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Exodus 33:20 (DRB):

And again he said: Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live.

Did Moses say that he wants to "see the Face of the LORD" or he wants to "see the LORD"?

The LORD says in verse 20:

Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live.

So, the question simply is:

Is it to "see my face" or to "see me"?

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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  • Having walked past the cave, God's hand was withdrawn from the mouth of the cave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!

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When The LORD said no man can see him and live, he was referring to his face. This is confirmed in Ex 33:23 when The LORD allows Moses to only see his ‘back parts’.

Exodus 33:20 (KJV) And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.


Exodus 33:22 (KJV) And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:


Exodus 33:23 (KJV) And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

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  • Unequivocal and non contradictory. – Alex Balilo Apr 29 at 8:15
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Following the caution warning of the first answer, one is wise to first view the inferred meaning of the original terms used in the writing. Agreed, I am, that anthropomorphic applications must be carefully handled during exegesis.

So; the language used must be examined. According to the Exodus 33:20 in the Hebrew Bible (HB), it states, ‘“But, He said, ”you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.”’ Looking at the Jerusalem Bible (JB) which is a direct translation from early Greek, the word “live” is interpreted as “survive.” Semantics be what they will, one could assume that “live” may be more attuned to action by God, while the term “survive” possibly the inability of the human form to continue to live if a man sees the face or realizes the essence of Yahweh. Two scenarios follow.

  1. Would a compassionate God utter a warning that man’s life will be forfeited, knowing that human life is that time of gestation in human form awaiting the expectation of eternity? Much is at issue in this scenario. First, “My face” and “Me” must be addressed. Looking at the term “face” is God referring to the absolute appearance that a human would expect to see if one looked upon God? And, how does that align, or conflict with “Me” in comparison? Addressing human desire that wishes to understand in human perceptive terms an expectation relates to the former. A Christological view may be helpful for the latter. As in the majority of Christian traditions, the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) form a single essence explained by the Greek term “ousia,” here God the Father being prosōpon or in hypostasis with the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this analysis, the Holy Trinity is of one ousia (homoousia); and it this essence that relates the powerful aspect of the argument; can a human survive an encounter with the essence? Scenario two follows this.

  2. Moses asked to see God’s glory (JB) or His Presence (HB). Once again, semantics comes into play. God’s glory seems to refer to His essence or His being; His Presence seems to more refer to a facial form. So, either direction taken in this semantical argument should somehow lead to the loss of human life as it is known. Addressing the former first, it could be assumed that human frailty is an absolute player, can one in human form survive or even want to live once one has broached the perfect ousia of the Holy Trinity? One could argue that once presented with the actual ousia, one’s soul (spirit) is so desirous of that spiritual perfection that the soul would leave the body to travel to the perfect ousia; thus, leaving the human body lifeless. The latter may lend to human vanity, in which, once faced with the absolute appearance of the God form, the human admits his frailty and imperfection. Here, the argument of death loses its teeth, as the realization of an imperfect human form would not directly lead to the loss of human life (unless by an act of God), simply a desire to be as the perfect form.

In summation, our finite wisdom does not allow us to draw without question the conclusions of the anthropomorphic language used. We seem assured that God does not desire our demise early on, as there are life's’ lessons to learn and our eventual passing will reveal both His essence and His face. An aside, many that are at peace with God, often smile as they pass. Thus, the arguments above form a delightful scenario during our right-of-passage to eternal life.

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  • Welcome to BH Community. Looking forward to seeing more of clear and precise inputs from your expertise. A short focused answer to the question is in Ex. 33:18: Moses said, show me your כָּבוֹד, and God answered, you cannot see my פָנִים. God knew what Moses meant. To see God's כָּבוֹד and פָנִים allude the same as in Gen. 32:30; Deut. 5:24; Isa. 6:5; Ex. 24:11. – Sam Jul 29 at 20:02
  • Thank you, Sam, for your commentary. You bring forth several verses of scripture that involved what is considered as direct interaction with Yahweh. In your offering, we can see just how close we really are to God the Father. – Neil C Jul 30 at 21:53

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