Did Moses Literally See the Face of God?
Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke “face to face” with Moses, but Exodus 33:20 says that Moses could not see the Lord’s face. Is this a contradiction?
Two preliminary observations may be helpful. First, we should notice that Exodus says that the Lord “spoke” with Moses “face to face” (Exod. 33:11), not that Moses saw God face to face. There may be a difference, and as we shall discover there is indeed a difference. Second, it is significant that the two allegedly contradictory statements appear in the same passage. Exodus 33:11 says that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Exodus 33:20 says that the LORD told Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” It does not seem likely that the author of Exodus 33 contradicted himself in the space of just ten verses. Such contradiction in close proximity within the same passage is possible yet would be extremely surprising, as compared, say, to statements appearing in different books written by different authors. If it seems that these statements in Exodus 33 are contradictory, perhaps we are misunderstanding one of them.
Reading Exodus 33 in Context
The expression “face to face” can, of course, be used literally of two human beings seeing each other’s faces at the same time. However, in Exodus 33 that is not the case. Just before saying that the Lord spoke to Moses “face to face,” Exodus states, “When 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” (33:9). Here we see that the Lord’s presence was manifested visibly not in an anthropomorphic form but in a pillar of cloud. Old Testament scholar Douglas Stuart makes the following comment on this passage:
The expression “face to face” (pānîm ’el-pānîm) is an idiom. It does not mean “looking at each other” or the like as if Moses actually saw God when Moses stood in the “tent of meeting” and Yahweh stood in front of it in the form of the glory cloud.
Despite these close encounters with God’s manifested presence, Moses asked for something more. He asked the Lord, “Please show me your glory” (33:18). In response, the Lord told Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (33:19a). This does not seem to be referring to a simple matter of the Lord appearing in bodily, human form. The Lord then told Moses, “But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (33:20). He then said, “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. Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (33:22-23). This language about seeing God’s “back” but not his “face” (i.e., his “front” [pānîm] in contrast to his “back”) in context does not seem to be meant to refer to an anthropomorphic body, since what is said to pass by Moses is also called the Lord’s “glory” and “goodness.” There is also the odd imagery of the Lord covering Moses with his “hand” while he “passed by,” after which he said he would “take away” his hand. If the references to God’s “face” and “back” are to be interpreted literally as referring to God’s anthropomorphic body parts, then presumably “hand” must be as well. Yet the imagery, if taken literally, seems to require some bodily contortion seems to be required for the Lord to cover Moses with his “hand” so as to prevent Moses from seeing his “face” while allowing him to see his “back.”
When we continue into chapter 34 (an unfortunate chapter division), we find that the “glory” that is actually revealed to Moses is the glory of the Lord’s character. After taking two stone tablets up Mount Sinai as the Lord had instructed (34:1-4), Moses receives a revelation of the Lord’s glorious goodness in a new way:
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. (Exod. 34:5-8)
Clearly, Exodus 33–34 is not informing us that Moses had a glimpse of God’s literal body but only saw his back. Rather, it is telling us that the Lord revealed to Moses that his glory was his holy character by which he is both merciful and just, gracious and good. The only thing we know about the visible manifestation of God’s presence is that it was “in the cloud,” just as it was earlier in the passage.
Since Exodus 33:20-23 tell us explicitly that Moses did not, and could not, see God’s face—that is, Moses could not look at God directly—we should take this fact into account when considering other passages that might seem to suggest that he could. The most interesting of these comes earlier in Exodus, where we are told that “Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel…. They beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exod. 24:9-11). Even without Exodus 33, we can be reasonably certain this passage does not mean that Moses and the other 74 men (which the passage indicates also included Joshua) saw God in a specific anthropomorphic, embodied form. At the beginning of Exodus 24, the Lord commanded Moses that he and that group of men should go up to him “and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the LORD, but the others shall not come near” (Exod. 24:1-2). Immediately after the passage just quoted, Exodus tells us:
The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there….” So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you” (24:12-14).
In context, then, it is made clear that Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders only went part of the way up, staying far away from where Moses later went to be “near to the LORD.” That being the case, whatever they saw when they “saw God,” they did not see a human face, since they would have been too far away to see it. Evidently, they saw something that they realized was a manifestation of God, but not a clear or distinct image of an embodied individual with a literal face. This interpretation, which has support in the immediate context, accounts for the later statement in Exodus 33 that Moses could not and did not see God’s face.
