” … then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Exodus 33:23″
What does that look like? How did Moses get into the cleft of the rock? Did God point to where God wanted Moses to be and Moses scampered up? Did God pick up Moses? And what about God’s hand? It says God put God’s hand over Moses’ eyes so Moses wouldn’t see God’s face. Well, what does the “hand” of God look like – same size as ours or bigger? I can’t imagine God’s hand being smaller! Oh, what’s the problem with seeing God’s face? It’s not like God is trying to be totally illusive. Right? I mean, God let’s Moses see God’s back. No small thing. But the face, not that.
Before we take any of that on we have a hurdle we need to get over before we talk about Moses and the face of God. I’ve already raised a lot of questions about Exodus 33:12-23. These questions make it difficult to take the story seriously. But think about it this way. The Bible began as an oral tradition. If you were to tell this story right after dinner when everyone is comfortable, you think they want to hear some philosophical treatise? There are no smart phones, internet or TV so the story better be entertaining.
And then we write down the stories so we don’t forget them and as soon as that happens they become for us moderns, a problem. We’re conditioned to think that if you put it in writing it is both binding and true. Employment contracts had best be written down. None of this she said he said business. So here we are with a written record delivered to a twenty-first century audience. We want to know the truth more than we want to be entertained and thus there is a disconnect between our understanding of facts and the deeper meaning of the story. And it is to that deeper meaning that I now want to turn.
It is my contention that this story is about God remaining mysterious. Without mystery there is no faith only certainty. And, oh, how I dislike certainty when it comes to my Jesus. I remember an incident at the State Fair. I was walking along and out of this tent as if shot out of a cannon this woman berates me with a Jesus who, if I don’t believe in Him, will send my soul to Hell. I would have liked to ask her if Gandhi, a Hindu, was in heaven. He admired Jesus, to be sure, but Gandhi did not believe in Jesus the way this lady did. And folks, let me tell you, if Gandhi isn’t in heaven, then there’s no chance for me! So you can keep your certainty. I’ll take mystery any day.
The truth of the matter is that we never know God fully. We can’t. Not because we don’t want to, but because Exodus 33 gets it right. If Moses sees the face and the fullness of God, Moses dies. Why? Because we cannot take in God’s fullness and remain human. We were made little less than the angles but less nonetheless I am a white male born with a silver spoon in my mouth living in North America. I cannot help who I am. To be sure, I work to transcend my limitations and expose myself to unfamiliar cultures, but I will never experience what it means to be a mother living in Sub-Saharan Africa. I will never know what it would have been like to be born into this country with black skin. I am a finite being constrained by the time in which I live and the place I live in. My limits are Moses’ limits. We simply cannot see the face of God. The One who brought the world into being, who set the planets on their course and whose providence and purpose guide creation.? We would need to die. This is not all bad. In fact, it’s great news. Remember the woman who berated me? Imagine what she would be like if she thought she had seen the face of God. God help us all!
Our finite nature is what makes us human and God has not left us alone. Reinhold Niebuhr captures the gifts God has given to us – gifts that lead to grace.
Niebuhr writes, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
I do not bemoan my limits for in them lies my only true hope for faith. I trust, as Moses trusted, without ever seeing the face of God.
Still, there are those who are not satisfied with having to live within a mystery. They seek some tangible proof, a solid assurance, that God has not abandoned them. I do not have much to offer, save this. The theologian, Joseph Sittler, suggested “a kind of negative benediction.” I’ll let him explain. “There is a beatitude in the New Testament that reads ‘Blessed are they that hunger and thirst,….for they shall be filled,.’ Sittler writes. But all those who struggle and do not find he suggests :… a second little beatitude may be wrought out for our comfort in a lesser and a stranger way: ‘Blessed also are they that hunger and thirst without being filled.’ For just to hunger and thirst, and to knowing without settling for it that you do hunger and thirst, is given a kind of negative benediction. Hunger, unabated, is a kind of testimony to the reality of food. To want to have may become a strange kind of having.”
In our ultimate quest to discover the face of God we are left having to live within a mystery and I pray that having never seen the face of God can become a way of affirming there is a face to be seen. In the interim, live within the mystery that is our journey with God. Let us pray….
Exodus 33:12-23 12Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” 17The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”