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The Ministry of Death

Moses, face, shining, II Corinthians 3:7, II Cor 3:7, stones, tablets, glory, old covenant, vail, condemnation, fading glory, old testament

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II Cor 3:7  “But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, 8  how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious?

The traditional teaching equates the ’ministry of Death’ with the Ten Commandments.  After all, the Ten Commandments were written on the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai.  However, the Ten Commandments were spoken by Yahweh roughly four months before Moses face was made to shine.  Why did Moses face shine four months later?  Those two occasions are not linked together very well.  Why didn’t Moses face shine when he came down Mt. Sinai with the original tablets?  Or why didn’t the tablets shine then, if the Ten Commandments embodied Moses glorious ‘ministry of Death’?

An improved translation can begin to shed light on this issue and what the Ministry of Death is. 

II Cor 3:7 But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was,…” (NASB)

What we need to notice here is that ‘the ministry of death’ began to be with the shining of Moses face.  Paul cites the amazing light of Moses face as the witness of this coming to be of the ‘ministry of death’ and its glory.   The ‘ministry of death’ came with such glory that the people near Moses were unable to stare at his face.  Paul goes on for another six verses discussing the glory of this unusual event.    

The Greek behind ‘came’ in the NASB above is ‘ginomai’ (Str. 1096), which indicates a coming into being.  Moses shining face was a witness of Moses special place with, and the movement of, the Creator.   Moses face was a witness of a special anointing on Moses, not on the Ten Commandments.  After all, there is no indication that the tablets glowed.  At the same time the Creator was evidently beginning to implement something new.

The covenant at Sinai, which revolved around the Ten Commandments,  was made intending that at least each adult male would be Yah’s priest and represent Him to other nations (Ex 19:5-6).  That was the expectation of that covenant.  Shortly after that covenant was confirmed Israel bowed to the golden calf (Ex 32:7-10, Ps 106:23).  That was obviously catastrophic.  Yah came close to destroying the whole nation.  He later dropped the thought of destroying Israel, but He didn’t go back to the way things were before.  With Moses’ shining face and the witness of II Cor 3:7-13, it is apparent that Moses is being designated to begin a new thing in Israel.  Yah would work through Moses to accomplish this, not through each head of household as was intended with the Sinai covenant (Ex 19:5-6).  Paul calls what was coming about in Israel the ‘ministry of death’. Moses face began to shine four months or so after the confirmation of the Sinai Covenant and almost three months after it was broken and effectively dissolved as a result of the golden calf.  Through Moses, Yah was establishing a new ‘ministry’ to salvage Israel, atone for transgressions and to teach the people according to His instructions.  Moses had new instruction for Israel supporting this new plan when he came down from Mt. Sinai and met them with his shining face. The original event is recorded for us in Exodus 34:29-32.

About this time we see many things changing in Israel.  That new instruction Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai included regular animal sacrifices (Lev 7:37-38, Num 28:6), blessing or curses depending on their conduct (Lev 26:1-46), handling of vows and the jubilee (Lev 27:1-34) and other instruction (Lev 25:1-55).  Also Aaron’s sons are mentioned in connection with the Levitical priesthood (Num 3:1-3).   

One of the most obvious things is the beginning of tabernacle construction (Ex 35:5-).  Although the order of the Exodus account could lead us to believe the tabernacle was intended with the Sinai covenant, there are many details that point to it being a later innovation.  A number of Jewish commentators connect its creation with the failure of the golden calf.  One is Shlomo Yitzchaki, a.k.a. Rashi, of Troyes, France.  He was a; rabbi and author of a highly respected and comprehensive commentary on the Talmud.  He lived from February 22, 1040 to ‎July 13, 1105.


Rashi (who follows the Midrash Tanchuma [earlier Torah commentary]), notes the many Scriptural and Talmudic indications that the Sanctuary was in response to, and an atonement for, the sin of the Golden Calf.  Accordingly, Rashi is of the opinion that the divine instructions contained in the sections of Terumah and Tetzaveh [Ex 25-30] were communicated to Moses … following Israel's repentance, … and Moses' receiving of the Second Tablets.” (http://www.chabad.org/global/popup/default_cdo/aid/1329/jewish/Sin-and-Sanctity.htm)


A lack of concern with sequential timing is not unusual in Old Testament accounts.  An article by Ronnie Littlejohn, The Hebrew Concept of Time addresses the matter.  Towards the end of the article he summarizes.

