†22 Mar 06
Did Moses See God?
I am confused about what the Scripture says regarding "seeing God." Jesus said in John
1:18. "No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He
has declared Him." In Ex 33:18-23 Moses was told he could not see God's face and live. But in Numbers
12:6-8 God said He spoke to Moses face to face. In Numbers 14:14 Moses says to God that He is seen
face to face by His people. Can you help me understand these passages?
Dear M. S.
It will help, when seeking to properly understand verses that might at first glance seem
contradictory, to approach them just as we do other narrative literature. Remember that God uses
ordinary, human vocabulary when communicating with us. The many figures of speech we commonly use
he also uses. Attention to these literary devices will resolve most of our problems of interpretation.
Since no two passages of Scripture, if correctly understood, will contradict each other, we must conclude
that when the Bible speaks of people seeing God, they did not look upon his pure essence of deity. That
man cannot do and live. We are told that God is a Spirit (John 4:24) and thus invisible (I Tim. 1:17). What
these people saw was either 1). A vision or dream of God (Isaiah and Daniel) or 2). A theophany (a divine
manifestation), that is Godís special angel, the one known as the Word, took the appearance of a man
and came down to interact with His people. As sinful mortals we cannot look upon the pure deity of our
Creator and live, thus he mercifully does not provide us that opportunity.
- There is a sense in which "no man hath seen God at any time" (John 1:18). Paul says that God
dwells "in light unapproachable, whom no man hath seen nor can see" (I Tim. 6:16).
- Yet God has revealed himself to mankind on repeated occasions. Jesus came to "make him
known" to us (John 1:18 RSV). When we behold Jesus we "have seen the Father" (John 14:9).
John, in a vision, saw God seated upon his throne (Rev. 4:1-3). Daniel saw a similar vision of God
(Dan. 7:9-10), as did Isaiah (6:1-5). Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel "saw the
God of Israel" (Ex.24:9-11).
- God revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Horeb in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2-15). Yet what Moses
beheld was the remarkable bush that burned but was not consumed (vs. 2). Although it was I AM
that spoke with Moses, we are told it was "the angel of Jehovah" that appeared to him. Jesus
himself claimed to be the I Am (John 8:58). This and numerous other passages reveal that in
ancient times the second person of the Godhead, the one who is called "the Word" (John 1:1),
came down and interacted with chosen people as the angel of Jehovah. This angel could be
seen, usually appearing as a man. Yet he is often referred to as Jehovah (Gen. 19:1-13, 33). God
went before the Hebrews as they traversed the wilderness. What they saw was the pillar of cloud
and the pillar of fire (Ex. 13:21-22). God entered into and dwelt in the holy of holies of his
tabernacle. But what the high priest saw was the Shekinah or glory of the Lord, the bright shining
light that was the symbol of his presence in their midst (Ex. 40:34-35).
- While on Mt. Sinai Moses asked God, "Show me thy glory. And (God) said, I will make all my
goodness pass before thee...and he said, Thou canst not see my face; for man shall not see me
and live...and thou shalt see my back: but my face shall not be seen" (Ex. 33:18-23). When God
spoke to Moses "face to face" He spoke as "a man unto his friend," i.e., familiarly (Ex. 33:11).
When Moses spoke of "Jehovah (being) seen face to face" by the Hebrews, he explains, "and thy
cloud standeth over them, and thou goest before them, in a pillar of fire by night" (Num. 14:14).
What they saw was the pillar of fire and the cloud, not the Spirit presence of Jehovah.
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