Did Moses Literally See the Face of God?

Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke “face to face” with Moses, but Exodus 33:20 says that Moses could not see the Lord’s face. Is this a contradiction?

Two preliminary observations may be helpful. First, we should notice that Exodus says that the Lord “spoke” with Moses “face to face” (Exod. 33:11), not that Moses saw God face to face. There may be a difference, and as we shall discover there is indeed a difference. Second, it is significant that the two allegedly contradictory statements appear in the same passage. Exodus 33:11 says that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”[1]  Exodus 33:20 says that the LORD told Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” It does not seem likely that the author of Exodus 33 contradicted himself in the space of just ten verses. Such contradiction in close proximity within the same passage is possible yet would be extremely surprising, as compared, say, to statements appearing in different books written by different authors. If it seems that these statements in Exodus 33 are contradictory, perhaps we are misunderstanding one of them.

Reading Exodus 33 in Context

The expression “face to face” can, of course, be used literally of two human beings seeing each other’s faces at the same time. However, in Exodus 33 that is not the case. Just before saying that the Lord spoke to Moses “face to face,” Exodus states, “When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses” (33:9). Here we see that the Lord’s presence was manifested visibly not in an anthropomorphic form but in a pillar of cloud. Old Testament scholar Douglas Stuart makes the following comment on this passage:

The expression “face to face” (pānîm ’el-pānîm) is an idiom. It does not mean “looking at each other” or the like as if Moses actually saw God when Moses stood in the “tent of meeting” and Yahweh stood in front of it in the form of the glory cloud.[2]

Despite these close encounters with God’s manifested presence, Moses asked for something more. He asked the Lord, “Please show me your glory” (33:18). In response, the Lord told Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (33:19a). This does not seem to be referring to a simple matter of the Lord appearing in bodily, human form. The Lord then told Moses, “But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (33:20). He then said, “while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (33:22-23). This language about seeing God’s “back” but not his “face” (i.e., his “front”[3] [pānîm] in contrast to his “back”) in context does not seem to be meant to refer to an anthropomorphic body, since what is said to pass by Moses is also called the Lord’s “glory” and “goodness.” There is also the odd imagery of the Lord covering Moses with his “hand” while he “passed by,” after which he said he would “take away” his hand. If the references to God’s “face” and “back” are to be interpreted literally as referring to God’s anthropomorphic body parts, then presumably “hand” must be as well. Yet the imagery, if taken literally, seems to require some bodily contortion seems to be required for the Lord to cover Moses with his “hand” so as to prevent Moses from seeing his “face” while allowing him to see his “back.”

Read more: https://robertbowman.net/2019/06/24/did-moses-literally-see-the-face-of-god/

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