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.