Did YHWH Speak to Moses Face to Face?
Following the story of the Golden Calf, the Torah describes YHWH’s communication with Moses:
שמות לג:יא וְדִבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ...
Exod 33:11 YHWH would speak to Moses face to face, as one person speaks to another.
Similarly, the very end of the Torah, after Moses dies, states:
דברים לד:י וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְ־הוָה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים.
Deut 34:10 Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom YHWH singled out, face to face.
How should we understand “face to face”? The philosophic tradition, best represented by Moses Maimonides, strove to remove any trace of anthropomorphism from biblical depictions of the divine. Thus, in his Guide of the Perplexed (1:37), he defined face-to-face communication non-literally “as a presence to another presence without an intermediary.”
Many biblical scholars dismiss this reading of the biblical text as a later projection of philosophical thinking on the Torah, which often presents the divine presence in physical terms. Thus, Carol Meyers of Duke University writes:
Remarkably, in this passage, unlike others that relate Moses’ direct encounters with God, a human can see God directly rather than as a presence manifest in divine glory or cloud.
And yet, I would argue that Moses literally seeing God’s face when they converse is not the original meaning of the phrase.
Does Moses Actually See God?
Later in this very same chapter, in the midst of Moses and YHWH’s ostensibly face-to-face conversation, Moses makes a request:
שמות לג:יח וַיֹּאמַר הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ.
Exod 33:18 He (Moses) said, “Oh, let me behold Your kavod!”
The meaning of the Hebrew term כָּבוֹד (kavod), which can mean “glory,” “honor,” “presence” “blazing light,” etc., is uncertain in this context. Clearly, Moses now seeks greater intimacy with YHWH, but we don’t know exactly what he has asked to see. In any case, YHWH’s response implies that Moses asked to look upon YHWH directly:
שמות לג:כ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת פָּנָי כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי.
Exod 33:20 [YHWH] said: “You cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live.”
Moses has become bolder since his first encounter with the deity at the burning bush, where he hides his face to avoid looking directly at the divine presence:
שמות ג:ו... וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה פָּנָיו כִּי יָרֵא מֵהַבִּיט אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים.
Exod 3:6 …And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
In this preliminary encounter, Moses shows admirable modesty by turning away. Now, however, Moses wishes to know God more intimately, but is told, in no uncertain terms, that no one, not even he, can see YHWH’s face. This suggests that face to face cannot mean literally that Moses and YHWH are facing and seeing each other as they converse. What then, might it mean?
“Mouth to Mouth”
When Miriam and Aaron become jealous of Moses and criticize him, they claim that he is not special because they have the same relation with YHWH that he does. YHWH rebukes them, and clarifies the uniqueness of Moses, using an expression that parallels “face-to-face” and further clarifies its import:
במדבר יב:ו וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְעוּ נָא דְבָרָי אִם יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם יְ־הוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ. יב:ז לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא. יב:ח פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת וּתְמֻנַת יְ־הוָה יַבִּיט וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה.
Num 12:6 And [God] said, “Hear these My words: When prophets of YHWH arise among you, I make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. 12:7 Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. 12:8 With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of YHWH. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!”
Speaking mouth to mouth means that God’s messages to Moses are clear and straightforward, and that Moses is not dreaming when he hears these messages but awake and in full possession of his faculties. I suggest that face-to-face has a similar meaning.
The phrase וּתְמֻנַת יְ־הוָה יַבִּיט “he beholds the likeness of YHWH” here does not mean that Moses sees YHWH’s face. The word תמונה translated here as “likeness,” in biblical Hebrew refers to the physical form of something. In Deuteronomy, the people are reminded that when YHWH appeared on the mountain, they heard only a voice but saw no תְמוּנָה “form” (Deut 4:12). Clearly, the people would not have been expected to be able to see facial features from that distance. The verse merely clarifies that they saw no physical or bodily manifestation.
Here Moses is permitted to see some sort of visual manifestation of YHWH, but there is no reason to say that that he could see YHWH’s lips moving. “Mouth to mouth,” then, is best understood as a figurative expression implying clarity and closeness, not a literal reference to human-like features. I suggest the same is true of “face to face.”
“Face to Face” Speech in Deuteronomy
In Deuteronomy’s revelation account, Moses reminds the people:
דברים ה:דפָּנִים בְּפָנִים דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.
Deut 5:4 Face to face YHWH spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.
Even though YHWH is atop a mountain, surrounded by fire, and the Israelites were too afraid to go up the mountain and were thus far down at the foot of the mountain, the encounter is still described as “face to face.” As noted above, in the previous chapter in Deuteronomy, Moses says that they saw no form upon the mountain, only a voice. Whether this chapter is in consonance or in tension with the previous one, it seems clear that the people could, at most, have seen only a vague form from that distance, and perhaps nothing at all.
Thus, several Bible scholars have argued that the phrase face-to-face must be interpreted metaphorically. For example, Richard Elliott Friedman writes:
“Face-to-face”—just a short time earlier Moses had said “you didn’t see any form in the day that YHWH spoke to you at Horeb from inside the fire.” But now “Face-to-face” YHWH spoke with you at the mountain from inside the fire.” This is further confirmation that “face-to-face” is not a literal expression. Like many Hebrew expressions involving the word “face,” it is an idiom. It is used metaphorically to mean direct, personal communication, not mediated by any third party.
This appears to me to be the correct reading.
