29 Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Bible and covers the period from the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt under Pharaoh (around 1250 BCE, if the account is historical), the Exodus itself, and the early months in the Wilderness.
Because of this reading from the Hebrew Bible and today’s Gospel reading, many Christians refer to this Sunday as “Transfiguration Sunday.” In this reading, Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mount Sinai after speaking with YHWH (translated as LORD in all capital letters). On the mountain, he (Moses) wrote the “words of the covenant” (the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words) on tablets as directed by YHWH (34:27). Moses put a veil over his face after he gave the people the Commandments (v.33) and he removed the veil whenever he spoke to YHWH face-to-face (v.34).
Today’s reading is set at Mount Sinai (“Horeb” in other parts of Exodus and in Deuteronomy) during the time in the Wilderness.
The account in today’s reading is Moses’ second return from the top of Mount Sinai. Just a few chapters earlier, Moses came down from the mountain with the Commandments written by YHWH in the first account of the giving of the commandments (31:18). When Moses and YHWH saw that the Israelites built a Golden Calf, YHWH threatened to destroy them. Moses pleaded with YHWH to reverse that decision and YHWH relented (Chapters 32 and 33).
The Hebrew words saying that Moses’ face “shone” (v.29) – or in other translations “was radiant” – shares an etymological root with the word “horn” (as in an instrument or source of sound projections). In his translation of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), Jerome rendered these Hebrew words as “was horned.” This unfortunate translation was the basis for Michelangelo’s statue of Moses showing him with horns and led to the antisemitic belief that Jews had horns.
The Jewish Study Bible points out that there are passages in Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Psalm 104 portraying the Divine Presence as surrounded by radiant luminosity and that this is a concept also found in Mesopotamian literature where it is called “fearsome radiance.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary opines that the radiance of Moses’ face demonstrates his privileged position as a servant close to YHWH, and as reaffirming his position as the intermediary between God and the Israelites.
Moses’ speaking with God face-to-face became an important aspect of the description of the expected Messiah when this account in Exodus was combined with two verses in the Book of Deuteronomy. In one of these verses, YHWH promised to “raise up for them [the people of Israel] a prophet like you [Moses].” (Deut. 18.18) The other verse stated that no other prophet in Israel has been known by God face-to-face (Deut. 34.10).
Today’s Gospel reading presents Jesus of Nazareth as conversing with Moses and Elijah, and notes that “the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white” (LK 9:29).
2 Peter 1:13-21
13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, 14 since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
In the First Century, it was not uncommon to write something in another person’s name so that the writing would have extra “authority” – particularly when the writer believed he knew what the “authority” (in this case, Peter) would have said. This is called pseudepigraphy.
The Second Letter of Peter was likely written some time between 100 and 150 CE (Peter died in the 60’s CE) and it was written in the popular Greek rhetorical style of the age, not a style that would have been customary for a Galilean fisherman. The NJBC sees the letter as “written to a pluralistic Church of Jewish-Christian and a Greek converts.” It says the “language is good Greek with special attention to technical, intellectual terms, such as ‘divine nature’.”
The Jewish Annotated New Testament understands the reference to “in this body” (v.13) as a juxtaposition to the glorious, resurrected body anticipated after death. By alluding to his death “as coming soon” (v.14), the letter presented itself as a “testament” (final advice and warnings) by Peter based on his own experiences. The JANT notes that early Christian legend from the 2nd and 3rd centuries states that Peter was crucified upside-down by Nero in 64 CE.
It is not clear if the author of 1 Peter and 2 Peter was the same person.
This short (three chapters) letter emphasized the dangers of false prophets and presented a vision of the world so corrupt that it could be saved only by the Second Coming of the Christ.
In today’s reading, “Peter” claimed he was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration of Jesus (v.16) where he heard the voice of God declare that Jesus was God’s Son and God’s Beloved. The New Oxford Annotated Bible points out that the wording of the heavenly voice (v.17) is different from the words spoken at the Transfiguration as recounted in the Synoptic Gospels. The NAOB surmises that the writer of the letter may have been relying on an oral tradition rather than a written gospel. The “holy mountain” (v.18) is not identified, but The JANT points out that early (late 2nd Century and after) Church fathers such as Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome said it was Mount Tabor. Mount Tabor is located in the Lower Galilee at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee.
Connecting the reference to the “morning star” (v.19) to Revelation 22:16, The NAOB interprets the morning star as the Christ who will return. The JANT sees the “lamp shining” reference (v.19) as related to Matt. 5:15 (“do not hide a lamp shining under a bushel basket”) and the “day dawns” (v.19) as a reference to Judgment Day.
“Peter” concludes that prophesy comes from God to humans who are moved by the Spirit to speak for God (v.21), which The JANT describes as “charismatic pronouncements.”
28b Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
The Gospel According to Luke is generally regarded as having been written around 85 CE. Its author also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Both books were written in elegant and deliberatively crafted Greek and presented Jesus of Nazareth as the universal savior of humanity. Both emphasized the Holy Spirit as the “driving force” for events.
The Gospel followed the same general chronology of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the Gospel of Mark, and more than 40% of Luke’s Gospel was based on Mark. The other portions of Luke include (a) sayings shared with the Gospel According to Matthew but not found in Mark (these portions are said to derive from the “Sayings Source” known as “Q” – the German word for which is Quelle — and (b) stories that are unique to Luke such as the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Presentation in the Temple, the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan.
Today’s reading is an account of the Transfiguration and is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, but not in the Fourth Gospel. In Luke’s account, Jesus took his “inner circle” (Peter, James, and John) and went up on an unspecified mountain (sometimes identified as Mount Tabor) where he was transfigured and appeared with Moses (the lawgiver) and Elijah (the great prophet whose return would be a sign of the coming of the Messiah). The NJBC says the inclusion of Moses and Elijah shows “the road upon which Jesus is embarking is in accord with the law and the prophets.”
The JANT points out that Jesus’ face shining (v.29) is a parallel to Moses’ face shining in Exodus 34:29. The JANT continues that “dazzling” clothes suggest a mystical experience, citing Moses and Daniel 12:3 (“Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky”).
The statement that Peter, James, and John were “weighed down with sleep” (v.32) may indicate that the Transfiguration occurred at night and anticipated the same sleepy condition when they were supposed to keep watch for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (22:45).
Peter’s desire to make three dwellings (v.33) was a reaction to make permanent a numinous moment and to keep Moses and Elijah present. Other translations are for “tents” or “tabernacles.”
The “cloud” is a customary image for God (as in Exodus 13) and the “voice” is similar to the voice and words spoken at Jesus’ baptism (3:22).
The NJBC suggests that the teachings that Jesus gave in Luke’s Gospel just before the Transfiguration were so different and difficult (“take up your cross and follow me”) that it was necessary to present a “divine sanction” for these teachings.