“The Hebrews were impressed by the weightiness or significance of things and people, not by how many ticks on a clock went by while doing something. This explains why when scholars study the Old Testament, matters that are revealed by their research to be widely separated with reference to time (our definition) can, if their content coincides, be identified and regarded as simultaneous by the Old Testament (because of their view of time).”  (pp. 53-56. Biblical Illustrator, Winter 1999-2000, Nashville, TN.  Also available at: http://www.ovrlnd.com/Eschatology/hebrewconceptoftime.html

Other Changes

Along with the tabernacle came the Levitical priesthood.  Aaron and sons were consecrated along with the completed tabernacle (Ex 40:2-17, Lev 8-9).  Moses oversaw this process.  The tabernacle was entirely a Levitical institution.  Generally, no one from another tribe was allowed to offer sacrifices on the tabernacle altar. 

In the same way, the Levites were not given permission to offer their sacrifices on the altar as designated in the Sinai covenant.  That altar was to be made of earth or uncut stones (Ex 20:24-25).  Using a tool on it would profane it.  Moses set one of these up and used it the same day to confirm the Sinai covenant (Ex 24:3-8).  If we consider these altars carefully we will see a significant change inherent in Israel’s relationship with the Creator.

The altar of earth or stone could be made almost anywhere and used immediately.  There was no need to be at any particular place.  Yah would come to the offerer and bless (Ex 20:24-25).  This would be handy for someone who was representing or calling on Yah locally or in some foreign land.   Of course, that was part of the intention included in the making of the Sinai covenant (Ex 19:5-6).  That changed after Moses face shone.

The new altar specified for the Levites was made of wood overlaid with copper.  It was inherently profane and required a seven day purification before it could be used (Ex 29:37).  There was only one in the world.  One needed to travel to it in order to give an offering to Yahweh.  Even then, they could not give the offering directly.  The Levites had to prepare it and send the smoke up to Yah.  So the priesthood of Levi created a level of geographical and personal separation between Yah and Israel.  This is a radical and unfortunate change in the relationship between Israel and Yahweh! 

Of course, things like this could not be implemented the day Moses came down Mt. Sinai with his shining face.  Moses was set in his position as the sole representative of Yah, but implementing the whole long term plan would take time.  It took time to build the tabernacle, consecrate Aaron and the Levites and get them experienced in the proper routine for their service.  Even after they were consecrated and became experienced in their duties Moses was still the conduit to Yah.  It was not the high priest.  The son of the woman of Dan who blasphemed was taken to Moses, not Aaron (Lev 24:22).  Also Aaron(the high priest) and Miriam were severely reprimanded for trying to diminish Moses (Num 12:1-15). 

Moses continued as Yah’s representative for an extended period of time.   Yah still expected Israel to respect the terms of the Sinai covenant and the Ten Commandments were again written on the tablets.  However, Yah still considered Israel to be Moses’ charge, Moses’ people (Ex 32:7-10, 34:10, Num 11:11-12).  The Sinai covenant made earlier was broken beyond repair.  Yah to a large degree separated Himself from Israel.  This is evident in Moses’ need to leave camp to communicate with Yah (Ex 33:7) and the establishment of the Levitical priesthood to stand between Israel and Yah. 

This was evident not only in the different procedure for animal sacrifice, but also in the location of the tribes around the camp.  Levi surrounded the tabernacle and separated it from the other tribes. 

New Covenant

While Moses was on Mt. Sinai just before his face began to shine, Yah told him that He was making a new covenant (Ex 34:10).  Hebrews tells us that: “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also.” (Heb 7:12, NASB)    This covenant being made undoubtedly included the new instruction Moses gave to Israel when he went down from Mt. Sinai with the replacement tablets and his shining face (Ex 34:29-32).  The curses if Israel disobeyed (Lev 26:14-especially 46), noting of the sons of Aaron (Num 3:1-3), and the requirement of regular sacrifices (Lev 7:37-38, Num 28:6) are all indicating changes from the expectation and covenant of Sinai, Exodus 20-23.  Generally, they support the establishment of the Levitical system.  There is no mention of the Levites in the Sinai covenant.

