Looking carefully at this passage, I do not see how the words “face”, “hand” or “back” can refer to God's literal body. My interpretation is based on the context of the events from the previous passage. In Exodus 32, the Israelites cast a golden calf and give it worship and sacrifice. In this passage, God tells Moses to lead his people to the promise land, but still angry with their sin, God would no longer go with them:
- vv. 1-3: The LORD said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’… but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Distressed, Moses shares his concerns with God about having to lead the people without God’s presence and guidance:
v. 12: Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.”
v. 15: And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here."
God relents in his anger and grants Moses’ request. God says he knows him by name, implying that God knows who Moses truly is and that Moses has found favor with God:
- vv. 17-18: The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
God also answers Moses’ request to know God and be shown his ways;
- v. 13: “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you”
It is my interpretation that the next part of the passage is figurative in meaning and contain a revelation about who God is and the working of his grace:
- v. 19: And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy”
Just as God knew Moses by name, God’s name, or rather his nature, will be made known to Moses. God will be known by his goodness, and his goodness will be shown, though at God’s discretion, by his graciousness and mercy. But though Moses can know of God’s nature, he cannot see God as he truly is:
- v. 20: But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
God then depicts a scene using the future tense that is full of comforting imagery: God’s goodness will go before Moses; God will show him to a place by his side, a rock where he will stand firmly; God will put him in the shelter of the the rock's cleft; God’s hand will give him cover and protection.
- v. 21-22: And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by”
Similar use of these imagery can be found elsewhere in the OT:
- The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps 18:2)
- If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Ps 139:9-10)
The use of the future tense implies that this scene did not actually take place. Rather, God was reassuring Moses of his help and protection in times of difficulty and trial. God’s goodness, however, cannot be seen as he is passing. or at the moment when it is at work. Only by looking at God’s back, that is, at where he had been or in retrospect, can Moses see the traces of God’s grace and mercy:
- v. 23: “and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
The words “hand” and “back” are used figuratively and do not refer to parts of God’s physical body. This passage therefore does not contradict the words in John (1:18). On the contrary, both affirm that “no one has ever seen” nor "shall see me [God] and live."