22 Mar 06

Did Moses See God?

Bro. Waddey:
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?
--M. S.

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.
  • 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.
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.

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