“Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (Ps. 105:4 NIV)
Does God have a nose? How about a hand, arm, or mouth? If you have read the Bible, you may have noticed frequent references to divine anatomy. For example, David spoke of God’s nostrils, mouth, and feet (Ps. 18:8–9), the prophet Isaiah appealed to God’s arm, bosom, and hand (Is. 40:11–12), and in Exodus, God himself referred to his own hand, back, and face (33:22–23). Admittedly, the Hebrew Bible uses this type of language more often than the Greek New Testament. But the New Testament also contains references to God’s anatomy and most importantly it gives us the ultimate expression of God’s connection with human anatomy: the Son of God in a human body. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). In addition, since Jesus was raised from the dead bodily, never to die again, God’s connection with human anatomy is permanent.
In the next few posts—some of which will be rather lengthy—I plan to explore the divine anatomical language in Scripture. We’ll examine references to one body part at a time and we’ll save the question of whether God really has a body for our final post. (Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are quoted from the English Standard Version.)
Let’s begin with the face of God. Our search for God’s face begins in the book of Genesis where we find these words: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (32:30).
Jacob the Cheater
That bold claim belongs to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Jacob was not especially holy. In fact, his name means cheater and he lived up to his name. He tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that belonged to his older brother Esau. When Esau heard what Jacob had done he plotted to kill him so Jacob fled for his life. After living in a distant land for twenty years, Jacob began his journey home.
Knowing that he would have to face Esau, Jacob sent ahead messengers to appease his brother. The messengers returned with the dreaded news: Esau was on his way with an entourage of four hundred men. “Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (32:7) and went into action by dividing his entire clan—people and animals—into two groups with the hope of one group escaping his brother’s attack. He then turned to God in prayer: reminding God of his promise, acknowledging his fear, and pleading for deliverance. Following his prayer, he sent gifts of animals to Esau and helped his wives and children cross the stream.
For some reason, however, Jacob didn’t accompany his family to the other side of the stream so that night he “was left alone” (v. 24). Why didn’t Jacob remain with his family on what looked like their final night together? Isn’t that the very place you would want to be? What was Jacob thinking? Perhaps he wanted to get on good terms with God before his soon-impending death. Perhaps he needed time to think through his apology to his brother. Whatever it was, Jacob’s need to be alone was greater than his need to be with his family.
Jacob’s Wrestling Match
But Jacob wasn’t alone for long. The text proceeds mysteriously, “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (v. 24).
Imagine the scene. The sound of sandals slipping on the dirt, the dirt flying into the darkness, the grunts and heavy breathing, the smell of sweat-soaked robes, and their absolute exhaustion as the night wore on. Jacob proved to be a scrappy and persistent wrestler forcing his opponent into submission. “The man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, ” (v. 25) and he begged Jacob to let him go (v. 26). Jacob refused, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26). Jacob’s challenger complied: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (v. 28). Jacob walked away limping, but he also walked away with his much-sought-after blessing. Looking back on the brawl, Jacob announced, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (v. 30) and he named the place Peniel which means “the face of God.”
The next day, Jacob’s fears were relieved as “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33:4).
Wrestling with God
What do we learn about God’s face from this story? Jacob’s vision of God’s face was not a peaceful and sublime experience. God came to wrestle. And God came to wrestle with Jacob when he was at one of his lowest points. Jacob wasn’t feeling tough and ready for a fight; he was feeling weak and vulnerable—on the brink of losing everything. But instead of comforting Jacob or offering a helping hand, God came to wrestle with him. Why?
Wrestling by it’s very nature requires a total engagement of mind and body. And that kind of engagement leaves a permanent mark on us. For some that mark is a broken arm or a scar. Those who escape a physical mark, still find a mental change left behind. The wrestler has learned about himself and his opponent and that information is stored away. In Jacob’s case, he was left with a limp, a new name, and the enduring memory that his real battle was with God and not with people. Jacob was permanently changed.
Sometimes God works on us gently, but Jacob’s wrestling match shows that God is willing to take an aggressive approach with us as well. That struggle, however, is essential to the formation of our identity and future. If we’re looking for God’s face, we should take a good look at the anguish that is shaping us even if that anguish is the result of our own foolish choices.
