The slightly larger passage in question is Ex 33:20-23 -
But He added, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and
live.” The LORD continued, “There is a place near Me where you are to
stand upon a rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a
cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by.
Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face
must not be seen.”
Let us exercise extreme caution about this anthropomorphic language about God. While it is common in Scripture, I am unsure about how far it can be pressed to be absolutely literal. However, this is all we have so let us read the actual language we have. Certainly the Hebrew word פָנִים literally means "face" and not "me".
The passage is quite simple and an uncomplicated sequence of events:
- Moses was placed in a small cave
- God placed His hand over the mouth of the cave
- God walked past the cave keeping His had over the mouth of the cave so that His face could not be seen
- Having walked past the cave, God's hand was withdrawn from the mouth of the cave
- Moses saw a little of God's back but not His face
This suggests that God's face is particularly glorious and accords with several other records in Scripture that discuss the radiance of the face, presumably displaying character or judgement:
- Ex 34:20, 35 - Moses face was shining after this meeting with God
- Acts 6:15 - Stephen (the first Christian martyr) was shining like an angel
- Rev 6:16 - The wicked want to be hidden from the face of Him who sits on the throne
- 1 Peter 3:12 - the face of the Lord is against those who do evil
- Ps 34:16 - the face of the LORD is against those who do evil (quoted by Peter)
- 2 Thess 2:8 - Jesus destroys the wicked with the splendor of His coming
Thus, it is little wonder that the wicked cannot live in the presence of God.
I will not get into the apparently contradictory series of texts that say things like "no man has ever seen God" vs others that talk about various people seeing God face to face. THAT, is another question!