A friend e-mailed this question: In Exodus 24 -9 -11 it says Moses & 70 elders went up and saw the God of Israel. Then in 33-20 God tells Moses “for no one may see me and live”. So the question is: Did these elders actually see God and if so how is it they lived after doing so based on what God said to Moses?
Here is my long-winded response. What do you think?
That’s a great question. At the heart of it is the whole idea that sinful humanity cannot be in the presence of a Holy God and survive. This is shown in the verse Ex 33:20, “for no one may see me and live.” But, in just 9 chapters earlier we see Moses and the 70 elders viewing God and living. What’s the deal?
It seems that there are maybe three options that I could think of: 1. They didn’t really see God. 2. God was wrong in Ex 33:20. Or, 3. God graciously granted an exception.
I doubt it is that they didn’t really see God. Ex. 24 is pretty clear that they saw Him. The passage says so, Why not take it for what it says? There are no clues otherwise to suggest a different reading of this than that they did actually see Him. Moses even adds a note in verse 11 that suggests that he found this incredible: “But God did not raise his hand against these leaders.” This seems to indicate that Moses realizes this was a unique situation, and that God SHOULD HAVE raised his hand against them, but for some reason didn’t. This is one thing that leads me to believe that #3 is correct, that God granted a gracious exception.
I definitely don’t believe #2 that God was wrong, or that there is some inconsistency in these verses that would negate the validity of the book of Exodus or the Bible. Some people spend their lives looking for such things from a human viewpoint, but I would rather spend mine in search of the truth from God’s viewpoint.
Another reason I think God granted a gracious exception is that there are a couple other examples of people in the Bible who also saw God and give strikingly similar descriptions: Ezekiel in Ezekiel 1:26 and John in Revelation 4.
This is a really interesting question because it touches on one of the central themes of the Bible: the presence of God among sinful humanity. In its essence is the story of Jesus…that on our own all of humanity is separated from God due to our sin, and in order to fix that God hides himself in Jesus so that all who believe in Him will not perish, but can have eternal life in God’s presence again. The gracious exception in Ex 24 points to the HUGE exception that God makes for us in Jesus.
The whole topic of seeing God and living or not brings up the central story of Christianity…In the beginning God created everything good and in Genesis 1-2 God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden…He was with them face to face without any problems…in Genesis 3 they fall into sin and the FIRST thing they do is hide from God. Immediately we see the result of sin is a separation between God and humanity. The rest of the story of the Bible is God who hides himself graciously for our sake. Because a perfect and Holy God can’t be in the presence of sinful humanity without humanity being destroyed; God graciously hides himself.
There are lots of examples of God keeping hidden: Burning Bush (Ex 3), Pillar of cloud and fire (Ex 13-14), protects Israelites by blood of the lambs on the door frames at the Passover when the Angel of the Lord strikes the first born (Ex 12). Each is an example of God hiding himself graciously for the sake of the people He is helping.
Later on you read about the guy who touched the ark of the covenant which signified God’s real presence in the midst of his people…he got zapped. A Holy God cannot be in the presence of sinful humanity without hiding himself for their sake. Even into the New Testament we see God communicating with people through mediators. God shared the news of the birth of Jesus to Mary, Joseph, Zachariah, and the shepherds by sending his angels as messengers. In Old testament books like Jonah, God sent human prophets with messages for people from Him. God uses mediators as a gracious way to communicate with people.
Most importantly we see God hiding Himself in human flesh at the birth of Jesus. While Jesus displays his glory occasionally through miracles and at the Transfiguration most of the time He looks like an ordinary guy and people can approach Him face to face without getting fried.
You get a little taste of His power in the Garden of Gethsemane when He says, “I AM” and the crowd of soldiers and Jewish officials with their clubs and torches fall on the ground. (John 18:5-6) But, most of the time it’s safe to come to Jesus. Hebrews talks about how Jesus opens the way for us to approach God. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
The people of Israel actually built a huge curtain in the temple in front of the place where God promised to dwell. The curtain was a real buffer between God and the people so they could worship Him safely without getting killed. Only the High Priest, and only ONE day a year (the Day of Atonement) could go back there into God’s presence. On Good Friday we’re told that the temple curtain was torn in two at the death of Jesus. This is evidence that Jesus’ death has opened the way for us to be able to approach God without fear.
Another key passage is Colossians 1:15-23. In here Paul writes about the fact that Jesus = the Father. He is the image of the invisible God (vs 15) He was responsible at creation (16) (The source of all life (vs 17). And, in verses 19-20, it says that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus for the purpose of reconciling the whole world to Himself. The fullness of God means that Jesus = God, and instead of more separation due to sin, Jesus came to defeat sin so that we could be reconciled, and made one with God again. So that by his blood, shed on the cross (vs 20), we can be presented in God’s sight as holy and without blemish and free from any accusations (vs 22). When we stand before God without blemish and free from accusations we don’t have to fear getting destroyed because of our sin…it’s gone and we’re in a right relationship with God again. It’s just like Adam and Eve before the fall into sin.
The whole story of Christianity is seen in this question of a person being able to stand before God face to face. On our own, we can’t because of our sin. But, by God’s grace through Jesus we can. The question for each of us is, do I believe that on my own I can’t stand before God because of my sin, and do I believe that Jesus’ death makes me unblemished and free from sin so that I can stand before God for eternity?