After church one Sunday morning, one of the members, and a man a great faith, came to me and asked about a verse of scripture he had read. When we think of Moses, we often think of him as the only man who had access to God (well, he and Aaron) during the great Exodus from Egypt. There is one particular passage that seems to indicate otherwise:

“Then He said to Moses, Go up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and 70 of Israels elders, and bow in worship at a distance. Moses alone is to approach the Lord, but the others are not to approach, and the people are not to go up with him. Moses came and told the people all the commands of the Lord and all the ordinances. Then all the people responded with a single voice, We will do everything that the Lord has commanded. And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early the next morning and set up an altar and 12 pillars for the 12 tribes of Israel at the base of the mountain. Then he sent out young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Moses took half the blood and set it in basins; the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. He then took the covenant scroll and read it aloud to the people. They responded, We will do and obey everything that the Lord has commanded. Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you concerning all these words. Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and 70 of Israel’s elders, and they saw the God of Israel. Beneath His feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire stone, as clear as the sky itself. God did not harm the Israelite nobles; they saw Him, and they ate and drank. The Lord said to Moses, Come up to Me on the mountain and stay there so that I may give you the stone tablets with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction. So Moses arose with his assistant Joshua and went up the mountain of God. He told the elders, Wait here for us until we return to you. Aaron and Hur are here with you. Whoever has a dispute should go to them. When Moses went up the mountain, the cloud covered it. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the cloud. The appearance of the Lords glory to the Israelites was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop. Moses entered the cloud as he went up the mountain, and he remained on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights.”[1]

 

As we read through this part of the story[2] we are met with a few difficult ideas. The first is that Exodus 24:2 clearly states that God’s command was for Moses to be the only one to approach God. All of the elders were to “worship at a distance.” Yet in 24:10 it is clearly stated that “they saw the God of Israel.” Secondly, just a few chapters later in the story, we read an account of God telling Moses that no one could see his face, for no one could see God’s face and live. Therefore, God allowed Moses to see only His back.[3] Why did the elders of Israel not meet death at the moment they all saw God? Thirdly and finally, it is also written that Moses spoke face to face with God like a friend[4] and that Moses knew the Lord face-to-face.[5] How did Moses live? Again, why were the 73 others also allowed to see the God of the universe?

The seventy-four

            These problems that seem to present themselves must be thought through thoroughly. First, then, we observe the initial Exodus 24 question. If Moses was the only one to approach God, how is it that 73 others got to see God as well? There are some in modern scholasticism who accuse Moses of inventing a religion in order to rule over a group of outcasts that fled from Egypt. The thought is that Moses went alone to be with God and then came down and used the divine meeting to persuade the people in his favor. Here, though, if scripture is reliable (and I believe that it is), we see a moment when there were 73 witnesses, excluding Moses, who saw God and attested to the true divine appointment. Furthermore, there might very well be a reasonable difference between just seeing God and actually approaching Him in this context. After all, we can imagine seeing someone from afar and then actually approaching him or her. This, for us, should not present a problem. Instead, it should be an encouragement. God did not reveal Himself to Moses alone, but allowed others to see Him as well. He did not expect blind faith even in the history testified by the Old Testament!

To see God’s face

            The second issue is this. If the 73, and Moses, saw God, why did they not die? After all, no one could see God’s face and live. Needless to say, God is not bound in physical form. This fact alone makes it difficult for us to know exactly what it might mean to see God’s face. For, if any person were to speak to God and see the face of a man, we could assume that the face is not God’s actual face but merely an image of God revealed to that person. It would represent God accurately, but could not be the fullness of God because God is not bound in the flesh. Aside from this, even if a person claims to see God or to approach God, it is not necessary that God’s face would be revealed. Ezekiel describes his meeting with God as encountering the “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”[6]

“The shape of a throne with the appearance of sapphire stone was above the expanse. There was a form with the appearance of a human on the throne high above. From what seemed to be His waist up, I saw a gleam like amber, with what looked like fire enclosing it all around. From what seemed to be His waist down, I also saw what looked like fire. There was a brilliant light all around Him. The appearance of the brilliant light all around was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the form of the Lords glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking.”[7]

 

Ezekiel was in the presence of God, but he did not see God’s face (whatever it might actually mean to see God’s face). I wonder if every other meeting with God is the same in scripture and as we currently meet with God today? Might there be a reason God has chosen not to reveal all of Himself all at once? Whatever this answers, there does not seem to be a reason we should question the coherence of this part of the story. God is incomprehensible. However observant or spiritual we are, it remains that we can only see a limited picture of who God is. We must rely on Him to reveal Himself and we must be willing to get to know Him more and more over time.

To meet with God face to face

Lastly, and probably the most difficult question to deal with, is the fact that, even though no one could see God’s face and live, Moses regularly met with God face to face as a friend. Now remembering our conversation this far, it is difficult to understand exactly what it might mean to see God’s face, since He is not bound in the flesh. Even if Moses did meet with a flesh-like resemblance of God, he would not have been looking at God’s actual face, only an image or a representation accompanied by the presence of God. There may even be a simpler answer than this, though. In Exodus 33 (v. 7-11) the even describes the pillar cloud coming down to the entrance of the tent while the Lord spoke with Moses. The Lord spoke to Moses face to face as a man speaks with his friend. The emphasis is clearly on the Lord speaking to Moses. All that was required, is that God’s presence was literally there with Moses. It does not require that God’s face was seen, nor does the story ever say that Moses saw God’s face.

Even though God is holy and is above us and is timeless and is our king, He is also an intimate Father who wishes to speak face to face with His people and be seen by them. Is it not amazing that, even in the Old Testament, which is claimed by some to present God as wrathful and vindictive, we are able to see a complete picture of who God is and He is described much like the God of the New Testament, because there is only one God and He is not secretive or malicious!

Final thoughts

No matter how many questions I look at concerning apparent contradictions within scripture, none of those apparent contradictions seem to hold much ground once scripture is looked at in context. Here, there seems to be no problems with the story that God has given to us and each piece of the story reveals something great about God. God is holy. God is not bound by flesh. God is not secretive. God reveals Himself. God is intimate. I am blessed to know Him and call Him Father and King!

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[1] Exodus 24:1-18 (HCSB)

 

[2] We must remember that all of scripture presents us with but one grand story and parts of the story must be recognized as parts of a whole, not complete stories in themselves.

 

[3] Exodus 33:20-23

 

[4] Exodus 33:11

 

[5] Deuteronomy 34:10

[6] Ezekiel 1:28 (NIV)

 

[7] Ezekiel 1:26-28 (HCSB)

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