Chapter 34

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YHWH instructed Moses to ascend Mount Sinai after he had hewn out two tablets of stone like the ones he had broken. On the new tablets, YHWH indicated that he again would write the “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments.” No man was to make the ascent with Moses, and no domestic animals from the flocks or herds were to pasture before the mountain. (34:1-3)

Early in the morning, Moses, carrying the two tablets he had hewn out, started his ascent on Mount Sinai. YHWH then descended upon the mountain in a cloud, stood there (apparently by means of his representative angel) with Moses, “and proclaimed the name of YHWH.” This proclamation was not limited to saying, “YHWH, YHWH.” Additionally, he revealed himself as the God in possession of certain prominent attributes. He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, great in kindness or enduring love, and [in] truth [faithfulness or trustworthiness], preserving enduring love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and by no means exempting” (literally, to exempt, he will not exempt) the guilty, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons and the sons’ sons to the third and the fourth generation.” Although YHWH does not hold back from punishing those who choose to disregard his commands and defy him, he identified himself more prominently with his willingness to forgive wrongdoing and to be merciful and not quick to be aroused to anger. If at all possible, he chooses to show kindness or enduring love to thousands. Nevertheless, he does visit with punishment the “iniquity” of fathers upon their (“rebellious” [Targum Jonathan]) “sons” or children to the third and the fourth generation. Offspring or descendants of fathers who demonstrated their hatred for YHWH when practicing what was repugnant to him would be inclined to follow the bad example of their forebears and would suffer the consequences for their own sinful course. (34:4-7)

In response to this proclamation, Moses hurried to reverentially bow his head to the ground, probably dropping to his knees and prostrating himself in worship. Based on having found favor in YHWH’s eyes or sight, Moses pleaded with him to “go in the midst” of the people even though they had proved themselves to be stiff-necked or stubborn. He did not exclude himself from the people but petitioned YHWH, “Pardon our iniquity and our sin and take us for your inheritance [or as belonging to you].” (34:8, 9)

The covenant or agreement that YHWH purposed to make with all of Moses’ people was the following: He promised to perform marvels such as had not occurred previously in all the earth and in any nation. All of Moses’ people would see the work of YHWH, for he would be performing something awe-inspiring. (34:10)

Entrance into the land of Canaan was certain for the people of Israel, but they needed to obey YHWH’s directives about taking possession of the land. Although YHWH promised that he would drive out the inhabitants of the land (the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzzites, Hivites, [Gergesites (LXX)], and Jebusites), the Israelites were commanded not to conclude any covenants, agreements, or alliances with the inhabitants of the land so as not to be ensnared into adopting their ways. They were to tear down their altars, break their sacred pillars (which appear to have been phallic symbols of Baal or other false gods), and cut down their Asherim (possibly carved poles that represented a female deity like Asherah). As the only true God, YHWH rightly required that his people be devoted to him alone as their God and not to prostrate themselves before the images of the deities that other nations worshiped. He would not tolerate any deviation from worship that was acceptable to him. From that perspective, he was a jealous God. His being jealous, or his tolerating no rival deities, is linked to his name or to everything that his name represents him to be. (34:11-14)

The idolatrous practices of the inhabitants of Canaan are designated as harlotry. Therefore, for the Israelites to form alliances with them would have exposed them to joining them in sacrificing to their deities and eating from the meat that had been offered in sacrifice. As the Israelites were in a covenant relationship with YHWH (a relationship comparable to that of a wife to her husband), involvement in idolatrous practices would have consituted prostitution or gross unfaithfulness to their God. Any intermarriage with the inhabitants of the land was also forbidden, as it posed a threat to remaining exclusively devoted to YHWH. The Israelites had no basis for making any image of their God. Accordingly, for the Israelites to make any image of any other god would have been an affront to him and was prohibited. (34:15-17)

The Israelites could demonstrate their love for YHWH by observing his commands in matters of worship. In the month of Abib or Nisan (mid-March to mid-April), they were to celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread that served to commemorate their hurried departure from Egypt as a liberated people. As their firstborn had been spared when his angel struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians, the firstborn really belonged to YHWH. Therefore, the firstborn male offspring of cows, sheep, and goats were to be offered in sacrifice. Donkeys were unclean animals and could not be sacrificed. Their firstborn had to be redeemed with a lamb that could be offered up on the altar at the tabernacle. If the donkey was not redeemed, its neck was to be broken. It being YHWH’s property, no one was entitled to use it. This requirement doubtless also served to restrain the Israelites from failing to redeem the firstborn of donkeys, for it would have meant loss of potenitally valuable beasts of burden. The firstborn sons were to be redeemed by making a payment of five silver shekels at the tabernacle and later at the temple. (34:18-20; Numbers 18:15, 16; see the Notes section.)

