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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Exodus 34

The subject of this chapter is the renewal of the tables of the Decalogue and the Renewal of God's Covenant with Israel. God provided another Decalogue on stone tablets, but in this instance, Moses who had broken the first tablets was required to replace them himself, whereas God had made the first tablets (Exodus 34:1-4). God fulfilled his promise to show Moses something of his glory, made at the conclusion of the last chapter (Exodus 34:5-8). God renewed the covenant with Israel (Exodus 34:9-26). And in the final paragraph, we have the final descent of Moses from mount Sinai (Exodus 34:27-35).

Verses 1-4

"And Jehovah said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon the tables the words which were on the first tables, which thou brakest. And be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me on the top of the mount. And no man shall come up with thee; neither let any man be seen throughout all the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before the mount. And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as Jehovah had commanded him, and took in his hand two tables of stone."

God's renewal of the covenant with Israel was, certainly, upon exactly the same basis as that of the first giving of it. God said, "I will write upon the tables the same words which were on the first tables, which thou brakest." This frustrates and denies all of the scholarly "oompah" about two decalogues - (1) an ethical decalogue, and (2) a ritual decalogue. Fields called such interpretations of this chapter, "Nonsense!"[1] The first person in human history to propose such a ridiculous understanding of this chapter was the great German poet, Goethe, in 1773, but Goethe himself "in his later and riper years spoke of his alleged `discovery' of `another decalogue' here as `a freakish notion due to insufficient knowledge'."[2] It is distressing that critics still quote Goethe who invented such a lie, ignoring his denial of it. Thus, it ever is with Satan. Satan invented the lie concerning the disciples of Jesus stealing his body; and despite the truth that such a falsehood is impossible to believe, Satan still repeats it! Thus, Clements says of these "decalogues," that they "indicate the existence of two different tradions regarding the Ten Commandments."[3] Honeycutt, Noth, and Rylaarsdam all follow the same line, and if one reads a hundred critical scholars, he will encounter the same unproved, in fact disproved, allegations. In the first place, there is no second decalogue in this chapter. Napier even listed it, but how did he find it? He took a few references to the real Decalogue, mentioned especially here because of their relation to Israel's very recent apostasy, split them up, and by elevating a few very minor and incidental clauses into the status of full commandments, presented a list of "ten."[4] Very definitely, there are not two decalogues in Exodus. Regarding what God wrote on the second set of tables, Rawlinson's comment is accurate:

"It is true that we have not yet been specifically told what these words were, but it has been left to our natural intelligence to understand that they must have been the "ten words" uttered in the ears of the people amid the thunders of Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 22:1-19, which are the evident basis of all subsequent legislation. But in Exodus 34:28, and still more plainly in Deuteronomy 10:4, and verse 22, we have the desired statement. The fiction of a double decalogue, invented by Goethe, is absolutely without foundation in fact."[5]

"The first tables, which thou brakest ..." Dummelow believed that God's mention of Moses' breaking the tablets without, any accompanying word of rebuke for it indicated God's acceptance of Moses' action as an example of one who "became angry, and sinned not."[6] This may be true, and yet God's requirement that Moses himself should replace the tables which he had destroyed must be allowed to indicate some measure of disapproval, at least.

"No man shall come up with thee ..." Aaron, specifically, was left out by this arrangement, since his making the molten calf must certainly have disqualified him for any truly spiritual service for an extended period of time.

Verses 5-8

"And Jehovah descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of Jehovah. And Jehovah passed by before him, and proclaimed, Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth; keeping lovingkindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and the children's children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped."

These words must be viewed as a fulfillment on God's part of the revelation which he had promised Moses at the end of the preceding chapter. Scholars of all shades of belief have extolled and praised the revelation here concerning the nature, or attributes, of God Himself. This sacred glimpse of God's loving mercy lies behind the N.T. revelation that "God is love." The O.T. prophets returned to these words again and again. They are quoted in Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:15; Jonah 4:2; and also Numbers 14:18. It is an inexcusable error, however, to suppose that God will finally accommodate to human wickedness. He will "by no means clear the guilty"; and despite some efforts to distort the meaning of that promise by reading it, "He will not even completely destroy the guilty," no such rendition is honest. These very same words in Exodus 20:7 "are rendered `will not hold him guiltless,' and in Jeremiah 30:11, `will not leave unpunished.'"[7]

"Thousands ..."; "Lovingkindness for thousands ..." Thousands of what? The understanding of this comes in the antithesis in the word "generation" at the end of Exodus 34:7. Thus, it means thousands of generations!

