What Did Moses See When He Saw the “Back” of God?

The “Back” of God

God is present throughout the events of the exodus. But theophanies represent events of intensive presence that underline the principle that he is always present with his people and that he is faithful to his word and his covenant.

After the incident with the golden calf (Exodus 32), Israel’s future appears to be in doubt. Moses requests that God show him his glory (Ex. 33:12–18). In this more intensive meeting, described in Exodus 34:5–28,

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:5–7)

Theophanies represent events of intensive presence that underline the principle that he is always present with his people and that he is faithful to his word and his covenant.

As is usual with theophany, the visual phenomena reinforce the significance of God’s speech. The divine appearance reveals the character of God, and so does the heart of God’s speech. God “proclaimed the name of the Lord” (v. 5).

Before the theophany takes place, God also indicates its limitation:

And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and 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. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Ex. 33:19–23)

Theophany

Vern S. Poythress

Describing the various accounts of God’s visible presence from Genesis to Revelation, theologian Vern Poythress shows how these theophanies reveal God’s character and are fulfilled in the incarnation of Christ.

What Did Moses Actually See?

So what exactly did Moses see? Did he see a man-like appearance? Or is the language about “my back” a metaphor to indicate the less than-full nature of the revelation? Mystery remains. Did Moses see the back of a human figure or a vision like Ezekiel 1 or a bright cloud?

Whatever the details, Moses saw a theophany of God, and yet one that was less than the fullest possible exposure to the presence of God. The allusion to human-like features builds on the fact that man was made in the image of God. And of course, along with all theophanies, this one also foreshadows the appearance of God in Christ, who is the permanent and climactic theophany. In him, and through his atonement, we can see God’s face and not die (John 14:9; Rev. 22:4).

After this climactic experience with God, Moses’s face shone:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. (Ex. 34:29–30)

An appearance of God may include brightness. The striking thing about Moses is that now the brightness of God’s appearance is reflected in Moses himself, who has seen God. This radiance from Moses anticipates the climax in Christ. Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God” (Heb. 1:3).

In a manner similar to Moses’s reflection of the glory of God, Christians who have communion with Christ are transformed so as to reflect the glory of Christ:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

This article is adapted from Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing by Vern Poythress.



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