The episode of the spies further delayed Israel’s entry into the Promised Land and the full implementation of these changes.  As it turns out they were fully implemented by a covenant.  The covenant promised in Exodus 34:10 was revealed in the covenant established in Deuteronomy.  It established the place of the Levites, their right to preside at the house of Yahweh and offer the required sacrifices (Deu 17:8-10, 18:1-5).  The covenant also reinforced the curses laid out in Leviticus 26 (Deu 28:15-68).

The changes went into full effect with the confirmation of this covenant of Deuteronomy.  The very day Moses confirmed the Deuteronomy covenant with Israel, he was instructed to go up Mt. Nebo and expect to die.  That would have been the first day of the eleventh month of the fortieth year of Israel’s time in the wilderness (Deu 1:3).

Deu 32:48  ‘Then the LORD spoke to Moses that very same day, saying:  49  "Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, across from Jericho; view the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel as a possession;  50  and die on the mountain which you ascend, and be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people;… “’

One of Moses’ last instructions to Joshua was to write this law of Deuteronomy on stones once they entered the Promised Land (Deu 27:1-3).  Joshua doing this is recorded in Joshua 8:30-32.  The stones of II Corinthians 3:7 are not tablets, but certainly these stones chosen by Joshua.  The new order indicated by the shining of Moses face was now fully implemented. 

Ministry of Death?

Rather than seeming like a ministry of death the law of Deuteronomy was implemented so Israel could live (Deu 4:1, 5:33, 8:1, etc.).  On the surface, it appears that the only built in death happened to the animals that were offered in place of imperfect Israel.  However, there is no direct connection to animal sacrifices in Paul’s words of II Corinthians.  There is a connection to the old covenant (vs 14).  The old covenant is described in Hebrews 9:18-23, which only fits the covenant of Deuteronomy. 

This covenant of Deuteronomy was needed because Israel showed themselves incapable of living to the expectation of the Sinai covenant.  Deuteronomy was the new standard for Israel.  The relationship expected between people did not change, but their relationship with Yah did.  The terms and conditions of the Deuteronomy covenant became the governing law for Israel.

II Corinthians 3 also talks of the Law, which was read every Sabbath in the synagogues (vs. 15).  Of course, all Moses books were read in the synagogue cycle, not just the Ten Commandments.  Moses presentation of the Deuteronomy covenant ‘according to all that the LORD had given him as commandments to them’(Deu 1:3d) assumed the existence of his other books.  One needs the other books to understand some of the detail assumed with the Deuteronomy covenant. 

As it turns out, II Corinthians 3:7 is the only place where a ‘ministry of death’ is mentioned in Scripture.  Later in II Corinthians Paul refers to this ‘ministry of death’ as a ‘ministry of condemnation’ (vs. 9).  Perhaps in using ‘ministry of death’

Rom 7:5  “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.  6  But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” (KJV)

There is a translation issue in verse 5 that needs to be addressed.   ‘Motions’ here is Str. 3804 which primarily refers to suffering.  The Law, in defining sin more fully, caused suffering by those who sinned and broke it.  Ultimately, this led to death.  Through repentance and baptism believers symbolically die as far as the Law is concerned, but fully serve/obey according to the spirit/intention.  This is called repentance. 

Rom 7:9  “I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.  10  And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death.  11  For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.”

There is a clarification issue here also that can be helped by translation.  ‘Occasion’ in verse 11 is a military word.  It indicates a base of operations (Str. 874).  So at one point, (certainly as a child) Paul was ignorant of the Law.  As they say, “Ignorance is bliss”.  When he learned of it, sin came to life and condemned him to death.  The commandment is intended to bring life, but if one doesn’t obey it condemns to death.  Sin, having a base in the commandment, deceives and kills.

