Exodus 33:11 says, “And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Doesn’t this contradict Exodus 33:20, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live”?
First of all, we have to realize that this is figurative language. Does God really have a face—eyes, nose, lips, and chin? Does He have a beard, or is He clean-shaven? How about warts?
Though some cults take literally statements in the Bible that attribute human features to God, this wooden literalism leads to many absurdities. Second Chronicles 16:9 says, “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth. …” Does this mean that God’s eyes have legs?
Are you saying we shouldn’t take the Bible literally?
No one should take every statement in the Bible literally because every statement in the Bible was not meant to be taken literally. No doubt, there are many statements in the Bible that are to be taken literally, but some are to be taken figuratively.
How can we tell which statements are to be taken literally and which are not?
As an example, let’s look at the word “Israel.” Does it literally mean “Israel,” or might the word “Israel” be a figurative reference to “the church”? To answer that question, we have to see how the word is used in the Bible. By studying the usage and contexts of the word “Israel,” we see that it never means “the church.” It always means “Israel,” literally understood.
But some words are not like that. Sometimes the same word can have both a literal and a figurative meaning in the same sentence. In Luke 9:60, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead.” The word “dead” is used twice, but in this statement it has a different meaning. Jesus is saying, “Let those who are spiritually dead bury those who are physically dead.”
Exodus 33:11 says, “And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face.” This means directly rather than indirectly, or through an intermediary, or by a vision. The entire sentence says, “And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” God spoke to Moses directly and plainly. We speak to our friends directly and plainly. In Numbers 12:8, we are told that the Lord spoke to Moses “not in dark speeches.”
So what does Exodus 33:20 mean when God says, “Thou canst not see my face”?
Once again, this does not mean a literal face. What kind of a face would it be that produces death simply by seeing it? This statement is expressive of the fact that if there is to be any contact between man and God, it must be done through a Mediator. First Timothy 2:5 tells us that Jesus is that Mediator. Jesus is the only way to God, and He is the only true advocate with the Father (John 14:6; 1 John 2:1–2).