“Adonai would speak to Moshe face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. Then he would return to the camp; but the young man who was his assistant, Y’hoshua the son of Nun, never left the inside of the tent.”-Exodus 33:11
Let’s take a good look at this phrase “face-to-face”.
We’ll encounter this phrase quite a bit in the Torah and many of those times refer to Moses speaking with God.
In verse 11, it clearly says that the Lord spoke with Moses “face-to-face” but then in verse 20 it clearly states “But my face you cannot see, because a human being cannot look at me and remain alive”.
Is this a Biblical contradiction?
The Hebrew word for face is PANIYM.
Now depending on the context, this word can actually have two meanings.
It can literally mean “face” as is in “Hey man, you got some chewing gum stuck to your face“.
Or it can mean “presence” as in God’s Spirit was nearby as opposed to be being far away.
There is debate among scholars concerning which meaning is being referred to in verse 11.
However, if the Scripture is true and cannot contradict itself, I have to go with the interpretation that in verse 11 “face-to-face” means that Moses was intimately communicating with God’s presence.
Here is what the great Hebrew scholar Robert Alter had to say:
“These two idioms for direct communication cannot be literally true because the burden of what follows in this chapter is that no man, not even Moses, can see God’s face. As it appears to the Israelites from their vantage point in front of their tents, Moses conversing with the pillar of cloud is speaking to God as a man speaks to his fellow. “-Alter, Robert, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary
There is another point we cannot overlook.
In those days, “face-to-face” was a common Hebrew idiomatic expression with varying meanings depending on the context.
It could mean an intense conversation like a heated debate, or driving a hard bargain like when you’re negotiating prices at an open market.
“I went face-to-face with that shopkeeper until he gave me a discount!”
Another meaning is the brazen expression of anger.
“My father spoke face-to-face to me about failing math class”.
When reading the Scriptures, it can be quite a challenge to know whether face-to-face is indicating “presence”, “intense debate” or “anger”.
The reason is because we’re not just dealing with context but also subtle cultural nuances surrounding the context.
The general scholarly consensus concerning the meaning of “face” in verse 20 is that it is indeed referring to a literal face with features visible to human eyes.
However, the back-and-forth dialogue in verse 11 is a strong hint that a heated debate was taking place.
Moses questions God.
Moses disagrees and offers up an alternate suggestion.
Moses tries to persuade the Lord again.
Finally, the Lord agrees.
Such interplay was quite typical in the ancient Middle East.
CONNECTING THIS TEACHING TO THE NEW TESTAMENT
“No one has ever seen Hashem.
It is Elohim the Ben Yachid
[who shares the nature of Hashem,
the Chochman Ben Elohim at his side,
it is he,
the one being in the kheyk (bosom) of HaAv,
this one is Hashem’s definitive midrash.”
-OJB John 1:18