The attributes of God mentioned in this passage are usually cited as follows:

(1) merciful;

(2) gracious;

(3) long-suffering;

(4) abundant in lovingkindness;

(5) showing mercy for thousands; and

(6) forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (a summary of all wickedness).

However, the Jews find in this same passage what they are pleased to call "The Thirteen Attributes of God."[8] These, however, are not nearly so well defined as the six just listed.

Verse 9

"And he said, If now I have found favor in thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray thee, go in the midst of us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance."

God had already answered Moses prayer with regard to going "with" them; but there is in this petition a vivid reflection of the revelation God had just given Moses. God had said that he would forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin. Very well, Moses seems to say, "O Lord, forgive our iniquity and sin ... and pardon our sin ..." Thus, Moses identified himself with the sinful people, pleading no relative merit of his own, but relying altogether upon the manifold mercies and goodness of God Himself. This glimpse of Moses' action is priceless.

Beginning with this verse and through Exodus 34:26, we have the record of God's reinstating the covenant.

Verses 10-13

"And he said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of Jehovah; for it is a terrible thing that I do with thee. Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the peoples of the land wither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: but ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim."

"Behold, I make a covenant ..." The import of this is not that God was about to replace the first covenant with another, but that he would renew the first covenant. Rawlinson gave the meaning as, "I lay down afresh the terms of the covenant between me and Israel."[9] See under Exodus 34:14 for confirmation of this.

"I will do marvels ..." The summary judgments executed upon Israel during their wanderings must surely have. been included in these, as, for example, when the earth swallowed up Korah and his rebellious followers; nevertheless, by the immediate and emphatic mention of driving out the nations of the Canaanites, it appears certain that great wonders such as their crossing of the Jordan at flood, and the falling of the walls of Jericho were especially in view.

"It is a terrible thing that I do with thee ..." "Terrible, not to Israel, but to Israel's enemies."[10]

"Take heed lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land ..." The subsequent history of Israel revealed how necessary and absolutely vital such a prohibition actually was. It was precisely through their transgression of this divine commandment that the eventual destruction of their "sinful kingdom" came about. Solomon himself was the notorious example of the violation of this command.

"Whither thou goest ..." The use of the future tense here emphasizes that these legislative announcements from God occurred before the entry into Canaan, and that they do not "represent the situation after the entry into Canaan.

"Break down their altars ... dash in pieces their pillars ... cut down their Asherim ..." None of these commands was honored by Israel upon their coming into Canaan; as a matter of fact, they eventually restored all of the groves, pillars, and altars of paganism, and even constructed others!

"Their Asherim ..." "Asherim is the plural Asherah, the name of a Syrian-Canaanite goddess of fertility. She was the wife of the war-god Asir."[11] The symbols of this goddess, made frequently of green trees, that being the type that Manasseh introduced into God's temple at Jerusalem (2 Kings 21:3,7), and also of carved posts, "wooden poles made in the shape of the male sex organ,"[12] in time, came to be called "the Asherim." Thus, what is commanded here is that all such symbols of pagan gods and goddesses were to be destroyed. It seems certain that the carved posts were especially detestable. Orlinsky translated "the Ahserim" here as "their sacred posts!"[13] As Cook noted, "The precepts contained in these verses are, for the most part, identical in substance with some of those which followed the Ten Commandments."[14] Clements quite properly observed that, "These (sacred posts) were especially marked out for destruction because of their association with immorality practiced in the name of religion."[15] When this writer was a chaplain in the USAF in the Far East (FEAF) in 1953, he saw the huge Phallic Shrine in southern Honshu, and was told that one of the great pagan festivals in Japan (at that time) still featured the public parade of these detestable symbols on certain occasions. Even just to see such things is a shock!

Verses 14-17

"For thou shalt worship no other God: for Jehovah, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God; lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they play the harlot after their gods, and sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods, and make thy sons play the harlot after their gods. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods."

"For thou shalt worship no other god ..." This is Commandment I of the Decalogue, indicating that everything in this passage is not a "ritual decalogue," but specific elaborations for the Decalogue already given. The children of Israel, having just demonstrated their tendency to fall into exactly the same type of immorality practiced by the pagans of that era, should have been aided by these specific prohibitions designed to aid them in keeping their covenant with God.

