#63. Can a mortal see God face-to-face and live OR not? (Gen 16:13, 32:30; Ex 24:9-11, 33:11; Num 14:14; Deut 5:21, 34:10 vs Ex 33:20; John 1:18, 5:37; 1 Tim 6:16)


This is an oldie but a goodie as they say, and can be found on numerous other sites and throughout the literature. I will keep to my procedure of stressing that such contradictions are the result of an editorial process that brought together different textual traditions written over a period of 1,000 years, each expressing divergent and contradictory beliefs, worldviews, and theologies.

In fact, contradictory traditions now preserved side-by-side in the Bible yield divergent responses to this question. In the Yahwist narratives of Genesis, Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob see Yahweh face-to-face, and Abraham even prepares a meal for Yahweh and two angelic guests, and eats with them (Gen 18:1 ff.).

In an Elohist text, Jacob encounters the god of Penuel, from whom he wrestles a blessing (#62): “And Jacob called the place’s name Penuel ‘because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been delivered’” (Gen 32:30). Tradition also accredits Moses with seeing Yahweh face-to-face (Ex 33:11; Deut 5:21, 34:10—a J text), and on one occasion accredits Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders with seeing and eating with the deity on mount Horeb! (Ex 24:9-11). This is generally acknowledged as an Elohist text, so the tradition itself may bear witness to contradictory theologies.

For example, Exodus 33:20, which is also tentatively taken as an Elohist text seems to be the only passage in the Torah from these older traditions that asserts the opposite. Immediately upon asserting that “Yahweh would speak to Moses face-to-face, the way a man speaks to his fellow man” (Ex 33:11), the text then claims the contrary: “And Yahweh said ‘You won’t be able to see my face because a human will not see me and live’” (33:20). The fact that Moses sees only the god’s glory in this verse might indicate that it is an editorial insert by the later Priestly writer in an attempt to rectify this earlier image of the deity’s visibility.

At any rate, the passage negates what we find in the majority of cases throughout the older Yahwist and Elohist traditions—namely that a select few do indeed see, converse, and eat with Yahweh face-to-face. Again this anthropomorphic conception of the deity only becomes problematic, and thus disappears, in later textual traditions (see Conflicting portraits of Israel’s deity).

Accordingly, the youngest traditions in the Bible, those stemming from the New Testament canon, adamantly deny that God can be seen (Jn 1:18, 5:37; 1 Tim 6:16). Obviously these denials were targeted against older biblical traditions that had indeed claimed otherwise.

This particular contradiction also exhibits another phenomenon that I am interested in—namely how later and new theological positions are presented in the guise of older tradition. The fact is that over millennia the portrait of the biblical god, or God if you prefer, has changed. These changes reflect ever-changing worldviews, cultural values, and beliefs. So when later NT writers adamantly claimed that their god could not be seen—in direct contradiction to the Bible’s older traditions—it was mainly because the image and concept of ‘God’ evolved, and no longer supported these earlier portraits and concepts.

Furthermore, the Yahiwst who carved the image of an anthropomorphic Yahweh, or the Deuteronomist who declares that Yahweh is solely the god of the Hebrews, is the sole god, the god that protects the exploited, orphans, poor, and heavily condemns the wealthy and profiteers, the god that prohibits the making of covenants/treaties with other peoples/nations, and the god that declares that faith in Yahweh for all military acts, health, and agricultural sustenance be unyielding, etc…. This portrait of the deity will obviously collide with later ideas and concepts of the god, or God.

I would even venture to argue, but here’s not the space for that, that our culture’s ideas and concepts of God are vastly different than those of the biblical writers, that we too have created new gods, or a God, and identified it as the biblical god. This is how interpretive traditions build off of earlier authoritative texts. It is what we are studying here, and this will become more clear as we progress. I cannot find much in common, for example, between the god of America and the values he stands for on the one hand and Yahweh and the values he stands for as crafted by our biblical authors on the other hand. They both stand for radically different ideas, beliefs, and worldviews. And frankly this is to be expected, and perhaps is quite natural.

