I have a question regarding scripture in Exodus 33. At exodus 33.7-11 specifically verse 11 where is says “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” And then just a bit further Exodus 33.20 "But, He said , “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live”, 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and 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. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
So my question is how can at one point Moses speak with the Lord face to face as to a friend in the tent, but just few verses later not be able to see God’s face?
I think it may have something to do with the face to face is possibly Jesus, but both are God. So I find this confusing.
Hey there, Jean!!! That’s a great question. I’ve heard a couple of different explanations regarding that chapter. One of them IS, in fact, that in the Old Testament, we can see that whenever God is seen, it is the pre-incarnate Christ. Moses was seeing the Word before it was made flesh.
Here’s another, explanation. Since God is spirit (John 4:24), He does not truly have a “face.” While God could appear in physical form if He wanted to, He is, in His essence, not a physical being. Therefore it would stand to reason that Exodus 33:11 is simply saying that God and Moses had an especially close relationship. They were in harmony with each other, just as close friends are. God and Moses were not literally face to face, but their relationship and communication was very much like two people who spoke to one another as close friends would.
What’re your thoughts?
Thank you Warner for your response! I have read a few works that do speak of Jesus through out the OT from the very beginning of Genesis onward. I also like your second explanation. To have such a close relationship with God! I guess as I consider your response it seems that the two can be the same. That it may be possible that to have closeness with God has always needed the Word as our intercessor, which in my mind blends your two explanations.
Thank you again for your response!! I appreciate your time.
I love your question! I’ve often puzzled over it but never done a deep dive into this passage. As I looked into it this morning, the New Bible Commentary also suggests this explanation:
Although they were in close proximity to one another, even Moses the faithful servant was not permitted to look directly upon God; v 9 implies that the tent curtain shielded Moses who was inside from God who was outside. This is a further reminder of the barrier which exists between the divine and the human.
How interesting! The clue is right there in the text - Moses goes into the tent, the Lord comes outside the tent, so there is a physical barrier between them.
@jptdoc Hey Jean, appreciate the question. Warner did a great job. I’d like to offer a contextual approach as well.
When it says Moses spoke with God ‘face to face’ the word ‘face’ may be used slightly differently than when it says Moses could not see God’s face. Words can have different meanings in context.
In both cases ‘face’ implies a close relationship, but in the first case ‘face to face’ is contrasted with other Israelites who were not in Gods presence. In the second case ‘face’ is contrasted with a partial revelation of God - Moses had met God ‘face to face, but there was still a part of God - His ‘face’ - that Moses could not yet be exposed to…
Does that make sense? I think ‘face’ is used with a slightly different connotation in each context. The Lord grant us wisdom as we seek His face!
Thanks Carson! I did not pick up that! But there it is! I skimmed over that detail until you brought it out, Thank you
Thank you Sean. That helps me see from a change in perspective. I really enjoy and appreciate this platform offered by RZIM . To be able to reach out to others to learn and share is a wonderful blessing!
The simplest explanation is that speaking face-to-face most often means that the two communicants turn toward each other. The Hebrew word is “panah,” which most commonly is translated turn, either to or from. The implication is that Moses and God had turned their attention to each other. They were so to speak having a ‘heart to heart.’
@jptdoc I think @CarsonWeitnauer made a great point I had not even thought of regarding the veil and I am still pondering. @jporterjr also made a good point about ‘heart to heart’ and panah. Here are two articles that I think flesh out something similar to what I was thinking, but with more Biblical evidence to support the view. The quote is from the first article from apologetics press and supports the notion that the term ‘face to face’ meant spoken to in ‘plain’ terms vs ‘face’ being used right after Moses asked to see God’s glory. ‘Face to face’ is used to contrast the way God often spoke to prophets - through dreams and visions - with the way God directly communicated to Moses. However, when the Scripture says Moses could not see God’s ‘face’, it was right after Moses asked to ‘see God’s glory’ and God could not reveal the fulness of His glory - His ‘face’ in this context. Hope that is helpful to further flesh out what I was thinking but others have thought through more fully.
@CarsonWeitnauer’s explanation of the veil is very helpful and I am still processing whether I think the contextual use of ‘face’ or the veil or perhaps a combination is a better explanation. Deep stuff!
“What then does the Bible mean when it says that God “knew” (Deuteronomy 34:10) or “spoke to Moses face to face” (Exodus 33:11)? The answer is found in Numbers 12. Aaron and Miriam had spoken against Moses and arrogantly asked: “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2). God then appeared to Aaron and Miriam, saying: “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” (Numbers 12:6-8, emp. added). Notice the contrast: God spoke to the prophets of Israel through visions and dreams, but to Moses He spoke, “not in dark sayings,” but “plainly.” In other words, God, Who never showed His face to Moses (Exodus 33:20), nevertheless allowed Moses to see “some unmistakable evidence of His glorious presence” (Jamieson, 1997), and spoke to him “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (33:11), i.e., He spoke to Moses plainly, directly, etc.”
Seeing God and Surviving
Wow! I have enjoyed all these responses. Thank you Sean for the apologetic press article. I love how the scripture invites so much thought. The difference of speaking plainly vs a dream or vision makes Exodus 33.11 more clear. How I long to speak to God ‘face to face’!
Many implications from the proper understanding of seeing the face of God (which is Spirit and might not be visible) vs knowing Him, face to face…by the Spirit of relational understanding and because we are made in His image.
This question also led to an exploration (endless!) of the true nature of God. For Christians, that’s one Being (Who) three persons (what). But the Torah in Genesis 1 and 3 also speak of “us.”
Graced to explore God’s subtle Word. Blessings!
Eric Lyons brings it home in the concluding sentence, “ If Barker can work “side by side” with a colleague without literally working inches from him (Barker, 2008, p. 335), or if he can see “eye to eye” with a fellow atheist without ever literally looking into the atheist’s eyes, then Barker can understand that God could speak “face to face” with Moses without literally revealing to him His full, glorious “face.”
Let us pray.