"And they play the harlot after their gods ..." Keil stated that this is the first place in the Bible where departure from the worship of God is called, "playing the harlot."[16] It is based primarily upon the fact of God's covenant with Israel having in many respects a resemblance to the marriage bond, an analogy that is continued into the N.T., where the church of our Lord Jesus Christ is frequently spoken of as "The Bride of Christ." But there is even more to it than that. "Playing the harlot is all the more expressive on account of the literal prostitution that was frequently associated with the worship of Baal and Astarte."[17]

"Thou shalt make thee no molten gods ..." This is Commandment II of the Decalogne, although stated a little differently. There, "the graven image" was forbidden, but, in all probability, as we have seen, the image Aaron made was a cast image of pure gold, a "molten calf," as invariably called, and we agree with Gordon that the different terminology was designed to close any "loophole" Aaron might have thought he found by making his image "molten" instead of "graven." "That accounts for the difference."[18] Since Israel had so brazenly broken the command regarding the worship of other gods, "Most of the commandments here are connected with worship,"[19] but it is a climax of absurdity to blow this fact up into a ridiculous theory about a "ritual decalogue."

Verses 18-20

"The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib thou camest out from Egypt. All that openeth the womb is mine; and all thy cattle that is male, the firstlings of cow and sheep. And the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break its neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty."

These verses are so emphatically a commandment for Israel to observe the Passover, that we must stand amazed that Rawlinson could not find it among the annual festivals enjoined, which are three in number: (1) the Passover; (2) the Pentecost; and (3) that of Tabernacles. That these verses indeed are a reference to the Passover is certain, because: (1) the mention of the month of Abib (Nisan); (2) the unleavened bread; (3) the sanctity of the firstborn; and (4) their coming out of Egypt, absolutely forbid that they could apply to anything else.

Verses 21-24

"Six days shalt thou work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest. And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks (Pentecost), even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year' s end. Three times in the year shall all thy males appear before the Lord Jehovah, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou goest up to appear before Jehovah thy God three times in the year."

"Six days thou shall work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest ..." This is Commandment IV. Those who imagine another document called the "ritual decalogue," to repeat the confession of the man who invented it, have simply fallen for "a foolish notion, due to insufficient knowledge!"[20]

"In plowing time, and in harvest ..." This denied any exemptions that might have been claimed to avoid keeping the sabbath in times of unusual urgency for work, such as "seedtime and harvest."

The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and that of Tabernacles, were also enjoined in these verses. That the Passover was also included is specifically stated in Exodus 34:23: "Three times in the year!"

"The feast of ingathering at the year's end (Tabernacles) ..." The word here rendered "year's end" is, in the Hebrew text, "the year's revolution," a scientific reference to the circling of the earth around the sun in its annual orbit, producing the years![21]

Verses 25-26

"Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning. The first of the first-fruits of thy ground thou shalt bring unto the house of Jehovah thy God. Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk."

All of these regulations are merely repetitions of those already given; and it is inconceivable that scholars would affirm, apparently seriously, that "It is better to view them as distinct decalogues."[22] The abject and pitiful poverty of liberal criticism of the Bible reaches a new low in allegations such as this. See under Exodus 23:19 for comment on boiling a little goat in its mother's milk, and under Exodus 23:14 for notes on the three annual feasts. Here we might add that Robert P. Gordon also identified "boiling a kid in its mother's milk" as a "pagan rite with fertility significance, as proved by Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra tablets."[23]

"Neither shall the sacrifice (of the Passover) be left until morning ..." Esses was correct in the observation that here is the reason why, "God ordained that Christ's body (our Passover) would be taken down from the cross before sundown."[24] For discussion of "What Day (of the week) Did He Suffer?" see my comments on Mark 15:42.

Verses 27-28

"And Jehovah said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel And he was there with Jehovah forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments."