13 thoughts on “#63. Can a mortal see God face-to-face and live OR not? (Gen 16:13, 32:30; Ex 24:9-11, 33:11; Num 14:14; Deut 5:21, 34:10 vs Ex 33:20; John 1:18, 5:37; 1 Tim 6:16)

  1. There is another verse I didn’t see you mention in the article where Samson’s parents sit and eat with YAHWEH whose name is Wonderful. Judges 13:3-6, 10-21
    On a personal note I have seen YAHWEH or at the least I was in His presence. I never saw His face only the back of Him. It occurred in a vision while I was writing a letter to my mom 10/12/13. In the vision I was kneeling in front of a television screen and next to me was a huge figure in a red robe. (Rev 19:12-13) On the screen it showed me writing a letter then staring off into nothing. At that moment I realized He has been watching my life with me the whole time. I instantly got embarrassed because I thought of all the stuff I had done that I thought only I knew about. He bends down and whispers in my ear “It’s okay I already forgave you, let’s just keep watching.” At that moment I was overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit. I finally understood what it meant to be saved and I knew what love, power, compassion, mercy and grace truly were.

  2. Two powers in heaven. Two characters called Yahweh. There’s a book on this subject. Not a difficult contradiction to resolve for Christians who believe Jesus was/is God.

  3. if you have two powers then you have two persons conscious of the powers they have that would mean that each person has its own power which would indicate 2 gods.

  4. Are you not aware of the Christian concept of the trinity? What if there are two beings representing one Godhead, both of whom have the same name and same power? Your comment hardly makes a difference.

  5. The point is, David, as with your other theologically, reader-oriented responses, is that the contradiction is “resolved” by acknowledging our authors!! These were two once separate texts or traditions or tellings of the same story that were later edited together to create as it were these contradictions. Your approach to the texts—well, in actually there is little attention being made by you toward these ancient documents—denies the authors of these texts their messages and beliefs! Rather, as the case in hand clearly exemplifies, you impose your beliefs, forged centuries after these texts were written, onto the texts with no knowledge of nor care about the text itself, its authors, and understanding his beliefs and messages on his terms and from within his cultural context. You apply exterior theological frameworks in order to manipulate the texts to confirm and conform to your beliefs about the texts! In short, these ancient texts could be anything. It is YOUR theology, or that of later readers, that defines the meaning and message of these texts. This is to be grossly negligent and disrespectful towards these texts, their authors, and their beliefs and messages.

    Your MO seems to be responding to the titles of my posts, rather than reading them, reading the biblical texts in question, and learning how to acknowledge and understand these ancient texts and their authors. My posts are meant to shed light on these texts’ authors’ competing beliefs, messages, worldviews, ideologies, theologies, etc. as expressed through their texts—they are not yours—and from within their historical and literary context—-not those of later readers.

    I would also draw your attention to my recent post on what it means to Be Honest to these Ancient Texts, Their Authors, and Their Beliefs

  6. “What if there are two beings representing one Godhead, both of whom have the same name and same power? Your comment hardly makes a difference.”

    what if there are 6 in this godhead? if they have “same name” and “same power” how are they a different person? if there is a difference then one person lacks what the other person has.

  7. “Two powers in heaven. Two characters called Yahweh. There’s a book on this subject.”

    so yhwh sends yhwh while yhwh is not the yhwh who sent yhwh?
    this looks like a company of gods doing activities for each other and the name of the company is “yhwh”

  8. to hell with gen 19:24

    admit that you are a polytheist and you want to see your polytheism in the torah because it is possible that the jews too were polytheists 2, 3 ,4 ,5 6 “powers in heaven ” worshipers

    i have some puzzling questions for you

    1. did ALL god get over powered by death ?

    2. if one power in trinity got over powered by deah/satan then an unseen being over powered one of your gods. this would mean besides yhwh there is a power which rivals his unseen son so you have father, son , spirit and SATAN 4 powers in heaven

    3. satan /death overtook the unseen son person in trinity. god the son got beaten the shit out of by satan

    so you have 4 powers in heaven

  9. Rob,

    You invented my position all by yourself. I don’t remember declaring what I believe. I merely recognize the Christian Godhead as valid with reference in the Old Testament.

  10. Rob, I’m afraid you’re probably wasting your own time. I’ve noticed that this site has a tendency to attract people who could be called non-denominational Christians. Since they belong to a Church of One, there’s no larger benefit for other readers if you debate scripture with them, and it’s difficult to even get to the bottom of what they believe because their beliefs are based on a feeling of having personal insight into the “real” meaning of the Bible. Ultimately this is the opposite of what this site is trying to accomplish by considering all scriptures equally, and only the text of those scriptures.

  11. Whenever you have text, context is indispensable. Whenever you have text, a working knowledge of the language it was written in is inescapable. Anything less will end up in error that is inevitable.

  12. Qimba’s comment is right on the money. It always shocks me that so many “students of the Bible” don’t consider original context in their discussions or desire to learn or examine the language behind their Bibles.

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