Before the official tabernacle was built, “Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the ‘tent of meeting.’ Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7). As Moses visited this tent of meeting to intercede for the people of Israel, “the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses” (verse 9). Moses’ position of favor with God is evident in the fact that “the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (verse 11).
While God can appear in human form (or in other physical forms) if He wants to, He is, in His essence, not a physical being. Many people in the Bible witnessed theophanies, or appearances of God. No one, though, other than Jesus the Christ (John 1:18), has seen God in all of His glory. Even the seraphim in heaven cover their eyes as they worship God (Isaiah 6:1–4).
However, later in the same chapter, Moses requests to see God’s glory, and God replies, “And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” Exodus 33:19–20.
To protect Moses, God put him “in a cleft in the rock” and covered him with His hand as He passed by.
“And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift 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 33:22–23
God is spirit (John 4:24). Spirits are not corporal beings possessing physicality. So, when Moses spoke “face to face” with God in Exodus 33:11, there are only two possible ways to understand it: either Moses was speaking to the pre-incarnate Son of God (a Christophany); or the passage is using a figure of speech called anthropomorphism, in which human qualities are applied to God. While a Christophany is certainly possible, the terms face, hand, and back in Exodus 33 should not be taken literally, and face to face, being idiomatic, is also metaphorical.
The idiom face to face can be understood to mean “intimately.” Moses spoke with God familiarly, as a man speaks to a friend. In Exodus 33:20 and 23, face and back are in reference to God’s “glory” and “goodness” (Exodus 33:18–19). Since God is spirit, and since glory and goodness are both intangibles, we can take face and back to signify varying “degrees” of glory. God’s hand (Exodus 33:22) is a reference to God’s “protection.”
Biblically, God often communicates using terms easily understood in the human experience. God’s use of anthropomorphism in Exodus 33 was a perfect way to describe what was happening. As humans, we know the importance of one’s face. To readily identify someone, we study his or her face. It is also the face of a person that reveals the most information about his or her character, mood, and personality. However, if all we catch is a glimpse of a person from behind, we are left without a lot of valuable information. It is difficult to identify a person from behind; we know very little about a person if all we can see is a back view.
When God told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), He was saying that truly seeing God as He is, in the fullness of His glory, is more than mortal man can tolerate (cf. Isaiah 6:5). Therefore, to protect Moses, God was only going to reveal that portion of His majesty and power that was humanly possible to absorb. God communicated this plan to Moses in a way he could understand:
“And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for 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 clift 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
“Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father?” John 14:9.
“For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” Colossians 2:9. On one brief occasion, Jesus’ glory was revealed in this world, at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:2). Moses was there, speaking to the glorified Lord, face to face (Matthew 17:3).