"Write these words ..." The words which Moses was commanded to write were "these words," the reiteration of God's instructions just repeated. Moses did not write the Ten Commandments on the tables; for God stated specifically in Exodus 34:1 that God Himself would write the same words that had been written on the first tables. Many discerning scholars have pointed out that the subject of the last sentence here is not Moses, but God. As Rawlinson explained:

"It has been argued from this last sentence that Moses wrote the words on the second tablets; and it would be natural so to understand the passage, had nothing else been said on the subject. But in Exodus 34:1, we are told that "God said, I will write upon these tables," and the same is repeated in Deuteronomy 10:2, where it is distinctly declared that "He (God) wrote on the tables according to the first writing." We must therefore regard "he" in this passage as meaning "the Lord," which is quite possible according to Hebrew idiom."[25]

"The ten commandments ..." mentioned at the end of Exodus 34:28 cannot possibly refer to the list of regulations just repeated in Exodus 34:10-26; because, as Clements admitted, "There are not, in fact, even ten of them!"[26] Despite this, however, Clements went ahead and claimed that they were referred to "as ten commandments," thus overlooking the fact that Moses, to say nothing of God, would never have so designated them. What is referred to, of course, is the actual Ten Commandments written on the first tables, which were here said to have been written again on the second tables. Dummelow, Gordon, Keil, Fields, and, in fact, all responsible commentators, except the die-hard critics, are unanimous in the understanding of Exodus 34:28 as an affirmation that God did what He said he would do in Exodus 34:1. How could it be supposed to be otherwise?

Verses 29-35

"And it came to pass when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses knew not that the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him.' and Moses spake to them. And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that Jehovah had spoken with him in mount Sinai. And when Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. But when Moses went in before Jehovah to speak with him, he took the veil off; until he came out, and he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded. And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone; and Moses put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him (God)."

"When Moses came down ..." The previous verses reveal that Moses had no food or water during the forty days and nights, this being the second such fast that Moses had endured. Similar fasts were made by Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) and by our Lord (Matthew 4:2).

"The skin of his face shone ..." The verb for "shine" in this place very closely resembles another Hebrew word to be horned[27] and from this came the error in the Vulgate which renders the place as, "Moses had horns." It was because of this that Michelangelo's great statute of Moses (in the church of St. Pietro in Vincoli at Rome) depicts Moses as having horns! There is no doubt whatever that the proper meaning of the word here is exactly that given in this version.

"With the two tables of the testimony in Moses' hand ..."; Deuteronomy 10:1-5 tells us that when Moses came down from the mount that Moses made an ark of acacia wood in which to place them. "This simple ark was the predecessor of the ark of the covenant described in Exodus 25:10ff."[28] It was altogether a temporary device to serve until the Tabernacle and all of its equipment should be built.

"The veil ..." See under Exodus 26:37, above, for extended discussion of the symbolism of the veil of the temple; and although this veil upon the face of Moses was different, the symbolism of it coincided with that of the veil that divided the holy place from the most holy place in the tabernacle. The apostle Paul spoke of it, making it an allegory. See 2 Corinthians 3:14-15. Paul made it to be a symbol of the hardening of the minds of secular Israel in their rejection of Christ. "For to this day, when Moses is read (i.e., the writings of Moses), a veil lieth upon their hearts. The veil is removed when they turn to the Lord." It also symbolized the fading glory of the Law as contrasted with the radiance of the Gospel; and, although the fading is not mentioned in Exodus, still it is inherent in the fact that Moses died. In connection with Paul's allegory concerning this veil, it is wise to remember, as Fields said, that, "Paul was an inspired interpreter, not just another rabbinic speculator!"[29]

Some scholars seek the reason for this veil in the customs of ancient pagan religions. Thus, Huey has this, "The veil has been compared to a mask worn by priests in many primitive religions to show that they were representing the deity when they wore the mask, but the comparison does not seem valid here.[30] We say, Amen! The reason for the veil here was the shining face of Moses, not the deceptive practices of pagan priests!

This and the two previous chapters (Exodus 32-34) teach four powerful lessons: (1) sin separates from God; (2) no one is ever so far from sin that he can relax his guard; (3) any success achieved that forfeits the presence and blessing of God is worthless; and (4) other people will be able to see it when one maintains close fellowship with God.

Another thing discernible throughout these chapters is the multiple names used for God, again and again, in the same breath, he is called, Jehovah, God ([~'Elohiym]), the God of Israel, etc. There is little wonder that the critics are unable to use that old standby as an aid to splitting the sources, being forced to rely absolutely upon other alleged evidences. The truth is clear that the Bible carries within itself the soul-convincing evidence of its unity and truth! Men never spoke like these chapters of Exodus.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Exodus 34". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.