The meaning of the text
Moses’ narration of his return to the mountain to make once again tablets is, in many ways, the pivotal self-revelation of God in the Old Testament, from which many other texts derive their language regarding God’s character and aims. Moses structures the text so that, bracketed by his ascent and descent of the mountain, Yahweh reveals himself (vv. 6–7, 10–27), first by explicit statement, then by the shape of his covenant.
Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. He keeps covenant love with his people and forgives iniquity, transgression and sin — but he does not forsake justice: he will not clear the guilty. He makes covenant and keeps it, and he demands that his people keep it. He is jealous, and will not allow his people to whore after other gods. He is holy: he deserves and requires that his people given him their best, not the leavings, and he requires purity in the offerings his people make him. To encounter him is to be changed.
Perhaps due to the sheer density of the text, intratextual connections are relatively sparse in this passage. The stone tablets bracket and frame God’s self-revelation and covenant-giving, appearing in vv. 1, 4, and 27–29. The notion of covenant worship then figures prominently throughout the remainder of the text: either right covenant worship of Yahweh as outlined in vv. 17–27, or adulterous covenant worship of foreign gods, as warned against in vv. 12–16.
By contrast, the passage is dense with intertextual connections. Yahweh’s self-declaration—that he is “a God merciful and gracious…” (vv. 6–7)—is among the passages most frequently cited throughout the rest of the Old Testament (though it is notably absent, even in allusive form, from the New). It appears in contexts as diverse as pleadings for God’s mercy on Israel (Numbers 14:18), calls to national repentance (2 Chronicles 30:9, Joel 2:13), remembrances of God’s faithfulness (Nehemiah 9:17), pleas for personal deliverance (Psalm 86:15), and praise (Psalm 103:8, 111:4, 112:4, 116:5, 145:8).
Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain here follows Abraham’s encounter of God-who-provides (Genesis 22:1–19), his own meeting with God at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3), and his first ascents to receive the covenant and commands of God (Exodus 19:16–24, 24:1–18). Later, Elijah encountered God in power at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) and heard his voice at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8–18). Finally, Jesus himself was transfigured before his death on “a high mountain” where he met with Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:1–8, c.f. Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36), and then ascended from Mount Olivet (Act 1:9-12). Yahweh’s self revelation grows more clear at mountaintop experience, culminating with Christ’s ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father.
Closely connected to the mountain motif is the imagery of transformation on the mountain: Moses came away from his encounters with God with his face glowing. Jesus was revealed in his glory and then ascended to heavenly rule. Finally, Paul connects this transfomation to salvation and sanctification: every Christian has had the veil taken away by turning to Christ, in a covenant better and more glorious than the one given to Moses. Every Christian is being transformed into the image of God in Christ by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:7–18).
The significance of the text
To encounter Yahweh is to be changed, and this encounter—and so the transformation—grows fuller and fuller in the course of revelatory history. God has replaced the covenant imparted to Moses with a covenant that came through Jesus Christ, and his self-revelation is now complete. Look to Christ and be transformed.
For a passage of this length and complexity, that was no small task!↩