Nothing was allowed to interfere with sabbath observance. Whereas plowing and harvesting needed to be done in a timely manner, these agricultural operations were not permitted, but the seventh day was to be preserved as a sacred day of rest. (34:21)

Besides the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Israelites were to observe two other sacred annual festivals — the Festival of Weeks or Pentecost (in the month of Sivan [mid-May to mid-June], which coincided with the wheat harvest), and the Festival of Ingathering or the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths at the conclusion of the agricultural year in the month of Ethanim or Tishri (mid-September to mid-October). All the Israelite males were required to appear before YHWH at these three festivals. Initially, the location was the tabernacle that was set up in the land of Canaan, and later the place was the temple at Jerusalem. While the men were commanded to be present for the festivals, the women could choose to be in attendance. It was a kindness on God’s part to exempt the women from obligatory attendance, as their being pregnant or having to nurse babies and to care for small children would have made it burdensome to travel a considerable distance to the designated location and then to stay for the duration of the festivals. (34:22, 23)

To leave their lands unprotected during the time they traveled to and from the location where they would stay for the duration of the three annual festivals, the men needed to trust YHWH to safeguard their property. Besides assuring them that he would assist them to drive out the nations from the land of Canaan and expand the borders of their territory, YHWH promised that, while they were away to be present for the three festivals, no man would desire their land. (34:24)

Nothing leavened was to accompany the offering of the blood of a sacrificial victim, and the meat from the Passover lamb or goat was not to be left over until morning. (34:25)

After the Israelites would be residing in the land of Canaan, they were to bring the choice firstfruits from their land to the tabernacle (the “house of YHWH [their] God”) as an offering. Their doing this would show their appreciation for his blessing on their agricultural labors. (34:26a)

From early times, the Jews have interpreted the command prohibiting the boiling of a kid of the goats in its mother’s milk to indicate that meat should not be mixed with dairy products. Targum Jonathan (thought to have been composed in the second century CE) is specific in stating that one must not “eat of flesh and milk mingled together.” Originally, the command may have reminded the Israelites that the milk that was designed to nourish the kid should not be used as a means contrary to its original purpose to preserve the animal’s life. This command may also have served to teach the Israelites compassion, for the natural and instinctive attachment of the female goat to her kid in no way agrees with the use of her milk for the total destruction of her offspring. (34:26b)

YHWH instructed Moses to write down the “words” or commandments he had spoken to him, for they were the basis on which he was concluding a covenant or solemn agreement with Moses and his people Israel. (34:27)

It was during a period of forty days and forty nights that Moses received all the commandments that the Israelites were to obey. He neither ate nor drank there on Mount Sinai as YHWH, by means of his representative angel, communicated with him. Based on verse 1 of this chapter, YHWH (his representative angel) wrote the “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments” on the two stone tablets that Moses had hewn out. The “Ten Words” are identified as the “words of the covenant,” probably meaning the most significant part of the covenant or agreement with the people of Israel. (34:28)

Thereafter Moses descended Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets. He was unaware that his face emitted rays from having been in the glorious divine presence for forty days and nights and having experienced direct communication with the angel who represented YHWH. When Aaron and other Israelites saw the changed appearance of Moses’ face, they were afraid to approach him. It was not until Moses called out to them to come that Aaron and the leaders or chieftains of the people made their approach. After Moses spoke to Aaron and the chieftains, the other “sons” (or people) of Israel drew near, and he related to all of them what YHWH had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. (34:29-32)

Apparently Moses was informed that his face emitted rays, for this was unknown to him when he descended from Mount Sinai. Therefore, “he put a veil on his face.” Centuries later, in his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul referred to this and indicated that Moses veiled his face to prevent the people from gazing “to the end [of the glory]” that would fade or vanish. Whenever he communicated with YHWH (his representative angel), Moses removed the veil. His face would again emit rays. Therefore, when he conveyed the words of YHWH to the people, Moses again veiled his face. (34:33-35; see the Notes section.)


In verse 20, the Septuagint indicates that, if a firstborn draft animal was not redeemed with a sheep, the the owner had to pay a price. There is no reference to breaking the neck of the animal. Possibly the translater, in the time he lived, understood the redemption price to have been a stipulated amount of money and chose to translate the Hebrew text according to what had become the practice outside the land of Israel in much later centuries.

Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians suggest that, while Moses addressed the people, the rays emitted from his face would begin to fade and then vanish. The veil, however, prevented them from seeing the change in the appearance of Moses’ face. Then, as a result of communicating with YHWH at other times, Moses’ face would shine again. It appears that Paul’s mention of the passing glory (2 Corinthians 3:7, 10, 11) was intended to illustrate that the law covenant, like Moses’ shining face, was not permanent. This aspect is what neither the Israelites in the time of Moses nor in the apostle’s own time understood. (2 Corinthians 3:14)