‘But Moses prayed, “Show me your glory.” The Lord answered, “I shall make all my goodness pass before you, and I shall pronounce in your hearing the name ‘Lord’. I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious, and I shall have compassion on whom I shall have compassion.” But he added, “My face you cannot see, for no mortal may see me and live.” The Lord said, “Here is a place beside me. Take your stand on the rock and, when my glory passes by, I shall put you in a crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I shall take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33.18-23 REB)
Can a human being see God and live? The Old Testament doesn’t speak with one voice on this issue. This passage says no, but other places record Moses speaking face to face with God (Exodus 33.11), and the seventy elders of Israel too (Exodus 24.10). Obviously different Old Testament writers had different points of view. Some stressed the closeness and accessibility of God. Others stressed the majesty and mystery and unknowability of God.
One day we will understand how both these emphases can be true. But it’s worth considering the fact that in today’s passage God’s refusal to let Moses see his face is an act of mercy, not judgement. ‘No mortal may see me and live’. No mention is made of Moses’ sins and unworthiness, but only that he is a frail mortal and would find the sight of God too overpowering.
“If only I could see God!” we think. Maybe not. Maybe the sight of the glorious One who created and upholds all that exists would be so overwhelming for us that it would fry the circuits of our brains. At any rate, when God chose to reveal himself to us in Jesus he had to ‘conceal his identity’, to the point that many didn’t recognize who he really was. Maybe that was a mercy. Maybe a human face for God was all we could take, given our current state of frailty.
God, you are far beyond anything we can possibly imagine about you. Any image we can make of you can’t help but be an idol, a totally inadequate representation of who you are. But thank you that we see you reflected in your creation, and most of all in the words and actions of Jesus. And thank you that all your actions toward us, even the action of hiding yourself from us, are done because of love. Amen.
(February 11th One Year Bible Readings are Exodus 32:1 – 33:23, Matthew 26:69 – 27:14, Psalm 33:1-11, Proverbs 8:33-36)