Probably the passage most often cited to support people’s ability to see God is Exodus 33:11, which says, “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Yet verse 20 reads, “And he [God] said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”
Certainly Moses would not have contradicted himself just a few verses after saying he saw God face-to-face. So what does this mean? God spoke with Moses face-to-face just as He spoke face-to-face with the children of Israel. Moses was indeed in the presence of God, but he never actually saw God’s person, for God is invisible. As Hebrews 11:27 says, “By faith he [Moses] forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.”
This interpretation should seem plausible to a Latter-day Saint, especially if he or she considers the book of Moses, found in the LDS scripture Pearl of Great Price (which Joseph Smith said he translated between June 1830 and the end of February 1831). The first chapter of that book says that Moses could “endure” God’s presence (v. 2). In verse 11, Moses is quoted as saying, “But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.”
Despite this, many Latter-day Saints cite Exodus 33:11 to explain how it’s possible that their founder, Joseph Smith, “saw two Personages,” which were God the Father and Jesus Christ. Regarding the usage of “face to face,” Christian theologians Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes explain,
“The phrase face to face in Hebrew usage means personally, directly, or intimately. Moses had this kind of unmediated relationship with God. But he, like all other mortals, never saw the ‘face’ (essence) of God directly.” (When Cultists Ask, 30)
In Exodus 33:22, the invisible God said He would take on a visible form and allow His “glory” to pass by Moses. To protect Moses, God would cover him with His “hand” as He passed by. God told Moses that he would see God’s “back parts: but my face shall not be seen” (v. 23). To understand this phenomenon, imagine talking to someone in the dark. You can’t actually see the person to whom you are speaking, but there is no doubt by the sound of the voice that you are speaking with the person face-to-face.
Exodus 33:20 becomes especially problematic for the LDS position since Joseph Smith altered the text in his “translation” of the Bible, thus preventing the possibility of any human seeing the face of God. It reads, “And no sinful man hath at any time, neither shall there be any sinful man at any time, that shall see my face and live.” But after citing Exodus 33:20, John 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:14–16, and 1 John 4:12 and saying that these passages “seem to contradict other Bible verses,” one LDS Church magazine explained it this way:
“Fortunately, we have the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, which clarifies the four scriptures that say that man can’t see God. The Prophet’s inspired revisions of those verses explain that sinful people can’t see God—only those who believe. And even then, a righteous person must be changed—transfigured—to see God.”(See here)
While no ancient Hebrew manuscript, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, supports Smith’s rendering, a Mormon who wants to believe that God inspired their founder to correct the text cannot simultaneously say that Smith—a sinful man without any priesthood authority—literally could have seen God. After all, according to Doctrine and Covenants 84:22, “no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live” without the “authority of the priesthood.”
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