After the Israelites worship the golden calf, Moses smashes the tablets of God’s teaching. In response, the Lord tells Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets” (Exodus 34:1). When Moses creates new tablets, he offers Israel a second chance to keep the covenant. Yet, God does more than just renew the commands. Moses’ interaction with God in Exodus 34 recalls their first meeting at the burning bush (3:1-4:17), which shows that God makes a fresh start with the Israelites after their transgression. By using language that reminds readers of the burning bush, Scripture highlights God’s willingness to offer second chances, and to remain a constant source of salvation for imperfect people.
After Moses receives the new Torah tablets, “the skin of his face (פנים; panim) shone because he had spoken with [God]” (34:29). Moses put “a veil over his face, [but] whenever Moses went in before the Lord… he would remove (סור; sur) the veil” (34:33-34). The Hebrew סור (sur)—translated “remove”—literally means to “turn.” Moses’ “turning” the veil from his face recalls the very first meeting between him and God. When Moses spots a bush ablaze, he says, “I will turn (סור; sur) to see” (3:3)—but when God called to him out of the bush, “Moses hid his face (פנים; panim), for he was afraid to look at God” (3:6). When Moses receives the new tablets, however, he does not “turn” and hide his face as he did at the burning bush, but rather “turns” the veil from his face in order to commune more closely with God. Exodus 34 returns the reader to Exodus 3 to show how the relationship between Moses and God has been strengthened since their first encounter.
In the first discussion with Moses, God offers him a sign that anticipates his shining face in Exodus 34. God tells Moses to put his hand into his cloak, and the hand becomes diseased. “Then [God] said, ‘Return (שוב; shuv) your hand into your cloak.’ [Moses] returned (שׁוב) his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored (שׁוב; literally, “returned”) like [the rest of] his flesh” (4:7). Just as God provides Moses with a sign that alters his skin at the burning bush, Moses’ skin shines in Exodus 34, and both skin-related miracles necessitate a Mosaic act of “return”: “The skin of Moses’ face was shining, and Moses would return (שוב; shuv) the veil upon his face until he went in to speak with [God]” (34:35). The echoes of the burning bush in Exodus 34 teach readers that even after a transgression as weighty as idol worship, the God of Israel cleans the relational slate; it is as though God meets with Moses for the first time and offers the people the same salvation they received when they came out of Egypt. Exodus emphasizes God’s capacity for offering second chances, and the divine desire to continue alongside us in the wake of tragedy.