Sometimes we run across concepts in the Scriptures that simply don’t make sense or seem to contradict each other. When we find these occurrences, rather than ignoring it, this should set off a flashing red sign in our minds that says, “study and pray.” The Lord wants us to understand. Many of our misunderstandings come from the translation from Hebrew to English. One example is found in Exodus 33:
Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend. – Exodus 33:11
But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” – Exodus 33:20
At first glance, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face then later tells Him he can’t see His face and live. Yet, the first verse states that he saw God’s face then continued to live. The confusion comes not from God’s face, but from our assumption of the word live.
In Hebrew, this word translated live in english is “Chayay.” In biblical Hebrew this word is taken from the Chai which means “life.” From other examples throughout Scripture, chayay is sometimes used, not to describe mortality or physical survival, but to be revived, strengthened internally into a full life or even to save a life. In other words, God was not saying that if Moses saw His face he would physically die. So what was He saying?
The Lord desires that we get our strength from Him. This was the clear message in the desert when He told Israel that “man does not live [chayah] by bread alone, but man lives [chayah] by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:3). Here again, this was not referring to physical life, but instead it is about being revived or strengthened. Man isn’t revived or strengthened by bread alone, but he is revived and strengthened by God’s word. This is why Jesus quoted this verse to Satan during His 40 day fast. Jesus’ temptation wasn’t about eating physical food, but it was about being distracted by physical things for your strength rather than being “fed” from God. That is a temptation that we all are faced with, whether fasting or not.
This is what God is communicating here in Exodus. No one can see His face and continue to be revived and strengthened by natural means. No one can look directly at the Creator of Genesis 1 and simply call it a nice experience. Looking into the face of God can change us in such dramatic ways that our previous life is destroyed. But isn’t that what we want; to be dramatically changed?
In this context, Moses asked to see God’s glory and in essence He said, “ok but not My face revealed in full glory of My goodness. If that happens, you will be so radically changed on every level that no one will relate to you and I need you to lead Israel to the land I promised.” So Moses simply saw His back, and even then he collapsed in worship. We later can see how dramatic the change could have been as Moses continues to meet with the Lord on the mountain and in the tabernacle. As a result, Moses’ own face became a source of fear for Israel and needed to wear a veil with speaking to Israel. Sometimes, we do not see the full revelation of the Lord so we can still relate to those that need our love and friendship.
Today, we have access to that glory and even more so. Paul writes about this very thing in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 and says Jesus is what lifts the veil to see God’s glory more clearly. It is His way of making us like Him.
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. – 2 Cor 3:18
Just as in the beginning in the Garden of Eden, God’s desire is to walk with and to be in the midst of His children. Moses experienced portions of this life. This fullness is what the Messiah will restore when He returns. It is for this reason, the Psalmist doesn’t discourage but encourages us to do what Moses did — seek His face.
Seek the LORD and His strength; Seek His face continually.” – Psalm 105:4