This week, in the middle of 14 chapters of architectural specifications and construction, we have two chapters full of incident — the only ones in between the sealing of the covenant at the end of Exodus 24 and God’s moving into the Tabernacle at the end of Exodus 40. Exodus 33–34, which we’ll look at this time, are the chapters in which the remarkable event of God passing by Moses and proclaiming his 13 attributes is found.
I’m going to approach that event, however, from a different angle, starting in Exodus 33. Here’s why. In that chapter, Moses makes two different requests of God, which God at least partially fulfills in chapter 34. The two requests are these:
- “Make Your way known to me” [הוֹדִעֵ֤נִי נָא֙ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֔ךָ / hodi’eni na et-d’rakhekha]
- “Make Your Presence visible to me” [הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ / har’eni na et-k’vodekha]
“Presence” is kavod, the light too bright to look at that indicates God is present in the material world, the light showing that God is immanent. But God uses another term when he speaks to Moses:
19 I will cause all My goodness to pass before your face … 20 you will not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live.
God says he will put Moses in a grotto (נִקְרָה, the same word that gives us the name of Rosh Hanikra) on the mountainside, cover the grotto with the palm of his hand, and then remove his hand so that Moses can see his backside. But, he repeats, “My face will not be seen.”
Yet just a few verses earlier, in Exod 33:11, we’re told this:
YHWH would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to one’s friend.
How can you speak to someone face to face if his face cannot be seen, if no human can see that face and live?
I think the problem is solved if you’re willing to think not horizontally, but vertically. Biblical Hebrew has a very strict notion of hierarchy. If you are speaking to someone who socially outranks you, you don’t use “I and thou” language. Instead, you refer to the person who outranks you as “my lord,” and to yourself as “your slave.”
A classic example is Ruth speaking to Boaz in Ruth 2:7; she calls Boaz “my lord” and refers to herself as “your slave.” (The brilliant woman who wrote the book of Ruth has her hastily add וְאָנֹכִי֙ לֹ֣א אֶֽהְיֶ֔ה כְּאַחַ֖ת שִׁפְחֹתֶֽיךָ. In context this means “I am not even one of your slaves,” but the double meaning is “I will not be one of your slaves, but your wife.”)
You don’t have to be low on the totem pole to use this kind of language; it doesn’t matter how high you are in the hierarchy as long as you’re below the other person. David uses exactly the same language in 1 Sam 26:18 when he asks King Saul, “Why is it that my lord is chasing after his slave?” Saul, as the king, is above David in the hierarchy; Saul is therefore “lord” and David is “slave.” That’s how you refer to someone when you are speaking vertically, up the hierarchical ladder.
Thinking vertically rather than horizontally, when we’re told in Exod 33:11 that “YHWH would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to one’s friend,” it doesn’t mean that they’re looking at each other. What it means is that Moses and God would speak to each other as if they were on the same social level. One is the creator and one the creation, the being who should be speaking deferentially to his maker, but in Moses’s case God was willing to speak to him on the same level, “as one speaks to one’s friend.”
Moses did not call himself “your slave” when he spoke to God. He had done so in Exod 4:10, at their first meeting, and will do so again in Num 11:11, when he is upset and trying to quit his job, and in Deut 3:24, when he has been told that God has in fact finally accepted his resignation letter. Everywhere else, however, God does not emphasize that Moses is his slave; rather, Exod 33:11 explains, they spoke as people do. They spoke without using the language of hierarchy.
That doesn’t prevent God from saying to Moses on the horizontal level — speaking geographically now — “you will not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live” (Exod 33:20). Moses can “know Your ways” (the 13 attributes) but he cannot “see Your Presence.” That would be deadly.
This does not eliminate all the contradictions in the story. It’s clear elsewhere that Moses somehow has transcended his frail humanity. He goes up Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights at a time and doesn’t eat or drink, leaving physicality behind and becoming spiritual, like a god himself. As Exod 34:28 tells us:
He was there with YHWH for forty days and forty nights; he ate no food and drank no water.
That, I suppose, explains why he can speak to God “face to face” — that is, on the same level of hierarchy — and why the rest of Exodus 34 shows us Moses’s face glowing with a reflection of the kavod, the moon to YHWH’s sun. He has been as close to it as one can get. But he still is not really a divine being or a god.
God has no need to protect his dignity when it comes to Moses. Yet God must still protect Moses physically, by not allowing Moses to look directly at him. If Moses did so, he would die like an ordinary human being. That is why, and how, God can speak “face to face” with Moses even though “no human can see Me and live.”