Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 14, 2001
Did Moses see God face to face?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
Exodus 33:11 says, "The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as one man speaks to another." Did Moses actually see God's face?
This episode speaks of the tent in which God communicated with Moses and whose entrance was protected by a cloud when Moses was with God in it. In the same chapter, Moses requests to see God but God responds: "My face you cannot see for no man sees me and lives" (Exodus 33:20).
What then is meant by "face to face"? The face identifies the person and reflects the person's attitudes and sentiments. It can show anger or fear, frustration or humiliation, joy or gratitude.
The use of "face" to show emotion is common in the Old Testament, To "hide the face" is to show aversion, to "turn away the face" is to refuse the request; to "soften the face of another" is to win the other over.
God has no human face and no human can get an idea of the glory of God. Yet since God has plans and desires to communicate with us, in a sense, God does have a "face." When the face of God shines, it shows God's favour and good will (Psalms 4:7; 31:17 and others). When the face of God falls or is hidden, God is angry (Jeremiah 3:12).
The "face of God" is also used as a substitute for person. The divine countenance accompanies the Israelites through the desert to guide them. Although invisible, it is full of the vitality of the living God and is the strength of the Israelites. Even though the Israelites were accompanied by God's presence, it appears that Moses' experience of God was unique.
Usually, to see the face of another simply is to see the person. But to see the face of royalty or a dignitary is to be admitted to that presence, with the implication that the reception will be favourable. Therefore, to see the face of God is to be received favourably by God. It also can mean to visit the sanctuary for worship and to be seen before the face of God.
However, according to verse 19, Moses is only allowed the privilege of seeing something of God's beauty. Moses sees only God's back as Moses' face is covered until God passes by. According to Gregory of Nyssa, Moses understood that to see the face of God is to follow God wherever we are led, right to eternal life.
How did God speak to Moses "face to face"? God spoke clearly without any ambiguity as Moses was to be the mediator of God's words to the people. But even more, God spoke to Moses heart to heart since the face is the means through which hearts encounter one another.
So God spoke to Moses even more directly than humans speak to one another and Moses had a more intimate personal experience of God than is common to mortals.
We too have seen the face of God in Christ, for in the Gospel of John, Jesus assured us: "You who have seen me have seen the Father" (14:9). When Christians encounter this face, like Moses, we are transformed even though as Paul says, "We see now indistinctly as if in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Transformed by the light of "God's face" we too are led like Moses to mediate God to others. Through each of us, that light must shine so others can recognize and acknowledge the divine light in Christ. "For God who said 'Let light shine out in the darkness' has shone in our hearts, that we in turn might make known the glory of God shining on the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6).