The question was how did God speak with Moses face-to-face like Exodus 33:11 says he did? The answer on the tip of my tongue was that he didn’t. God doesn’t have a face—it’s personification.
But I didn’t get to say it. Someone else was called on, who gave the answer that Moses talked with God’s representative, not God himself, since “no man can see me and live” (33:20)—and backed it up with the verse from Galatians 3:19, that the Law was transmitted “through angels.” It’s all very nice. It’s all very technical and accurate. But I like exploring the personification better. Speaking with an angel is not a walk in the park either.
Moses speaking face-to-face with God is him permitted to get close but not too close. You burn up if you get too close, like you would taking a stroll on the sun.
More personification—God has a hand, too. He’s going to use his hand to shield Moses as the rest of him passes by. He says: “When my glory is passing by, I will place you in a crevice of the rock, and I will shield you with my hand until I have passed by. After that I will take my hand away, and you will see my back. But my face may not be seen.” (Exodus 33:22-23)
Exactly what does that mean? I don’t know, but I like it. “Close, but not too close” works for me. I love the personification.
The personification extends to beyond body parts like face and hand into his manners of dealing with people. “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey,” he tells the people after their festival of the golden calf. “But I will not go in the midst of you, for you are an obstinate people, and I might exterminate you on the way.”
It’s as though he says: “You people tick me off—I need to give myself a timeout.” I can recall my Dad, driving the car on a trip that seemed endless, when we were trying his patience with a much lesser offense—pestering with “are we there yet?” again and again and again, finally hollering: “If you kids don’t stop your crying back there I’m going to stop this car and give you something to cry about!” That usually made us snap to for a while.
God likes Moses. He’s peeved at most everyone else. You don’t go building yourselves golden calves andpartying over them after He just say he hates idolatry. Aaron’s explanation as to just how that might happen seemed not quite adequate: So I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold must take it off and give it to me.’ Then I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” (32:24)
Jehovah said to Moses: “Say to the Israelites, ‘You are an obstinate people. In one moment I could go through the midst of you and exterminate you. So now keep your ornaments off while I consider what to do to you.’” (vs 5) He’s God—he doesn’t need time to consider—it took him two seconds to consider what to do in Eden. This is personification—for their sakes and ours.
And what is this that he’s send them on their way but “not go[ing] in the midst of [them]?” (vs 3) Whatever it is, it worries Moses, and Moses talks him out of it—is that not personification intensified that he presents himself as though that can be done?
Moses said to Jehovah: “See, you are saying to me, ‘Lead this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Moreover, you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my eyes.’ Please, if I have found favor in your eyes, make me know your ways, so that I may know you and continue to find favor in your eyes. Consider, too, that this nation is your people.” So he said: “I myself will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him: “If you yourself are not going along, do not lead us up from here. How will it be known that I have found favor in your eyes, I and your people? Is it not by your going along with us, so that I and your people will be distinguished from every other people on the face of the earth?” Jehovah went on to say to Moses: “I will also do this thing that you request, because you have found favor in my eyes and I know you by name.”
Then he passes by Moses, who wants to know his ways—this even after he has delivered the plagues and led through the Red Sea—if anyone could assume that he is God’s right hand man at this point, Moses could, but he doesn’t—he wants to “know [God] and find favor in [his] eyes.” As he passes by, he shields with his hand, so that Moses does not burn up:
Jehovah was passing before him and declaring: “Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in loyal love and truth, showing loyal love to thousands, pardoning error and transgression and sin, but he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, bringing punishment for the error of fathers upon sons and upon grandsons, upon the third generation and upon the fourth generation.” (34:6-7) He’s merciful, but don’t push Him. The after-effects of transgression will be felt for generations to come.
Moses returns to the theme. He bows low and says: “If, now, I have found favor in your eyes, O Jehovah, then please, Jehovah, go along with us in our midst, although we are an obstinate people, and forgive our error and our sin, and take us as your own possession.” In turn he said: “Here I am making a covenant: Before all your people, I will do wonderful things that have never been done in all the earth...(34:9-10)
I think of the autistic kid from a prior post who says “it takes one to know one.” Because he is mildly autistic—maybe think Asberger’s—and thus not aware of the normal bounds of decorum, he thinks Abraham might have been too. He thinks this accounts for Abraham dickering with God—and now here is Moses doing the same. As though the dialogue might be: “Don’t you know you can’t go dickering with God?” “Well, no I don’t because I’m autistic.” It’s just a novel way of looking at things—not that it is right. I like his quote from Eli Wiesel, that God grants his servant a stage and takes pleasure in eliciting the right response out of him.`
My guess is that the personification is to reach the heart. Ditto with the analogies to family. My dad was hardly perfect but he was a decent man overall and so using family as a template for God’s dealings with us works for me. We always hear that it takes longer for ones who had no decent dad role model. But there will be some who simply consider themselves too wise for the entire personification device and who will resent being likened to children. On so many levels the Bible works to separate people.