And [Moses said to God] ‘Show me, I beg you, your glory.’ And God said: ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Eternal before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ And God said: ‘You cannot see My face (panai), for humans shall not see Me and live.’ And God said: ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon the rock. And it will be, while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back / behind Me (achorai); but My face shall not be seen.’ (Exodus 33:18-23)
It is a very famous scene. Moses asking for reassurance, God offering an experience of staggering intimacy. But the way it is often understood as an anthropomorphic event distances us from it. It takes on a filmic or even cartoonish quality and the nature of the encounter remains unknowable.
Yet until the late middle ages it was never read like this, and to quote the New Testament Scholar John Dominic Crossan it is important to remember that it “is not that ancient people told literal stories and we are smart enough to take them symbolically but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”.
So if we are to go back and take another look at what the text is telling us Moses saw on Sinai, we should divest ourselves of the idea that the text is recording Moses literally seeing the departing back of God as the closest we can get to the divine, and look at the words again, without the gloss of modern translation. And we should be prepared to read the metaphors and resonances in the text, rather than accept a superficial literalist reading.
So what did Moses see?
The root of the word panim, (face) occurs in various forms twenty-two times in 47 verses in this passage, meaning that there is a persistent calling our attention to it. And the midrash begins to fill in some synonyms for it – as well as ‘face’, ‘aspect’ or ’existence’ it can also be “divine justice”, “divine essence”, “divine revelation” “the secret mysteries of Torah”, “the reward of the righteous”.
The root meaning of the word “achorai” is ‘behind’ or ‘after’ – hence the translation “back” but this is not the usual word for the body part (which would be ‘gav’). It is more – the thing that follows, so achorai is “what is behind me” or “what follows me”
From this we can begin to see that Moses is not meeting an incarnate God, but encountering the divine insofar as it is possible for the human being to do so. Human beings cannot fully comprehend the essence of divinity, they can only see the evidence of God with hindsight, when they see what follows after God’s presence has touched their lives.
An early midrash suggests that what Moses sees is the shadow of God, playing with the name of Bezalel who is chosen to create the symbol of God’s presence among the people, the mishkan. Others suggest that the shadow that Moses could be seeing is where God is not – in the same way that we sometimes talk about the emptiness depression and sadness that can overshadow our lives.
The first century Aramaic translation of the text by Onkelos is intriguing: He writes “And God said, ‘you cannot see the face of My shechinah (dwelling/presence); for no one can see Me and survive. And God said, Look, there is a place prepared before Me, and you will stand on the rock, and it will be that when My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cavern of the rock, and My Word will overshadow you until I have passed; and I will take away the word of My Glory, and you will see that which is after Me, but what is before Me shall not be seen”
It is an intriguing translation, for it both chooses not to read the text in any way as a physical encounter where God has even a metaphorical body, but instead it opens up the possibility of reading the text in terms of time. Panai (my face) and Achorai (my back) are now understood as before me and after me, just as we might use them today – there is a time stretching ahead of us, and there is a life we have lived stretching out behind us. So what Moses is allowed to see is ‘behind God’ ie that which has already happened, but he is not allowed a glimpse into the future, what is to “the face of God”. This makes more sense to me – we can understand a great deal more about our lives as the time passes, we can see and make sense of ‘achorai’, but we can only speculate about the future, and every science fiction time travelling story is predicated on the dangers of interfering with the future….
If wes put ourselves into the text, we begin to see that, rather like the later message of the book of Job, no one can even begin to comprehend the secrets and mysteries of divinity, but we can see where God has been. Whether we choose to see that as glimpsing a shadow or hearing an echo, or whether we choose to understand it as making sense through reflecting on what is and what has been, it makes sense to me in my own relationship with God that very often it is not clear to me in the moment that God has been present, and yet when I reflect on a particular conversation or difficult encounter or a moment of relationship I suddenly see the shadow of God in it, and know that God was there all along.
Moses asked for reassurance, and was allowed to see the presence of God in what had happened already. And it was sufficient for him to go into the future with enough confidence to take the next steps. The future is hidden from us, but the shadowy presence of God will be in it as we pass through, and as time moves on we are promised that it will be possible to recognise that God was indeed with us on the journey.