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Today's Study

Exodus 33:18-23: Did Moses See God's Back?

Is it possible to see God? On the one hand some texts indicate that God was seen. Genesis 32:30 says, "So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, `It is because I saw God face to face.' " Exodus 24:9-10 likewise teaches that "Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel . . . saw the God of Israel." Exodus 33:11 strikes another intimate note: "The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend." Judges 13:22 states that Manoah said to his wife, "We are doomed to die! . . . We have seen God!" Again, in Isaiah 6:1, "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted." Finally, Daniel 7:9 affirms, "As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire." All these texts appear to claim that at times God can be seen and was seen.

However, there are other passages that appear to argue that it is impossible to see God. Foremost among them is Exodus 33:20. Likewise, Deuteronomy 4:15 warns, "You saw no form of any kind the day the LORDspoke to you at Horeb out of the fire." Even more to the point is John 1:18, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." And again in John 5:37, "You have never heard his voice nor seen his form." Indeed, God is described in 1 Timothy 1:17 as "the King eternal, immortal, invisible," the one "whom no one has seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:16).

To resolve this dilemma, note first that some of these sightings are visions, such as the cases of Isaiah and Daniel. In others the terms for sight stress the directness of access. For instance, in Exodus 24:9-11, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders eat and drink in God's presence, but they describe only his feet and what he stood on. They were apparently not permitted to look on God's face. In another instance, Jacob's access to God is described as being "face to face," similar to Moses' later friendship with God. (The difference may arise from the way the term face of God was used in various contexts. In one, it expressed familiarity beyond previous visions or divine appearances; in others, it referred to knowledge of God which exceeds our abilities and hopes.) Others, such as Manoah and his wife, experienced a christophany or a theophany, which means an appearance of Christ or God through a vision or a preincarnate appearance.

What Moses requests in Exodus 33:18, "Now show me your glory," was more than the Lord would grant for Moses' own good. Even so, God allowed his "goodness" to pass in front of Moses and proclaimed his "name" in Moses' presence.

Thus, instead of showing Moses his person or describing his appearance, the Lord gave Moses a description of who he is. The "name" of God included his nature, character (Ps 20:1; Lk 24:47; Jn 1:12), doctrine (Ps 22:22; Jn 17:6, 26) and standards for living righteously (Mic 4:5). Romans 9:15 quotes Exodus 33:19 and applies it to God's sovereignty.

After God proclaims his name and sovereignty, he promises Moses a look at certain of his divine aspects. What these aspects were is still debated--needlessly, when one considers the range of meaning for the word back or the context in which it is used.

God placed Moses in a cleft in the rock, apparently a cavelike crevice, and he then caused his glory to pass by. The glory of God refers first and foremost to the sheer weight of the reality of his presence. The presence of God would come near Moses in spatial terms.

But Moses would not be able to endure the spectacular purity, luminosity and reality of staring at the raw glory of God himself. Instead, God would protect Moses from accidental (and apparently fatal) sight of that glory. Therefore, in a striking anthropomorphism (a description of the reality of God in terms or analogies understandable to mortals), God would protect Moses from the full effects of looking directly at the glory of God by placing his hand over Moses' face until all his glory had passed by.

That this is a figure of speech is clear from the double effect of God passing by while simultaneously protecting Moses with the divine "hand." Only after his glory, or presence, had passed by would God remove his gracious, protecting "hand." Then Moses would view what God had permitted.

But what was left for Moses to see? The translators say God's "back." But since God is spirit (Is 31:3; Jn 4:24) and formless, what would this refer to? The word back can as easily be rendered the "aftereffects" of the glory that had passed by.

This would fit the context as well as the range of meanings for the Hebrew word used. Moses did not see the glory of God directly, but once it had gone past, God did allow him to view the results, the afterglow, that his presence had produced.

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