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Can a man see God's face and live? Examining "Contradictions" in the Bible

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"Thou Canst Not See My Face"


God said, "Thou canst not see my face. There shall no man see me, and live. And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock. And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by. And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts. But my face shall not be seen." (Exodus 33:20-23)

If no man can look at God's face and live, why then do we read the following apparent contradictions in the Bible?

"Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadah and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel...and did eat and drink." (Exodus 24:9-11)

"And Jacob called the name of the place: Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." (Genesis 32:30)

A Closer Look at Exodus 33:20-23


So-called Bible contradictions are often easily resolved simply by reading the Scriptures before and after the passages that appear to be a contradiction within God's Word. Verse 18 of Exodus, chapter 33, reveals that when God said, "There shall no man see me and live", He was responding to Moses' very specific request to see His glory. "Glory" and "face" are the key words here. We read, "And he (Moses) said, I beseech thee, show me thy GLORY."

Now then, keeping in mind the Exodus 33:18-23 passage in which God says no man can see His face and live, we learn that the Lord is refering specifically to the glory of His face. How do we come to that conclusion? If we go back to the passage of Exodus 24:9-11 in which the nation of Israel saw God, we are told that they saw the sight of the Lord's glory. We read, "And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel." (Exodus 24:17)

Fire on the top of a mountain is not the face of God. It is an appearance or the sight of His glory. The Bible lets us know the earth is filled with God's glory in various forms. We read, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament (sky) shows His handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)
When we contemplate a beautiful sunset, we are looking at the glory of God. We see God's glory in the beauty of the nature He created: mountain ranges, plants, animals, waterfalls, the night sky, the ocean, rolling hills. All these things are the sight of the Lord's glory, which is why a seraphim in heaven cried, "...Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory." (Isaiah 6:3)

Keep in mind, however, that observing even the most amazing sight of God's glory is not equal to looking at the glory of His face. It might be argued that perhaps the devouring fire on the mountain top was God's face. No. It was not, because the Scriptures reveal that God has eyes (Proverbs 15:3). The Lord has nostrils (Exodus 15:8). And the Lord has a mouth (Mathew 4:4). Fire on the top of a mountain is not a face. Remember that man has eyes, a nose and a mouth, and he's made in the image and likeness of God (Genesi 1:26).

So now we understand that the sight of God's glory is not the same thing as the actual glorious face of the Lord. We look at God's glory all around us all the time, and we do not die. Our natural eyes, however, have never seen the glory of God's face.

But Didn't Jacob Say He Saw God's Face?


Again, we read, "And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God FACE TO FACE, and my life is preserved." (Genesis 32:30)

Jacob is not the only one in the Bible who saw God's face. So, aren't the Genesis passage and other similar Scriptures contradictions in the Bible? No. They are not. Again, let us pay attention to what is going on in each passage before we arrive at erroneous conclusions. Remember, the key words are "glory" and "face". When Jacob says he saw God face to face, he says nothing about glory. What we read is that Jacob wrestled with a "man" during the night (Genesis 33:24). Some believe Jacob had a dream, or night vision. But whether awake or asleep, what is important is that there is no mention of the "man" with whom Jacob wrestled having a glorious appearance. Whenever the Lord or His angels showed their glory, Scripture clearly indicates such. That is not the case with Jacob. He saw the face of God, but Scripture does not say that he saw it in its glory.

Throughout the Old Testament, there are passages that speak of God Himself interacting with His servants...and those servants did not die. Why? Because the Lord covered His glory. He hid it from the sight of their natural eyes. This is not a hypothesis. This is Scripture. One such instance is the passage of Genesis 18:1-3 where we read, "And the Lord appeared unto him (Abraham) in the plains of Mamre, and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. And he (Abraham) lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him. And when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground. And said, My Lord..."

We know those three "men" were the Lord, because they accepted Abraham's worship. Created angelic beings in service to God do not accept worship (Revelation 22:8-9).

Although God revealed to Abraham's spirit that the three men were indeed He--the Lord Himself--Abraham was not looking at the face of God in its glory. Instead, he was looking at, and talking with three beings that looked like three men. It is not strange that the triune God would appear as three men...hence, God in three persons.

Remember that angels have the power of metamorphosis. They can take on the form of a person. This is why the Bible tells us, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers. For thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Hebrews 13:2)
That Scripture plainly refers to being in the presence of an angel who looks like an ordinary person...usually an adult male. If angelic beings, who are created beings, have the power of metamorphosis, would not their Creator also have that power? Of course. However, when the Lord appears as a man, or men, in the Old Testament, we cannot say it was a case of metamorphosis. Why? Because the Lord--unlike angels--also has powers that are exclusively His own. One of those powers is the power of creation. So, whether His appearances as a man, or as men, in Old Testament times are cases of metamorphosis or cases of temporarily created "men" we do not know. And that is not important. What is important is that no mortal has ever been able to look at the face of God in its glory and live. However, many have seen the appearance of the Lord's glory...appearances that were not His face. And some have seen the face of a man, or men who covered the Lord's glory, thus allowing interaction with His servants without killing them.

The Last Earthly Appearance of the Face of God


The last record we have of God visiting the earth in the form of a man is when Christ was born. The people who saw Jesus saw the face of God...but not in its glory, which would have killed them. And we know Christ came to be killed, not to kill. Notice His answer when Philip asked to see God the Father. We read, "Philip saith unto him, Lord show us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that has SEEN ME hath SEEN the Father..." (St. John 14:8-9)

Let us not forget that while the face of Jesus the man could be seen by the natural eyes without causing death, the face of Jesus the Lord could not be seen without causing death. This is why during the transfiguration on the mountain, Peter, James and John fell into a deep sleep...a trance, and saw the glorious face of Jesus the Lord in a vision (Matthew 17:1-9), NOT with their natural eyes. Visions are spirtual. They are not natural. Yes,the spiritual eyes--in visions--can behold God's face in its glory, and live. The natural eyes cannot see the face of God in its glory and live...not even the apostles could withstand such glory.

There is no such thing as contradictions in the Bible, only misunderstandings of the Scriptures, lack of attention to detail, and often a desire to find contradictions in the Bible.

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