God’s Hand and Back
That Moses does not literally see YHWH’s face would seem like a boon to the philosophers, like Maimonides, who wish to claim that the Torah does not actually present an anthropomorphic picture of God. And yet, the Torah is claiming that Moses saw some kind of “form” when speaking with God. Moreover, the continuation of the story in which Moses asks to see YHWH’s face is heavily anthropomorphic.
Having told Moses that no human may see his face, YHWH offers a compromise:
שמות לג:כא וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה הִנֵּה מָקוֹם אִתִּי וְנִצַּבְתָּ עַל הַצּוּר. לג:כב וְהָיָה בַּעֲבֹר כְּבֹדִי וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ עַד עָבְרִי. לג:כג וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת כַּפִּי וְרָאִיתָ אֶת אֲחֹרָי וּפָנַי לֹא יֵרָאוּ.
Exod 33:21 And YHWH said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock 33:22 and, as My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. 33:23 Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”
The description here is highly anthropomorphic, and sounds as if YHWH is going to walk by Moses, covering his eyes until only the divine back is visible. But this verse is complicated by an earlier one, when YHWH describes what will transpire:
שמות לג:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל טוּבִי עַל פָּנֶיךָ וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְ־הוָה לְפָנֶיךָ וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם.
Exod 33:19 And [YHWH] answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name YHWH, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.”
What is YHWH’s goodness? Is it something physical? It is hard to imagine it is just a reference to a physical back. In the next chapter, when the passing by occurs, the description is equally abstract:
שמות לד:ה וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הוָה בֶּעָנָן וַיִּתְיַצֵּב עִמּוֹ שָׁם וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם יְ־הוָה. לד:ו וַיַּעֲבֹר יְ־הוָה עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא יְ־הוָה יְ־הוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת....
Exod 34:5 YHWH came down in a cloud—and stood with him there, proclaiming the name YHWH. 34:6 YHWH passed before him and proclaimed: “YHWH! YHWH! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness…”
Several elements stand out. First, YHWH comes down in a cloud, implying that it will not be possible to see him clearly. Second, as YHWH passes by Moses, we hear nothing about body parts or choreography, instead, we are given a long description of YHWH’s character attributes. Apparently, this is the meaning of YHWH’s “goodness.” Instead of being surprised by this, Moses reacts as if he has received the answer he wants:
שמות לד:ח וַיְמַהֵר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּקֹּד אַרְצָה וַיִּשְׁתָּחוּ. לד:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנָי יֵלֶךְ נָא אֲדֹנָי בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ.
Exod 34:8 Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage, 34:9 and said, “If I have gained Your favor, O my lord, pray, let my lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!”
It would seem, then, that Moses was not asking to see YHWH’s kavod out of curiosity, but was looking to have a closer relationship with YHWH so that he could feel confident that YHWH would accompany the people on their journey and forgive them when they go astray. Why, then, does the text frame YHWH’s offer—you can see my back but not my face—in such physical terms?
The Literary Function of Anthropomorphism
Anthropomorphism and anthropopathism (attributing human emotions and thought patterns to God) play an important role in biblical narratives. In many cases, such as “outstretched arm” or “flaring nostrils,” the metaphorical nature is obvious. While the narrative in Exodus 33 sounds more concrete, I suggest that here too, the interaction is framed anthropomorphically to reinforce a key theme in the Book of Exodus, that YHWH’s identity will always be unknowable. This was YHWH’s message to Moses when he asked for God’s name upon their encounter at the burning bush:
שמות ג:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם. ג:יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
Exod 3:13 Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers’ [house] has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is [God’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?” 3:14 And God said to Moses, “I-am-what-I-am,” continuing, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘I-am sent me to you.’”
While God will answer the question in a straightforward manner in the next verse (3:15), revealing the name YHWH, this non-answer emphasizes that just because Moses and the people are going to learn YHWH’s name does not mean that they can really understand a deity this mysterious. Such a depiction of a god contrasts sharply with Greek mythology, whose gods and goddesses were more accessible because they looked like human beings, dressed like human beings, displayed a full range of human emotions, and had sex with human partners.
What the story of Moses’ encounter on Mount Sinai adds is that the best any human can do in getting closer to YHWH is to learn the ways in which YHWH relates to the world. The ultimate reason for YHWH’s actions will remain hidden. Metaphorically, this is seeing God’s back and not God’s face.
Why the Face to Face Metaphor?
The biblical authors lacked a technical vocabulary for characterizing God. By some philosophical accounts, no vocabulary, no matter how refined, is up to the task because in the final analysis, God’s perfection is ineffable. The same could be said for the precise way that God communicates to humans. It should hardly surprise us then that a variety of words or literary devices are used to convey Moses’ encounter with God. Nor should it surprise us that just as Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and other great authors made frequent use of similes and metaphors, biblical authors did as well.
The Torah is a multi-faceted book, containing everything from epic narrative to poetry to parable to legislative ruling. Some passages are intended to cajole, some to inspire, some to frighten, some to inform. Given all the problems involved in ancient people trying to describe the human encounter with God, “face to face” is as good an expression as one could hope for.
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Prof. Kenneth Seeskin is Professor of Philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Yale University in 1972 and has been at Northwestern ever since. He specializes in the rationalist tradition in Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on Maimonides. Publications include Maimonides on the Origin of the World (CUP, 2005), Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair (CUP, 2012), and Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (JPS, 2016).
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