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What did Moses see on the back side of God? Does seeing the back of God mean seeing God?

"Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:23 ESV)

  • I don't know if I'm splitting hairs, but in some dialects of English, "backside of God" may be considered offensive, since "backside" is also the word used to informally describe one's buttocks in some dialects of English (but not, e.g., North American English). Again, I may be splitting hairs, but a space between the words "back" and "side" may resolve this potential issue. Thanks. – Sola Gratia Oct 19 '18 at 16:30
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    Not an answer, but the preceding verse 20 clearly states G-d mentioning that no man can see His face and live. So, seeing the back parts of G-d was the only option Moses had on the table. – Tim Biegeleisen Oct 22 '18 at 13:22
  • In verse 11 in the same chapter it says that God spoke to Moses "face to face". Comparing this verse with yours we see a paradoxical mystery which is still unsolved. – Constantthin May 4 '19 at 13:49
  • @Constantthin, it's no mystery. In verse 11 God appears in human form, face to face; in verse 18, Moses requests "shew me thy glory"; and in verse 23 God complies and appears in his glorified form but doesn't show his face. – Ray Butterworth Sep 20 '19 at 2:09
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וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ׃ (Exodus 33:23, BHS)

Even if you get an answer out of Jewish or church history, it will probably only be speculation. Any response is speculation. There is some symbolism in this event. In our personal lives, we don't see what God is doing in the future and don't see well what God does right now. We see God's actions when we look back at what God has done in our lives. Note: if we saw our personal future, we would lose the ability to choose.

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    "Even if you get an answer out of Jewish or church history, it will probably only be speculation" Note that your speculation is not exempt from being a speculation also.. – Sola Gratia Oct 19 '18 at 17:10
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    @Sola Gratia I intended that sentence to say any response including mine was speculation. – Perry Webb Oct 19 '18 at 20:09
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Moses saw Gods glory which is Jesus, Hebrews 1:2_3. Has in these last days spoken unto us by his son, whom he had appointed heir of all things, through whom he also made the worlds. 3 who being the brightness of his glory and express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purge our sins, sat down at the right hand of the magesty on high

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God revealed Himself to Moses in very limited yet remarkable expressions, 33:19 - 34:9. Moses wanted to experience the nature of God first-hand. What Moses asked to see was the glory of God. What God said he would show Moses to satisfy his request was:

  1. "I myself will make all my goodness to pass before you."

  2. "I will proclaim the name of Jehovah before you."

  3. God would then declare his graciousness and his compassion. These are all extended moral attributes that are characteristic of God’s glory.

God issued this one limitation for Moses' sake - “You cannot see my face, for no man can see Me and live!”

Back and face here do not seem to be used in any corporeal sense as we understand the use of these terms. These are anthropomorphic terms that are limited to the context; the lesser as opposed to the greater. In the context provided, back and face seem to be defined in the following ways.

  1. Face - the greater - intrinsic attributes - These cannot be seen. These would be attributes that relate to essence, that which makes a thing what it is. Intrinsically, the essence of God is, Spirit, Ever-present, Immortal, Holy, Eternal, Self-existing, All-powerful, Invisible, Self-sustaining, All-knowing, Unified, and Transcendent. These are attributed that make God, God. These are also attributes God did not declare to Moses as he passed by.

  2. Back - the lesser - extended attributes - This seems to represent the character of God. These are qualities that define His moral integrity. The character of God as defined in scripture is: Holy, Good, Faithful, Patient, Righteous, Honest, Loving, Just, Fair, Forgiving, Pure, Consistent, and Merciful These are the qualities God agreed to reveal to Moses in an intimate way.

God also made a provision to shield Moses from the effects of the presence of the Lord "Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while my glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

The rendering of "back" – אֲחֹרָ֑י - offers two possibilities.

a. “The back of me, or back parts.” In other words, Moses would be permitted to see only the least glorious of God's attributes. These would be the moral attributes of God, representing the "back" or lesser of God's glory.

b. "That which is left behind." Moses would not be permitted to see even the least glorious of God's attributes but would only be allowed to see where these attributes had "passes by," witnessing only the residual glory from those attributes. Whatever God allowed Moses to see would be all that Moses would be able to endure in the flesh and still live. What Moses could not see were those attributes that characterize God's intrinsic nature.

When God passed before Moses, there was a pattern that had been laid out by the Lord as to how this would be done.

"So, he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, 'The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth; who keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.'”

  1. Moses ascended the mountain to the place the Lord instructed.

  2. God then descended in the cloud just as he had at other times.

  3. God stood there with Moses as Moses called upon the name of the Lord.

  4. Then the Lord "passed by in front of him."

  5. As he "passed by in front of him" the Lord placed Moses in the cleft of the rock and shielded him with his hand against the glory that was passing before him.

  6. Then the Lord began to declare his name and his extended attributes of goodness.

a. His compassion

b. His graciousness

c. His slowness to anger

d. His abundance of loving kindness

e. His abundance in truth

f. His forgiveness

g. His justice and judgment

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