When God began to give the Law to Israel, He did so accompanied by an overwhelming atmospheric display of thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, and the sound of a trumpet on the top of Mt. Sinai. This was to warn the people that He is holy and should not be approached. Anyone who tried to come up the mountain would be killed. (See Exodus 19 and Hebrews 12:18–19.)
When God delivers the Ten Commandments, the people are so frightened that they are afraid to have God speak. They ask that Moses deliver the Law instead (Exodus 20:18–21). So Moses approaches God and receives the Law in Exodus 21–23. He delivers it to the people who are called to affirm their willingness to obey in chapter 24.
In Exodus 25–31 Moses goes up to the mountain and receives the plans for the tabernacle and the tablets of stone on which God had engraved the Ten Commandments. Upon his return to the Israelite camp, Moses finds the Israelites worshiping the golden calf in violation of the Law they had just agreed to keep. In anger Moses smashes the stone tablets to bits and proceeds to address this sin in the camp (chapter 32.)
After the sin had been dealt with, God invites Moses to come back up the mountain to receive the Law again, engraved on new tablets of stone. Moses goes up the mountain alone and meets with God. There he begs for pardon for the nation. God forgives and renews the covenant with Israel and once again provides a summary form of the Law, the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 34:1–27). Moses spends 40 days and nights with God on the mountain, and during that time he did not eat or drink (verse 28). It seems that the glory of God sustained him.
After spending this extended amount of time with God, Moses comes down the mountain, and his face is shining with the glory of God (Exodus 34:29). We don’t know exactly what this would have looked like, but it was frightening to his brother, Aaron, the high priest; and to all the rest of the people. Because everyone was afraid to come near Moses (verse 31), he wore a veil over his face to shroud the glory (verses 33–35). We are not told how long this lasted, but presumably the glory began to fade when Moses was no longer regularly going into the presence of God. How long Moses wore the veil is unknown, but the veil is not mentioned during the remaining years of his leadership—roughly 38 years.
The story of Moses’ veil as recorded in the Old Testament is pretty straightforward. But Paul’s mention of the veil in the New Testament has caused some to take a second look at the reason Moses chose to wear a veil. Second Corinthians 3:13 says, “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.” This makes it sound as if Moses put the veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing that the glory was beginning to fade. If this verse is read in isolation, it would indeed seem to imply that Moses’ veil was designed to make people think his face was still shining, even when it wasn’t; however, such an interpretation simply highlights the danger of reading verses in isolation. When 2 Corinthians 3:13 is read in the context of Paul’s total argument, we find that it says nothing about Moses’ motive for veiling his face.
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is contrasting the glories of the Old and New Covenants, and he concludes that the New Covenant is far more glorious.
• The Old Covenant was written on tablets of stone; the New Covenant is written on the heart (verse 3).
• The Old Covenant is the letter of the Law, while the New Covenant is of the Spirit. The letter kills but the Spirit gives life (verse 6).
• The Old Covenant brings condemnation; the New Covenant brings righteousness (verse 9).
• The Old Covenant had a glory that faded; the New Covenant has a glory that remains and in fact so far surpasses it that the Old Covenant appears to have no glory by comparison (verses 10–11).
Second Corinthians 3:12–13 gives another contrast. Ministers of the New Covenant are unlike Moses. New Covenant ministers proclaim the unfading glory in a bold manner, while Moses wore a veil to shield Israel from a fading glory. Paul is not giving us new insight into what Moses was doing. There is no new information in 2 Corinthians 3 concerning the events in Exodus 34. The main point is that the Old Covenant glory was temporary; the shining of Moses’ face was destined to fade, just as the Law he proclaimed. The emphasis is that the veil prevented the Israelites from seeing a temporary glory, not that they were prevented from noticing that the glory was gradually fading, much less that Moses had some personal (perhaps prideful) reason for hiding the fact that it was fading. This paraphrase may help: Unlike Moses, who wore a veil to conceal the temporary glory of the Old Covenant, we boldly proclaim the permanent glory of the New Covenant.
Paul goes on to say that, just as Moses gave Israel the Law with a veil over his face, even today, when the Law is read, a veil descends over the hearts of unbelieving Israelites. Then and now, Israel’s vision is obscured, and they are hard of heart. The “veil” prevents them from seeing the true glory of God. The veil is only taken away when they turn to Christ (2 Corinthians 3:14–16).
Paul ends his illustration of Moses’ veil by making something of a comparison to Moses. Moses beheld the glory of God, and his face reflected God’s glory; so New Testament believers behold the glory of God and are transformed into that glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Moses wore a veil for the reason stated in Exodus 34—his shining face frightened the Israelites. Paul uses that historical incident to contrast the ministries of the Old and New Covenants.