With verse 11 Paul is beginning to personify sin.  Throughout the rest of the chapter he treats it as an independent dominating force within us.  It seems apparent from verses 18 & 23 that Paul is equating this sin with something like our basic human nature and/or physical desires.  We like to be comfortable.  That is not necessarily a problem, but most have appetites that cannot be completely satisfied by fresh air and sunshine.  In order to satisfy our ‘flesh’ we can deceive ourselves into allowing ourselves things that we have no right to have or are bad for us. Paul calls this the ‘law of sin’ (vs 23).  The Law calls certain things out as wrong, but we easily excuse/deceive ourselves if we want it.  The result is not eternal life, but death.

Rom 7:24  “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  25  I thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!...”

A full appreciation for the life, instruction and death of Christ can change the human condition.  Those who commit themselves to Christ don’t cave in to the desires of the flesh.  They commit themselves to seeking His way and what pleases Him.

II Cor 3:14  “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ.. … 16  but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (NASB)

Romans 7 seems to explain Paul’s thinking in referring to the Law as the ‘ministry of death’.  The purpose of the Law was to enable life, but it couldn’t move Israel to clean up their spirit/thinking only to muffle their actions.  Consequently, the people generally continued to serve the desires of the flesh.  The Law was ‘weak through the flesh’ (Rom 8:3b).  Although the Deuteronomy covenant was made with Yahweh, it didn’t really provide what they needed to build their mentality and become the priests Yah was seeking.  They were ultimately doomed to failure and death.

On the other hand the life, teaching, example and sacrifice of Christ are intended to so move us such that we seek carefully the full intention of Yah’s instruction to us.  We seek to do what is pleasing to our Savior and Creator with no great concern for the flesh. 

Gal 5:24  “And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

Rom 8:5  “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

The Levitical system that began to be implemented with Moses’ shining face did allow Israel to live and inherit the Promised Land.  However, it couldn’t create in Israel a full appreciation of the need for self sacrifice.  As they became more and more dependent on the physical they lost sight of the need to improve the thinking and spirit.  Instead of giving life, the nation deteriorated into selfishness and death.

Back in Time

Let’s consider what ministry was in force before the ’ministry of death’.  'Ministry’ might be better translated as service.  About four months before Moses face shone, Israel agreed to and confirmed the covenant at Sinai (Ex 20-23).  ‘The firstborn especially, but actually every head of household was supposed to be doing Yah’s service in that covenant. 

Part of the reason for making a covenant is to assure that all parties understand their responsibility and fully agree to contribute their part.  Coercion is not a good ingredient.  Being a disinterested spectator is unacceptable.  The expectation is that each participant is an active and willing partner seeking to uphold his responsibility as outlined in the covenant.

The terms of the Sinai covenant were apparently presented to Israel at least three times before the agreement was confirmed (Ex 19:5-6, 24:3, 7-8).  They had plenty of opportunity to ask questions.  However, when things didn’t go smoothly they didn’t consider the instruction of their covenant or responsibility to it.  They had evidently not been thinking about their responsibility in covenant with the Creator, but went with their own gut feel.  It was perfectly clear they didn’t appreciate their responsibility of service to Yah. 

Ex 19: 5‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.  6  ‘And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel."

Consider that if they had lived up to their responsibility they were in line to be a nation of priests to Yah.  As it turns out, this is the position that true believers will fill in the kingdom Messiah sets up at His return.

Rev 5:10You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (NASB)

1Pe 2:9  “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;”

The Creator held out to ancient Israel in the Sinai covenant the same reward He will give Yeshua’s believers of today!  That ministry intended in the Sinai covenant is fundamentally the same ministry of the spirit that Yeshua expects of His followers today.  Ancient Israel didn’t have the heart to live up to their agreement.  Consequently another plan was implemented in Israel, Deuteronomy.  It set the Levites as teachers and Israel’s connection to the Creator.  Although it helped them to live and to inherit the Promised Land it ultimately failed to create in them the mentality to diligently seek His ways.  It led to their failure, condemnation and death.  The question is, do we seek to uphold the full intention of Yah’s instruction from the beginning to us?