God, being spirit, cannot possess physicality. So when the Bible states that Moses saw God’s face and survived, this should be understood as a figure of speech.
When the Bible refers to God speaking directly to Moses ‘face to face, it refers to how He communicated with him through either a burning bush or pillar of cloud, creating an intimate encounter between themselves and depicts their close relational ties.
Moses sought an encounter with God because he felt it would bring them closer than ever before. This proximity did not represent some sort of transcendent experience, but was rather meant as an expression of how much he valued their relationship – one which had developed over time and which he found comforting.
Face to face” refers to the way that Moses and God conversed like two friends conversing. However, it should be noted that only certain manifestations of God – such as appearing out of a burning bush or through its pillar of fire – made contact directly with Moses; otherwise he communicated via voices or visions.
Moses successfully persuaded God not to destroy Israel after their rebellion, so after successfully convincing Him not to, Moses asked Him for something else: an ability to see God without having to contend with the voice behind the veil – something which seemed perfectly reasonable but was in reality denied completely.
Moses was allowed to witness part of God’s throne and footstool, though not His face itself. This suggests that this theophany was intended not for human eyes alone but as an act of grace to foreshadow Christ’s eventual appearance as the definitive and permanent theophany of God.
Interesting is how the Lord wisely knew not to allow Moses too close, lest he become overwhelmed with glory. Mankind cannot stand the sight of such splendor without becoming completely overwhelmed and dying instantly.
Seeking God can be a compelling desire. Many believe Moses also desired this goal; however, his desire may have been colored by human weakness and sinful temptation; God prefers that His children walk by faith alone rather than sight, so Moses’ request to see His glory may not have been entirely pure.
This does not imply that God did not show himself to Moses in a vision; on the contrary, He appears to have confirmed it by telling Moses no man could see His face and survive – either due to its full presence or simply meaning that should it appear before them, they would all perish instantly.
At first glance, it is striking that God spoke directly with Moses ‘face to face, as one man speaks with another” (Exodus 33:11). This would seem to imply a relationship of closeness between them – perhaps this explains why Deuteronomy 34:10 states that Israel never had another prophet like Moses who could know the Lord intimately.
Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai is one of the most vivid accounts in scripture, due to its dramatic setting with thunder and lightning and a consuming fire descending on it from Heaven in a cloud and fire. Witnessing such an unforgettable visual spectacle was an awe-inspiring visual experience!
Some may become perplexed between Exodus 33:11 and Exodus 33:20 because one states that Moses saw God’s face while still living while the other indicates otherwise. But this confusion stems not from either verse directly but from our tendency to interpret “live” as meaning “life on this Earth”, when in Hebrew it merely means to breathe: that someone is alive or at least breathing.
At Mount Sinai, Israel had been waiting to move forward into their promised land; God told Moses it was time. Unfortunately for the Israelites however, there was an obstacle: God Himself did not want them to move. Rather than accept His plan however, instead they grumbled against Him and complained they deserved punishment instead of accepting His plan as written out in Genesis 15. In response He informed them He will speak directly to them rather than accompany them physically.
Exodus 33:11 promises that God would speak directly with Moses “face to face, as one might with his friend.” This phrase implies that He did not communicate through some indirect medium such as dreams or visions but directly. Such direct dialogue with the Divine is very uncommon – Enoch experienced it briefly when taken up into heaven to witness it; when this occurred again later, one of His senior angels instructed one to chill his face to protect Enoch from being overwhelmed by seeing its splendor.
This shows that God was not trying to alarm Moses with His holy presence, but rather He wanted him to fully appreciate his role as mediator between God and humanity. This responsibility was very great, so He wanted Moses to be prepared.
However, this illustrates that Moses could never have seen God and lived. According to Scripture, Moses saw “the glory of the Lord”, which can only mean one thing in this context: manifestation of Divinity. For humans who saw such manifestations of Divinity to remain living, their physical bodies would need to change into Divine likenesses if they encountered such visions of glory and continued existing as individuals.
Moses asked God for permission to witness His glory, but He responded that no man could bear seeing His face while living. Still, His grace granted Moses more than any other human has seen before but did not allow him to witness all of God’s splendor at once.
Moses was known for his great dignity and humility, so he asked God for a sign that He would come back into Israel’s lives as they trekked across the wilderness toward their Promised Land destination. Moses cared deeply for those he served, making sure that they understood that relationship with Him alone made people special and provided hope for a brighter future.
The Lord then offered Moses an unusual concession: He allowed him to see His back but not His face – an indication that Moses could no longer fulfill God’s intentions for him.
At Mount Sinai, Moses heard and saw thunderstrucks of lightning strikes accompanied by thick clouds encompassing it all. Additionally, he experienced hearing God speak directly to him like speaking directly through a human, giving an experience similar to hearing someone speaking directly with you; although this experience could have been classified as theophany by some standards it wasn’t enough of an experience of God as it can be experienced by sinful humans.
Moses recognized that he could no longer act as the mediator between God and mankind that had been assigned him; that honor belonged exclusively to Christ Jesus. Nonetheless, Moses saw enough glory of God’s work for him to remain inspired to continue serving Him in his ministry.
Moses saw an appearance of God that wasn’t human but still powerful – prefiguring Christ as the permanent and final manifestation of his glory.