Coming “Face to Face” with God in the Old Testament
Another example of the idiomatic usage of “face to face” comes in the book of Numbers, when Moses interceded with the Lord pleading for him not to punish Israel for their threatened rebellion. Moses says to God, “For you, O LORD, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night” (Num. 14:14). Israel saw the LORD “face to face” but the way in which they saw the LORD, as in Exodus 33–34, was in the manifestation of the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, not in an anthropomorphic form.
Earlier in Numbers, Aaron and his sons are instructed to speak the following priestly benediction:
“The LORD bless you and keep you,
The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you,
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”
The point of this benediction is not that Israel should hope for the Lord’s face to emit a literal light that would “shine” on them. This is clearly figurative language meaning that the priests are to ask for God to be kindly disposed toward Israel.
There is another passage in Numbers that is sometimes thought to mean that Moses saw God in a human or bodily appearance. In that passage the Lord said to Moses’ brother Aaron and sister Miriam:
“If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD” (Num. 12:8).
Here speaking “mouth to mouth” is another expression with a meaning similar to “face to face,” though one emphasizing verbal communication. It means, in contrast to the usual visions or dreams that could be highly symbolic and even enigmatic, that the Lord spoke directly and plainly to Moses and that Moses could speak directly back to him, in a conversation.
What about the statement that Moses “beholds the form of the LORD” (ESV)? The Hebrew word here, temûnah, does not refer to something’s actual form or body, but instead refers to some kind of visual representation. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch, the word usually refers to idols (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:16, 23, 25; 5:8). In Job, Eliphaz talks about a spirit he saw in a dream that frightened him: “It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form [temûnah] was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice” (Job 4:16). Here Eliphaz explicitly distinguishes between the spirit’s “appearance,” which he says he could not discern, and its “form” or “image,” evidently some vague or indistinct representation of the spirit. David used the term figuratively to express his hope that when he woke up, he would “see” the Lord coming to his rescue (Ps. 17:15, see 17:1-14 for the context).
There is one place in the Pentateuch where temûnah does not refer to an idolatrous image, but he reinforces the point in another way. Moses reminded the Israelites that when they were at the foot of Horeb, they had seen no “form” (temûnah) at all, but only heard a voice emanating from the mountain (Deut. 4:12, 15). In the next chapter, Moses told the entire nation of Israel, “The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD. For you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain” (Deut. 5:4-5). So here the people of Israel are told that the Lord spoke to them “face to face,” even though they were waiting at the foot of the mountain and the Lord was far up the mountain manifesting his presence in a blazing fire. Here again, God speaking to them “face to face” clearly does not mean that they saw a literal, anthropomorphic being with a literal human or human-like face.
Returning to our main text, Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” That clause “as a man speaks to his friend” appears to offer an explanation of the significance of the phrase “face to face” in this context. The Lord and Moses were relationally close, and the Lord manifested his presence directly in front of Moses and spoke to him right there. This connotation of relational closeness is seen again in the comment at the end of the Pentateuch that Israel never again had a prophet “like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10).
Moses Did Not See an Embodied God
Two conclusions seem in order here.
First, there is no inconsistency in these statements. We simply need to read them in context.
Second, statements such as Exodus 33:11 do not teach that God is a literal man or anthropomorphic being who literally appeared to Moses in an embodied form. To the contrary, in every passage referring to Moses—or Israel—coming “face to face” with the Lord, his divine presence is seen in a cloud or fire, not in a human body. Such was the case, in a somewhat different form, in Moses’ first encounter with the Lord, who “appeared to him in a flame of fire in the midst of a bush” (Exod. 3:2). Religions such as Mormonism that appeal to these texts to support their doctrine that God is by nature an anthropomorphic being are misunderstanding them.
 All biblical quotations are taken from the ESV.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 2:698 n. 111. Other exegetical commentators have made the same observation, e.g., Noel Dwight Osborn and Howard A. Hatton, A Handbook on Exodus (New York: United Bible Societies, 1999), 786.
 The Hebrew word pānîm has quite a range of meanings and usages, most of which are related to the general concept of “front.” That meaning works specifically in Exodus 33:23 quite well, since it is contrasted with “back.”