Did Moses See God’s Face?

September 10, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Posted in Questions for Pastor Glenn | 3 Comments

Hello Pastor Glenn,

I’m reading the NASB and in Exodus 33:11 it says “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.”  But later on, in Exodus 33:20, we read that God said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!”  So did Moses see God’s face?

The whole idea of God’s face is interesting.  I was asked this question a few months ago but haven’t had time to answer it.  However, since I preached on Psalm 13 last week, and had to give some thought to God’s face, I was reminded of this question.  In Psalm 13 David prays, “How long will you hide your face from me?”  And in Psalm 27 the same author writes, “Your face, Lord, I do seek.”  There are probably many more thoughts on God’s face we could find, but these suffice to show that the passage in Exodus 33:20 can be confusing.

The face, in the Hebrew language, literally is the front of the physical head, but, since God doesn’t have one of those, the language must somehow be metaphorical.  (As are references to God’s wings, eyes, mouth, etc.)  Metaphorically, face can be a reference to a person’s countenance, attitude and sentiments; it can mean a person’s presence; it can also mean a person’s character, entire being,  and even his glory.  In addition to this, we see in the OT numerous idioms using the word for face, such as “hide your face,” and “seek your face” in the passages cited above.

When we read of God’s face in the Old Testament, there are many possibilities what it could mean, and usually the context will help us understand the passage.  In some cases, the translators have already determined for us what the passage means.  For instance, in Exodus 34:20, a literal “none shall appear before my face empty-handed” is translated by most as “none shall appear before me empty-handed.”  However, often times the metaphor is left in the text for us to figure out.

So the “face-to-face” language in Exodus 33 must also be a metaphor.  That phrase in English can mean not only literal looking-at-each-other conversations, but also intimate conversations or direct personal conversations.  Thus I take the verse in Exodus to mean God talked directly and personally to Moses.  Notice the qualifying phrase which supports this idea, “just as a man speaks to his friend.”  This language clarifies that, though God didn’t talk to anyone else at that time in such a personal way, he talked to Moses personally.  There is a parallel phrase in Numbers 12:8 where God was said to speak to Moses “mouth to mouth.”

However, God’s face in Exodus 33:20, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live,”  must mean something else.  I take it as a reference to God’s total character, his glory.  He lives in unapproachable light, if we were to see him in that light while still mortals, we would die.  Remember that God allowed Moses “to look on his back side (v23),” probably meaning to see a part of his glory, and that experience gave Moses a glow the people could not look at!  That part of God’s glory was all that Moses could stand.  This understanding is also clarified by the words surrounding the metaphor; in this case the request Moses had asked God, “Please show men your glory.” (v18)

For us who came after Christ, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament adds this encouraging thought, “In the New Testament God is manifested in Jesus, who alone has seen the Father (John 1:18; John 6:46; 1 John 4:12).  Christ is not only the Word through whom God is heard.  He is the image through whom God is seen.”   As we study Jesus, we see more of God’s glory in him than most OT saints ever saw.  He is for us “the image of the invisible God.”

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  1. This is a subject that is so far above my comprehension. It is so hard for me to separate the literal from the figurative. I think of some of the parts of the human head. For example, there are the eyes,mouth, nose and ears. The literal meaning is obvious. When I think of those features in a more figurative sense…in terms of God’s face they convey the idea of awareness. Eyes seeing, ears hearing, mouth tasting/discerning, nose smelling/ discerning. The mouth and eyes also speak. The eyes speak when they shoot a knowing glance to someone.

    Still for some reason when I read about these features of God in the Bible they are one more thing that makes me think in terms to a personhood; a divine one, but still a personhood,and I can’t help but think in human terms…it feels more comforting somehow. I am not saying I am correct in doing so. Nor am I saying that humans are all that great, but they are at least familiar. Does that make sense?

  2. One more thought…the eyes and ears would also be discerning, as well. Even the back side would be discerning. Consider the hem Christ’s garment that the woman reached out and touched. To me the face of God conveys the idea of Divine intimacy:

    1 O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.

    2 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.

    3 Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.

    4 For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.

    5 Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.

    6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.

    7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

    8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

    9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

    10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

    11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

    12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee. Psalm 139:1-12

  3. “I can’t help but think in human terms…it feels more comforting somehow.”

    Theresa, This statement is true for all of us. That’s why God tells us his amazing attributes in human metaphors, what theologians all anthropomorphic descriptions. We understand them. I agree with what you’ve said here. I was emphasizing the meanings of face, rather than specific features of the face, because of the question about contradiction. When God wants us to understand that he hears us, he uses the metaphor of ears; when he wants us to understand that he sees us, he uses the metaphor of eyes; etc.

    I love this thought from Psalm 115, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” The implication is that the true God has none of those things described, but he does speak, see, hear, etc. “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (v.1)


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