Bible Commentary: Exodus 34

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Exodus 34

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Covenant Relationship Renewed and a "Shining Example" 

Since Moses had broken the tablets of the Ten Commandments that God had given him previously, God instructs him to carve out of stone two more tablets so that God could again write His commandments, the basis of the covenant relationship between Him and His people. This was an act of tremendous mercy on the part of God, who, despite the Israelites' terrible disobedience, was willing to renew His covenant relationship with them.

God then passes before Moses, showing him part of His glory. As He does, He proclaims the glory of His character—focusing on His tremendous mercy and graciousness, the very thing that enables the covenant relationship to be renewed (verses 5-7). Yet He still warns that sin has consequences (verse 7). Upon hearing this, Moses is quick to again seek God's merciful pardon of the people's sins, also asking again that God would "go among" them (verse 9).

God's response? He renews the covenant relationship. And He begins this renewal with the wonderful announcement that He will do an "awesome thing" in driving out the inhabitants of Canaan from before the people (verses 10-12). The Israelites were to make no treaties with the Canaanites, to prevent their being corrupted by pagan customs and ideas. They were certainly not to adopt pagan worship practices.

God considered His relationship to Israel to be one of marriage (Jeremiah 3:1-14). For the Israelites to "play the harlot" with pagan gods (Exodus 34:15-16)—to worship them or adopt their religious rites—was thus a kind of marital infidelity and spiritual adultery. But the phrase also had a direct literal application, as sexual rites with temple prostitutes, both male and female, was a major part of the disgusting and debasing pagan religions of the land the Israelites were to enter. Here, as with God's reaction to the golden calf incident in chapter 32, we see that pagan religious practices are abominable and utterly unacceptable to Him—something we should consider whenever we examine the origins of today's popular religious traditions and customs. Notice that God also warns in this context that intermarriage with those outside the true faith is a dangerous path that can lead to compromising His truth.

God then goes on to repeat some of the terms of the covenant that He gave in chapters 21-23. Exodus 34:26 repeats the prohibition from 23:19 about boiling a young goat in its mother's milk. Regarding the earlier verse, The Jerome Biblical Commentary states: "The legislation in 19b (and in Dt 14:21) puzzled commentators for centuries; however, the discovery and publication of the Ras Shamra literature (UM [Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual, 1955] 52:14, "Birth of the Gods") have eliminated this conundrum. It is now clear that this practice was a cultic one among the Canaanite neighbors of the Hebrews. Hence, the Israelites were to refrain from it, lest they also adopt some of the Canaanite cultic inferences." Referring to the same verse, Matthew Henry's Commentary states: "At the feast of ingathering, as it is called (v. 16), they [the Israelites] must give God thanks for the harvest-mercies they had received, and must depend upon him for the next harvest, and must not think to receive benefit by that superstitious usage of some of the Gentiles, who, it is said, at the end of their harvest, seethed a kid in its dam's milk, and sprinkled that milk-pottage, in a magical way, upon their gardens and fields, to make them more fruitful next year. But Israel must abhor such foolish customs."

As we are to avoid customs that originated in pagan worship, it would still seem prudent to refrain from intentionally boiling a young goat in its own mother's milk. Yet, on the basis of the restriction in question, Orthodox Jews will not eat meat and dairy products together at all. In fact, these foods must be prepared in different places with different utensils in order to be considered "kosher" by them. The Jews see a general principle in these verses—that what was given to nourish life (milk) not be used to destroy it. However, this was clearly not God's intent. Abraham, who kept God's statutes and laws (Genesis 26:5), had Sarah prepare meat and milk products together to serve to God (the preincarnate Christ) and two angels: "So [Abraham] took butter and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree as they ate" (Genesis 18:8). Thus, even God Himself, while manifested in physical form, ate milk and meat together. Yet some Jews, while admitting the restriction is a narrow one, will argue against eating meat and dairy products together on the basis that there might be a chance, however remote, that a particular milk product was derived from the mother of the animal being eaten. But if we applied remote possibilities to our diet in general, we could never eat anything, for fear that a molecule of something unclean had somehow gotten onto it. This is certainly not what God had in mind.

After being in the presence of God this time, Moses came down from the mountain with his face shining—a muted reflection of the glory that had shone upon him while in God's presence. It appears that this happened each time Moses met with God hereafter. Moses would then appear before the people—and they would know he had come from God because his face was shining. Then, as Paul later explained, he would put on a veil to conceal the fading of this temporary glory (2 Corinthians 3:7, 13). We may view Moses' shining face as typical of the glory of God's character as it is reflected in us. In seeing it, others will know that we represent God and have been close to Him. As time passes between our contacts with Him, our spiritual power and focus wanes, as does our example—something we don't want reflected. Then we go to God for renewal and are ready to let our light shine before others once again.


Supplementary Reading:  Be sure to read out booklet, Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe.