In Exodus 33, how can Moses speak with God face-to-face and then only look at his back when he passes by Moses in Exodus 34?
“Face-to-face” is translated literally in Exodus 33:11. Very few Hebrew idioms are translated exactly because they would make no sense in English. But most translations translate this phrase literally.
An idiom is a literal wording that refers to something in the language. But it doesn’t translate well to other languages. When we take the idea of face-to-face literally in Exodus 33:11, we get caught up thinking that Moses and God looked at each other as they spoke.
But let’s apply a literal understanding of an idiom elsewhere in Scripture. In Numbers 12:8, the Lord says that he speaks with Moses “mouth to mouth.” If we took these phrases literately, we would understand God to be a physical being who has a face and a mouth. But Scripture tells us that God is spirit (John 4:24).
There are many idioms throughout the Scriptures. But God explains these two in Exodus 33:20. Right before he says he speaks to Moses face-to-face, he says that no one can look on his face and live. But face-to-face speaks of his intimate relationship with God.
Moses was one of the few human beings on this earth to know God so intimately. I can think of only a few, Abraham, Moses, and David. These may have been the closest to God in the Old Testament.
These phrases, ” face-to-face” and “mouth-to-mouth” are idioms that show this unique relationship. Moses was the only one who could keep God from annihilating Israel after he freed them from Egypt when they complained. He went to bat for the Israelites and that is why they revere him as one of their greatest leaders today.
Although, maybe in this instance it’s better to have a literal translation. Think in our culture the difference between face-to-face communication and texting or a video call. It’s just not the same. There is something about the intimacy of a face-to-face conversation. In general, though, translating idioms can cause more confusion than be helpful.
I’m all for a literal translation of the Bible, but translators should give the gist of idioms in Greek and Hebrew. Later when Moses meets with God on the mountain in Exodus 34, God tells him that he can only look at God’s back as he passes by in his full presence. The fact that Moses was allowed to see God at all in his glory shows us how intimate and precious his relationship was with Moses.