Before the official tabernacle was built, “Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the ‘tent of meeting.’ Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7). As Moses visited this tent of meeting to intercede for the people of Israel, “the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses” (verse 9). Moses’ position of favor with God is evident in the fact that “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (verse 11).
However, later in the same chapter, Moses requests to see God’s glory, and God replies, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. . . . But . . . you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:19–20). To protect Moses, God put him “in a cleft in the rock” and covered him with His hand as He passed by (verse 22). “Then,” God promised, “I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen” (verse 23).
This passage prompts several questions. Does God really have a “hand,” “face,” and “back”? Why could Moses speak to God “face to face” in verse 11 but could not see God’s “face” in verse 23? What is fatal about seeing God’s “face”?
We know from Scripture (e.g., John 4:24) that God is spirit. Spirits do not possess physicality. So, when Moses spoke “face to face” with God in Exodus 33:11, there are only two possible ways to understand it: either Moses was speaking to the pre-incarnate Son of God (a Christophany); or the passage is using a figure of speech called anthropomorphism, in which human qualities are applied to God. While a Christophany is certainly possible, it is probably better to view the chapter as using figures of speech. The terms face, hand, and back in Exodus 33 should not be taken literally, and face to face, being idiomatic, is also metaphorical.
In verse 11 the idiom face to face can be simply understood to mean “intimately.” Moses spoke with God familiarly, as a man speaks to a friend. In verses 20 and 23, face and back are in reference to God’s “glory” and “goodness” (verses 18–19). Since God is spirit, and since glory and goodness are both intangibles, we can take face and back to signify varying “degrees” of glory. God’s hand (verse 22) is an obvious reference to God’s “protection.”
In the Bible, God often communicates using terms easily understood in the human experience. God’s use of anthropomorphism in Exodus 33 was a perfect way to describe what was happening. As humans, we know the importance of one’s face. To readily identify someone, we study his or her face. It is also the face of a person that reveals the most information about his or her character, mood, and personality. However, if all we catch is a glimpse of a person from behind, we are left without a lot of valuable information. It is difficult to identify a person from behind; we know very little about a person if all we can see is a back view.
When God told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), He was saying that truly seeing God as He is, in the fullness of His glory, is more than mortal man can tolerate (cf. Isaiah 6:5). Therefore, to protect Moses, God was only going to reveal that portion of His majesty and power that was humanly possible to absorb. God communicated this plan to Moses in a way we can all understand: “You cannot look Me full in the face [it is impossible for you to know everything about Me], but I will allow you to see my back [I will reveal to you a small portion of My nature so as not to overwhelm you].”
All of this makes Jesus’ words to Philip all the more amazing: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). When Jesus walked this earth, His glory veiled, we could look Him in the face. “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). On one brief occasion, Jesus’ glory was revealed in this world, at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:2). Interestingly, Moses was there, speaking to the glorified Lord, face to face (Matthew 17:3).