The Bible says God talked face-to-face with Moses. A few verses later it says we die if we see God’s face. Which is it?
Great question! First, let’s get a couple of those scriptures out in front so we may review what the Bible says exactly: “When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would stand and worship, each at the entrance of his tent. So the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:10, 11, NASB) Then, “God further said, ‘You cannot see My face, for mankind shall not see Me and live!’” (Exodus 33:20) These verses seem to illustrate why people accuse the Bible of being filled with errors. Why would God contradict himself on such an important matter?
He isn’t. Like all biblical arguments, there are numerous factors involved such as language-translation, Hebrew meanings of words, Jewish oral histories, and above all, context. Context, in my view, is the most important component of scriptural discussions. Context is the sticking point when discovering the true meaning of things; the broader, more authentic understanding of a subject or idea. We must consider the context surrounding the words, “face to face.”
Here’s how context works: a blind man, for example, asks you to describe a daisy. Your description of the flower itself may be academic in terms of color, texture, etc. But describing that daisy in the context of a meadow of flowers in morning sunshine, versus, a single stem in a vase on your kitchen table, makes all the difference in how the blind man experiences that daisy. Context brings to us the emotion, the passion, the feel, the atmosphere; filling-in critical details. We must never view the Bible in a purely academic way. We must consider it scene-by-scene in context to the whole picture.
Moses was the man anointed by God to set up the Jewish faith in terms of doctrine, bylaws, services, calendars, priesthoods and meeting places with God. This man engaged God in all kinds venues through intense, close-encounters. Moses responded by embracing God’s methods of interaction without question, which promoted him, spiritually, into broader venues. He began first with a desert bush, a voice and a flame. God met with him, we would say, face-to-face…up close and in person…on that first day at the burning-bush. Moses then encountered God in royal courts and private homes; on mountain tops, pathways, beaches and deserts often in dramatic, thundering storms. Finally, when Moses’ obedience to the construction of the tabernacle was completed, God and Moses met inside it, consistently, thereafter. “And it came about, whenever Moses went out to the tent that all the people would arise and stand, each at the entrance of his tent, and gaze after Moses until he entered the tent. Whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent; and the Lord would speak with Moses” (Exodus 33, 8, 9.) In context, we see that the presence of the Most-High God met with Moses face-to-face. What is the difference between meeting with God’s presence and meeting with him in person? Is the essence of God different from his physical being?
Yet Moses was human and he wanted more. He challenged God to appear to him as more than a holy mist or a pillar of fire. Moses said, “Show me your glory!” (Exodus 33:18) He had already met God’s glory on numerous occasions. So what did he mean? Perhaps he meant, “Show me everything. Your form…your being…” To that, God was forced to respond: “You cannot see my face and live.” The Lord kindly explained that it wasn’t possible. You see, God’s power in the natural realm—his awesome, pulsing, weighty, tonnage of raw omnipotence would obliterate a human being, if fully unleashed. It isn’t that we are forbidden to see the face of God, it’s that we would not survive it. In his kindness, he meets us with his presence and comes as close as he can. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you (James 4:8.)
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