Exodus 33:11 “The LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”
Spiritually this was how Israel remembered Moses. According to Samuel Terrien, the historical Moses was more a charismatic leader and war lord than a lawgiver. The lawgiver idea became an anchor for the Torah that evolved over time in ancient Israel. But at the heart of Israel’s memory of Moses was a man who encountered God.
Terrien treats the appearance of God in the burning bush and in thick cloud and fire at Mount Horeb/Sinai. These are visual experiences.
God appears in the bush as a mysterious eternal fire, not in human or animal form.
At the mountain what appears is nature in uproar (Exodus 19:16-18, 24:17). Some have thought the “thick cloud” and fire at the summit of the mountain show that Sinai was a volcano. But Terrien thinks it represents the common Hebrew image of God in the thunderstorm.
In both of these stories Terrien sees one of the sources emphasizing God’s presence in his glory. In other words, God’s presence was experienced as fire or brightness, but that brightness was dangerous to behold, So God often shrouded his glory in darkness and cloud.
What impressed me most in his treatment of Moses was Terrien’s discussion of the dialogue in Exodus 33:12 ff. The people have been encamped at the mountain for a long time. Moses has had access to God. But now it is time to leave Sinai.
This creates a crises for Moses.
“Like lovers about to part, mystics are profoundly perturbed when they become aware of the end of ecstasy. Moses is less upset by the prospect of leading the people through the wilderness–although this prospect plays a part in the dynamics of his anxiety–than by the urge to know God with a deeper certainty than the assurance which he has hitherto received: ‘Please, let me know thy ways in order that I may know thee’” (pp. 139-140)
Moses asks three things. First, he asks for the knowledge of God (v. 13). Then, he asks for God’s presence away from Sinai, in the wilderness (v. 16).
God assures Moses on these points, but it is not good enough for Moses, so Moses asks a third thing. “Now, show me your glory (v. 18).
God denies Moses a vision of his face. Knowledge of God, Moses can have. The presence of God, Moses can have. But there is a limit to God’s openness to even Moses. Even though Moses was said to speak to God “face to face”, in this passage Moses’ request to see God’s face gets rejected.
“Face to face” in verse 11 means without an intermediary. But God replies to Moses’ request to see God’s glory by denying Moses the vision of his “face” (v. 20). Instead, God’s goodness will pass before him (v. 19).
In a bold, physical word picture we see God cover Moses with the palm of his hand until his glory has passed by. Then Moses gets to see the other side of God’s face (vs. 21-23).
What does this mean? Terrien suggests that when we see the “goodness” of God, we see his work in history. Yes, Moses, you can have knowledge of God. Yes, you can know God’s presence. What you can’t do is see God directly. Your vision will always be indirect.
This, it seems to me, has profound implications for spirituality. The quest for God cannot achieve extra-sensory or psychic perception. God speaks to us in events and words, not directly by a kind of telepathy.
If I read Terrien right, he uses this insight to reflect on what the historical experience of Moses and Israel may have been. Perhaps, these traditions combined “the witnessing of a mountain storm with the fresh memories of recent events–the totally unexpected deliverance from Egyptian oppression and annihilation–and contemporary endurance of economic destitution in a wilderness” (p. 149). He cites a passage from Martin Buber, who had a similar thought.
Now both people who believe in the inerrancy of scripture and atheists would say that a mountain storm isn’t enough. If that is all it was, then there is no knowledge of God here. But, if our vision of God is always indirect, and we only ever get to see the other side of God’s face, then combining nature and history may be exactly the way we get a vision of God.