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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"?

4 Answers 4

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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  • Having walked past the cave, God's hand was withdrawn from the mouth of the cave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.
    – user35499
    Apr 29, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 at 21:53
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I am reproducing in its entirety my answer to this question as the answer is basically the same:

"In Ezekiel 20:33-36, what does the LORD mean by "plead my case with you face to face."

Disclaimer: I am not Jewish and I do not speak for any sect.

[Eze 20:33-36 NKJV] [33] "[As] I live," says the Lord GOD, "surely with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, I will rule over you. [34] "I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out. [35] "And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will plead My case with you face to face. [36] "Just as I pleaded My case with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will plead My case with you," says the Lord GOD.

I asked this question because of two obscure phrases: “plead my case” and “face to face.” After reflecting…

“plead my case” I take to mean, “charge you with crimes” “face to face” I take to indicate that this a messianic threat. In the NT we see Jesus repeatedly rehearsing their delinquency, hypocrisy and so on, using words from the Torah Here is the Messiah, face to face with the Judean leadership, pleading his case against them:

[Mat 6:2, 5, 16 NKJV] [2] "Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. ... [5] "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. ... [16] "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.

[Mat 15:7 NKJV] [7] "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying:

[Mat 16:3 NKJV] [3] "and in the morning, '[It will be] foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot [discern] the signs of the times.

And so on…

Traditions in conflict:

The idea/stories of “see God and die” make “face to face” a problematic phrase. I mean, Jacob wrestled with God and called the place “face of EL” because he had seen his face and lived:

[Gen 32:30 NKJV] [30] So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: "For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."

Yet Moses could not bear it:

[Exo 33:18-23 NKJV] [18] And he said, "Please, show me Your glory." [19] Then He said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." [20] But He said, "You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live." [21] And the LORD said, "Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. [22] "So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. [23] "Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen."

And yet, elsewhere Moses bears it just fine:

[Exo 33:11 NKJV] [11] So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he would return to the camp, but his servant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, did not depart from the tabernacle.

[Num 12:8 NKJV] [8] I speak with him face to face, Even plainly, and not in dark sayings; And he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid To speak against My servant Moses?"

[Deu 5:4 NKJV] [4] "The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire.

[Deu 34:10 NKJV] [10] But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,

[Jdg 6:22 NKJV] [22] Now Gideon perceived that He [was] the Angel of the LORD. So Gideon said, "Alas, O Lord GOD! For I have seen the Angel of the LORD face to face."

[Isa 6:1-5 NKJV] 1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His [robe] filled the temple. [2] Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. [3] And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy [is] the LORD of hosts; The whole earth [is] full of His glory!" [4] And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. [5] So I said: "Woe [is] me, for I am undone! Because I [am] a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts."

So “face to face” is the way you speak to a friend. You look into each other’s eyes:

[Deu 5:4 NKJV] [4] "The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire.

[Deu 34:10 NKJV] [10] But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,

[Jdg 6:22 NKJV] [22] Now Gideon perceived that He [was] the Angel of the LORD. So Gideon said, "Alas, O Lord GOD! For I have seen the Angel of the LORD face to face."

We also have the conflict over who wrote the Ten Terms. Did God write them with his finger?:

[Exo 31:18 NKJV] [18] And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

Or did Moses write them with a writing utensil?:

[Exo 34:27-28 NKJV] [27] Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write these words, for according to the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." [28] So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

And perhaps most interesting is the question of the mediation of angels. Where do the authors of the NT get the idea that Moses received the Torah through angels?:

[Act 7:53 NKJV] [53] "who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept [it]."

[Heb 2:2, 5 NKJV] [2] For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, ... [5] For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels.

[Gal 3:19 NKJV] [19] What purpose then [does] the law [serve]? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; [and it was] appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator.

That tradition is apparently a non-canonical Jewish tradition. It continues the intrusion of “see God and die,” I think, to continue to distance God, to be “Utterly Other.” It takes issue with the idea that Moses was so chummy with God that he would actually be worthy to receive the plaques from God’s hands directly, and live. So, they modified Deuteronomy 33:2. The Hebrew says that the LORD came with “ten thousands of his saints” but the Greek says he came with “ten thousands of his angels.” Angels are messengers.

Jude reads “saints,” but inexplicably attributes the quote to Enoch instead of Moses!:

1 Enoch 1: 9 And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones To execute judgement upon all, And to destroy all the ungodly: And to convict all flesh Of all the works of their ungodliness which they have ungodly committed, And of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.

[Jde 1:14-15 NKJV] [14] Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, "Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, [15] "to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him."

We also see Jesus returning with angels, suggesting the author’s Bible is the Greek, not the Hebrew:

[Mat 16:27 NET] [27] For the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.

[Mat 24:31 NET] [31] And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

[Mat 25:31 NET] [31] "When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.

[Mar 8:38 NET] [38] For if anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

[2Th 1:7 NET] [7] and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul agrees with the Hebrew:

[1Th 3:13 NET] [13] so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

And most importantly, John, in Revelation 7 and 14, agrees with the Hebrew, and this forms the basis for the 144,000. They are the “ten thousands of saints,” not “angels”:

[Rev 7:4 NET] [4] Now I heard the number of those who were marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed from all the tribes of the people of Israel:

And how could Jesus return with ten thousands of saints (men) without a rapture, first? So the Hebrew version forms the basis for the rapture as well! The intertextuality of the scriptures is truly impressive, but it is certainly not divinely perfect, and intentional mistranslations from Hebrew to Greek don’t help any.


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