Recently I was on a Sunday school visitation and one of the children we were visiting asked a very interesting question, “Can we see God?”
The answer to this question is not straight forward as it appears, was the child talking about the Triune God, or was he talking about the Father, Christ or the Holy Spirit.
In our discussions one of the servants brought up a very interesting and relevant incident found in Exodus chapter 33.
When Moses was on the mountain he asks to see the Glory of God (Vs. 18). The Lord responds to Moses with the following,
“Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.” (Exo 33:21-23)
This passage is rather interesting because in verse 11, it says that the Lord spoke to Moses, face to face as a man speaks to his friend.
This is further complicated by verse 20 which states that
“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”
So did Moses see God’s face, or did he see His back, or was the author metaphorically speaking. These questions where rather perplexing, just look for example what St John writes;
“No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18)
“Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the father” (John 6:46)
So how do we reconcile all these apparent contradictions and understand what actually happened with Moses.
There are a few points that need to be pointed out,
- Moses is told by the Lord that his people are stiff necked people (vs 5) and that they are to take off their Gold ornaments. Moses then takes his tent and pitches it outside the camp which is to become the tabernacle of meeting (vs7). When Moses entered the tabernacle the pillar of cloud descended and the Lord talked through that cloud with Moses (vs 9). The Israelites watched this incredible miracle and each began to worship the Lord in their own tents. In the following verse, the author writes that the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, this is definitely only a matter of speech and was metaphorical not an actual physical event, because if it was a physical event the Israelites would not have seen the pillar of cloud and the author would not have gone out of his way to mention that the pillar of cloud was before the tabernacle.
- In vs 18, Moses does not ask to see the physical God before him, rather he asks to see the Glory of God. The lord then replies in verse 19 and says,
“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
But then the Lord tells Moses in verse 20 -23 the following
“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live”. And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
Ambrose comments on the face of the creator and says
“Who shall see my face and live?” Scripture said, and rightly so. For our eyes cannot bear the sun’s rays, and whoever turns too long in its direction is generally blinded, so they say. Now if one creature cannot look upon another creature without loss and harm to himself, how can he see the dazzling face of his eternal Creator while covered with the clothing that is this body? For who is justified in the sight of God?
Augustine follows on from what Ambrose says
Moses is told, “Nobody has seen the face of God and lived.” You see, we are not meant to live in this life in order to see that face; we are meant to die to the world in order to live forever in God. Then we won’t sin, not only by deed but not even by desire, when we see that face which beats and surpasses all desires. Because it is so lovely, my brothers and sisters, so beautiful, that once you have seen it, nothing else can give you pleasure. It will give insatiable satisfaction of which we will never tire. We shall always be hungry and always have our fill.
In essence these two fathers explain and rightly so that no one can look at the face of God because what we can comprehend in our mere physical nature is so limited. God is Spirit (John 4:24) no one can even begin to comprehend and explain in human language how God even looks, because we are so limited in our expression of Gods appearance.
Hopefully now we have an insight into the reason why man cannot see the face of the Triune God and live.
Now the question remains if God didn’t reveal his face to Moses did he reveal his back?
Origen comments and says
For it is well known that he, that is, the one who gave the oracles to Moses, says, “You shall not see my face but my back.” Certainly these statements must be understood by the aid of that symbolism which is appropriate to the understanding of divine sayings, and those old wives’ fables, which ignorant people invent on the subject of the front and back parts of God, must be utterly rejected and despised. Nor indeed must anyone suppose that we have entertained some impious thought in saying that the Father is not visible even to the Saviour, but he must consider the exact meaning of the terms we use in controverting the heretics.
For we have said that it is one thing to see and be seen, another to perceive and be perceived or to know and be known. To see and be seen is a property of bodies, which it would certainly not be right to apply either to the Father or to the Son or to the Holy Spirit in their relations one with another.
But incorporeal and above all intellectual nature is capable of nothing else but to know and be known, as the Saviour himself declares when he says, “No one knows the Son but the Father, neither does any know the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son wills to reveal him.” It is clear then that he did not say, “No one sees the Father but the Son” but “No one knows the Father but the Son.”
Origen asks the question, if God is Spirit how can He have a front and back? This is definitely a very difficult question to answer, thus Origen explains that to be seen is that attribute only attributed to bodies, of which the Triune God is not.
It is then right to say that the use of words such as hand, back and face is anthropomorphic (attributes only associated with man), a way of describing God who is Spirit, in terms familiar to humankind. The point of these verses is clear enough, Moses would see something wonderful, but no so much that it would take his life. This great revelation of what actually happened in this encounter is found in the following chapter (34) verses 5-9.
Let us explore these verses,
Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” So Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.” (Exo 34:5-8)
We see hear that the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with Moses. Was this the Triune God or the manifestation of the Son before Moses? If God had descended in his Trinity was heaven empty, of course not, for no one has seen the Father except the Son.
Consider the following analogy. When you watch the newsreader on the TV, you hear the newsreader but you are so far away from the studio in which the newsreader resides. To get the image on your TV, the image must be propagated from the studio to your TV, via some sort of power. The Presenter in the studio is the Father, the Presenter on TV is the Son and the power to transmit from studio to TV is the Holy Spirit. God has only been manifested in the Son, never the Father. Consider Epiphany when the Father spoke from heaven and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove. No one saw the Father but we knew the God through his incarnated Son, Jesus Christ who was the tangible image of God to humankind.
Moses thus when he saw the cloud descend, whether he saw the front or back of God it was not literally the Triune God, but the manifestation of God in the form of a cloud that stood before him.
The Angel mentioned all throughout the exodus is Yahweh as denoted by the capital A. This is Gods manifestation; no one has ever seen the Triune God, only the Son. Consider when God spoke to Abraham or the Angel was wrestling with Jacob, or the Angel that was in the midst of the fire and so on, was this God? Could God who is Spirit wrestle? Or was it the manifestation of God, his Son?
The confusion arises because of the way we use the word God. The Father is God, The Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Holy Spirit and so on. When God is mentioned in the Bible we need to be aware which hypostasis is being intended.
So coming back to this child’s question, has anyone seen God? It is very important to explain that our God is a Triune God and that we have only seen the Son. Every time God is manifested in the Old Testament it is the Son, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever!
3 thoughts on “Did Moses See God?”
In addition there are other terms found in the bible that use words to describe God on a human level for our understanding – such as God having eyes, ears and a heart.
Clearly God is spirit and therefore does not literally have eyes, ears, a heart, and even a back.
It is just to help us comprehend God in our language.
It also reminds me of John when he was taken up to heaven when he could not describe in words what he saw……. God is too big for our language!