westminster/John Knox, 1974), p. 618.
  4. For "cultic mask" at this passage, see commentators such as e.g., Gressmann (in Mose und seine Zeit, 1913, who seems to have launched this understanding), Jirku, Dozeman, Durham.

Bibliography

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Superb. When you say, I think the short answer is "yes" - perhaps you can elaborate what you are responding with "yes" to at that point. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 5 at 17:21
    
I was being a bit of a tease, TBH. :) Does my little expansion make it less elusive? Also did a few other small detail edits. Glad you found it useful. –  Davïd Mar 5 at 20:21
    
Now that I think of it, where did you get the idea that Moshe (ever) spoke with the veil on? –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 7 at 0:20
    
Quite possibly through things such as NET Bible's "tn" 70 (which I can't understand except as some kind of fabrication or wish fulfilment), and the considerations noted in the wee "excursus" (above). There's no doubt this passage has occasioned some head-scratching over the years, but the Hebrew is clear: readers have nonetheless intuited some awkwardness here. –  Davïd Mar 7 at 7:47
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The first time Moses spoke to the assembled multitude shortly after coming down from the Mountain of God with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands, he did not cover his resplendent face with a veil. Each subsequent time he addressed the multitude after "going in before YHWH," however, he would cover his face, but would remove the veil upon going in before YHWH once again.

While I cannot help you with the Hebrew of this verse, I will provide the footnotes of the NET.org website and the verses (or segments of verses) corresponding to them:

"When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone; 
  • 69 tn [text note] This clause is introduced by the deictic particle הִנֵּה (hinneh); it has the force of pointing to something surprising or sudden.
"and they were afraid to approach him. But Moses called to them,
so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, 
and Moses spoke to them. After this all the Israelites approached, 
and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount 
Sinai. When Moses finished 
  • 70 tn Heb “and Moses finished”; the clause is subordinated as a temporal clause to the next clause.
"speaking
  • 71 tn The Piel infinitive construct is the object of the preposition; the whole phrase serves as the direct object of the verb “finished.”
"with them, he would 
  • 72 tn Throughout this section the actions of Moses and the people are frequentative. The text tells what happened regularly
"put a veil on his face. But when Moses went in 
  • 73 tn The construction uses a infinitive construct for the temporal clause; it is prefixed with the temporal preposition: “and in the going in of Moses.”
"before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil until he came out. 
  • 74 tn The temporal clause begins with the temporal preposition “until,” followed by an infinitive construct with the suffixed subjective genitive.
"Then he would come out and tell the Israelites what he had been commanded. 
  • 75 tn The form is the Pual imperfect, but since the context demands a past tense here, in fact a past perfect tense, this is probably an old preterite form without a vav consecutive.
"When the Israelites would see 
  • 76 tn Now the perfect tense with vav consecutive is subordinated to the next clause, “Moses returned the veil….”
"the face of Moses, that 
  • 77 tn Verbs of seeing often take two accusatives. Here, the second is the noun clause explaining what it was about the face that they saw.
"the skin of Moses’ face shone, Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the Lord.
  • 78 tn Heb “with him”; the referent (the Lord) has been specified in the translation for clarity

Caveat: For those who do not recognize the authority of the New Testament, the following observations will likely not be of interest.

The Apostle Paul cites Moses' experience in Exodus 34 to make a theological point:

2 Corinthians 3:13 - "We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away."

In other words, rightly or wrongly Paul attributes the motive for Moses veiling his face not so much to his not wanting his audience to be fearful or ill at ease, but to prevent his audience from seeing the effulgence of YHWH's glory fading away from his face! Perhaps Moses realized in his heart that he could not, as a fallible human being, retain that effulgence for very long. I suggest that if any one of us today were to be in Moses' position, that effulgence would soon disappear from our faces as well. The best we can hope for is to reflect the glory of the One is eternally, immutably, and incomparably holy and who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16).

Later in the same chapter Paul says,

2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV - "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

Here, the apostle suggests that believers in Jesus Christ need not wear a veil as we interact with the multitude, whether believers or unbelievers, because God desires His children to reflect His glory as they live out their lives in the world.

As Jesus put it:

Matthew 5:14-16 - "'You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven

There is an incident in Evangelist Matthew's Gospel which could be interpreted as a parallel to the incident in Exodus 34. We read in

Matthew 17:1-3 - "After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

This incident on the "mount of transfiguration" has something in common both with Moses' experience with YHWH in Exodus 34 and with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. In each incident a face is "transfigured."

  • "There [Jesus] was transfigured before [Peter, James, and John]. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light" (Matthew 17:2)

  • "His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them" (Mark 9:3)

  • "As [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning" (Luke 9:29).

Why God the Father chose to glorify His Son in this way at this particular time is not yet clear to me. That He did, however, was proof that Jesus' Father

  • considered Jesus His Son (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

  • loved Him (Matthew and Mark)

  • had chosen Him (Luke only)

  • was well pleased with Him (Matthew only)

  • wanted Jesus' inner circle to listen to Him

In conclusion, as important as Moses and Elijah were to God's economy under the Old Covenant, they paled (no pun intended) in comparison to the surpassing worth and work of God's one and only begotten Son. While Jesus' appearance changed (we assume) after coming down from the mount, and his face was no longer shining like the sun, the fading of God's glory from Jesus' face was simply another indication of Jesus' willingness to humble Himself and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). In essence, Jesus veiled the glory that was His in eternity past, not counting His

"equality with God something to be grasped, but [emptying] Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men . . . becoming obedient to the point of death" (ibid., vv.6b-7).

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How does this answer the question? I'm not seeing it. –  Daи Mar 5 at 21:46
    
@ Daи: I recommend you read the first full paragraph after footnote 78. Perhaps I'll re-word it and make it the first paragraph in my answer. Don –  rhetorician Mar 5 at 22:40
    
That's an explanation of a passage in 1 Corinthians, not an explanation of the Hebrew text in Exodus. This went WAAAY off target. –  Daи Mar 5 at 23:04
    
@ Daи: The answer to the OP's question is found in the first paragraph (as promised), and the answer is based on the English text in EXODUS (in the NASV Updated). The passages in Corinthians may be "WAAAY off target," as you put it, but in the tradition of the analogy of Scripture, they are certainly germane to the topic and add some interesting and instructive information as well. Don –  rhetorician Mar 6 at 1:09
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