Did Moses see the face of God? The account found in Exodus 33 in the Bible has caused many people to ask this question. Some people have suggested that the Bible contains a contradiction in this account in reference to the words of John when he wrote, “No one has seen God” (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). It is posited that either John is wrong when he says no one has seen God or the Exodus account is wrong when it states that Moses saw God. The confusion is compounded further when God says, “You cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:20).
While at first reading one may get the impression that these verses are contradictory, a closer examination of the subject reveals that they do not indicate a weakness or contradiction of terms. Rather, they show the usage of words with different applications when used in various contexts. To understand this subject, the reader must first understand the nature of God as far as humanly possible. God in His essence does not have flesh, nor does He have a physical form. Jesus said, “God is spirit…” (John 4:24a). If God were bound to a physical form, He would not be omnipresent (present everywhere). Yet the Bible states that He is omnipresent. God has stated Himself that He fills heaven and Earth: “‘Am I a God near at hand,’ says the Lord, ‘And not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, So I shall not see him?’ says the Lord; ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord” (Jer. 23:23-24). David wrote the beautiful psalm that speaks of God being spirit and of His omnipresent nature: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me” (Ps. 139:7-10).
When one understands that God is spirit and He is present everywhere, then it becomes clear that God cannot be confined to a physical form. However, God is also omnipotent. That means that God is all-powerful and there is nothing that is outside the realm of His power. “For with God, nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). God, who created the heavens and the Earth (Gen. 1:1), is capable of anything. It should not be surprising to understand that God, who is spirit, can and has manifested Himself in a physical form to accomplish His purpose. Therefore, when one reads that God manifested Himself to Moses so that Moses saw His back (Ex. 33:22-33), it is to be understood that God accomplished for Moses a manifestation of a physical form to accomplish His purpose of granting the wish of Moses to see Him. In this instance, Moses desired to see the glory of God but God would not show Moses His full glory.
We read that “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Does this mean that Moses saw the face of God? This cannot be so for the reasons previously discussed. It is in this same chapter that God told Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20). This verse is sufficient to make it clear that Moses did not see God’s face. What then does the term “face to face” mean in the Bible? It is essential to proper biblical exegesis (drawing meaning from the text) that the student of scriptures understands the use of literary devices. A literary device is a phrase or group of words that has a meaning which cannot be ascertained by the meanings of the individual words. In other words, an idiom represents a concept that is different from the literal meaning of the terms used. For example, if someone is said to be “under the weather,” it is commonly understood that the person is sick. The words themselves do not match the understood meaning but represent the concept. If someone were to say that a vehicle that they purchased cost “an arm and a leg,” one would not expect to see them amputated but instead would understand that the purchase was expensive. Idioms are commonly used in language, and the Bible contains idioms that represent ideas. One such idiom is the phrase which is the topic of this study: “face to face.” Another literary device that is important to this discussion is anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is the practice of attributing to non-human beings the characteristics, emotions, or behaviors of humans. When God is attributed physical body parts, it is usually an indication that anthropomorphism is being used to describe an action of God, who is spiritual rather than physical.
To say that God spoke to Moses “face to face” is to indicate that God spoke personally with Moses or that God spoke clearly to him. This is conveyed in the statement which follows in the verse: “as a man speaks to his friend.” What an honor and a privilege it was for Moses to speak personally with God as a friend! This speaks to the love and confidence God had for Moses. Moses stood between God and the children of Israel. Notice what God says concerning Him speaking with Moses: “Then He said, ‘Hear now My words: “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; He is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings; and he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”’” (Num. 12:6-8)
In the preceding passage, God contrasts how He speaks to Moses “face to face” with the visions and dreams He uses to communicate His will to other prophets. Here God uses the idiom to indicate that He spoke to Moses personally and clearly. Later, after the death of Moses, it would be said, “But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). A better eulogy has not been written for a mortal man!
The book of Deuteronomy records the recounting of the Law by Moses before the children of Israel entered the promised land. Moses tells them, “The Lord talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire” (Deut. 5:4). It is doubtful that any rational student of the Bible would understand this to mean that each person in the nation of Israel had seen God’s face and conversed with Him. Instead, it is understood that God spoke to them through Moses and made known His Law to them. Conversely, Moses had previously told them, “And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice” (Deut. 4:12). This illustrates clearly the fact that to say that God spoke to someone “face to face” does not mean that the person or persons were able to see God. Here, Moses states that the children of Israel did not even see the form of God.
It is interesting to note that even though Moses was not able to see the face of God in his lifetime, he would see the face of Jesus on earth after his death! Matthew records the account of the transfiguration of Jesus (Matt. 17:1-8). As Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus on the mountain, He was transfigured before them. The scripture states that “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matt. 17:2). As the disciples looked on, Moses and Elijah appeared talking with Jesus. In this account, Moses was able to speak with the Lord face to face, literally!
For the faithful child of God, there is this promise. One eternal day, you will be in the presence of God, and you will see His face! Scripture says of the faithful, “They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4). Stay strong, be faithful, and persevere to the end. To dwell in the presence of Almighty God, see His face, and sing His praises will make it all worthwhile. Heaven will surely be worth it all!
Michael preaches for the Boiling Springs congregation in Boiling Springs, SC.