Moses and God’s Face
Jacob’s incredible claim of seeing God’s face seems to be contradicted in the next book of the Bible. About three or four centuries after Jacob and prior to embarking on his mission to lead Israel to the promised land, Moses offered this prayer, “Please show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18). Moses’ desire to see God’s glory is inspiring. He had already heard God’s voice and seen God’s glory in the burning bush, but he wasn’t content with what he had already experienced, he wanted more. And God graciously responded, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and I will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’” (v. 19).
While that sounds like a promise of full disclosure, an exception followed: “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (v. 20). The same restriction is given three verses later when the Lord intriguingly referred to three of his body parts. “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” (vv. 22–23). Why? The reason has already been given: “man shall not see me and live.” Moses’ intimacy with God depended on God’s self-revelation and God graciously granted Moses’ request. But Moses’ physical survival depended on God’s self-concealment so God restricted Moses’ access. Out of love for Moses, God both revealed himself and hid himself.
What’s going on here? Didn’t Jacob see God’s face? Why didn’t God give the same access to Moses?
The Identity of Jacob’s Opponent
Let’s begin to wrestle with this apparent contradiction by looking at the identity of Jacob’s opponent. Who was that mysterious character? Was Jacob literally wrestling with God? There are five clues that lead us to identify the mysterious wrestler as, at the very least, more than a mere human. First, Jacob’s challenger comes out of nowhere. He’s not introduced; he simply appears and starts wrestling (32:24). Second, the man seems to display supernatural power by touching Jacob’s hip socket and putting it out of joint (v. 25). Third, he renamed Jacob (v. 28) reminding us of what God had done with Abram’s name (Gen. 17:5). Fourth, he said “you have striven with God and with man” (32:28), suggesting that God was, in some way, engaged in the wrestling match. Finally, Jacob said he saw God “face to face” and named the place accordingly (v. 30). The most natural and yet most mysterious meaning of the story is that Jacob’s opponent was God.
But how could this be? How could Jacob have been wrestling with God? And how could God have lost the match? Writing about a millennium later, the prophet Hosea refers to Jacob with these words:
“in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed” (12:3–4).
Hosea introduces a new character which helps to solve the puzzle: Jacob was actually wrestling with an angel and in that way he was wrestling with God. Jacob’s experience of God, however, was so intimate and intense that he was able to say, “I have seen God face to face.” By interpreting Jacob’s claim metaphorically, we can conclude that he didn’t literally see God’s face and therefore God’s refusal to show his face to Moses no longer poses a problem.
Face to Face with God
The same apparent contradiction that we’ve just struggled with can be found in Exodus 33. Before God states, “You cannot see my face,” (Ex. 33:20) the writer states, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (v. 11). This face-to-face conversation took place in the tent of meeting: “When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses” (v. 9).
If the Lord had been speaking to Moses face to face why would he subsequently say “you cannot see my face”? The descriptive phrase that follows “face to face”—“as a man speaks to his friend”—is our clue that face to face is being used as an expression for intimacy and therefore we don’t need to interpret it in a literal manner. As soon as we understand that one phrase is not meant to be taken literally our interpretive problem disappears.
It appears then that Moses’ encounter with God gives us the clear boundaries between divine and human interaction. And a scan through the Bible confirms that assertion because while there are several biblical visions of God, none of them include a description of God’s face. The restriction God gave to Moses continued to be enforced. In order for us to survive, God must hold back a part of himself; he must hide his face.
What does that mean for us? It means we can’t handle the full revelation of God. There’s too much to him. He’s too great. He must hide himself. And since God hides himself, we don’t know everything about him. We can’t know everything about him. And that should cause us to stand in awe of him.
A Sign of God’s Favor
As we continue reading through the Old Testament, metaphorical references to God’s face abound. Fast-forward about three centuries from Moses’ time, to David the second king of Israel. David wrote many of the Psalms which are poetic and prayerful songs to God. The Psalms repeatedly mention God’s face:
- “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord” (Ps. 4:6).
- “Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love” (Ps. 31:16).
- “Not by their own sword did they win the land . . . but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face” (Ps. 44:3).
- “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Ps. 80:3, 7, 19).
- “Blessed are the people . . . who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face” (Ps. 89:15).
David and his fellow Psalmists weren’t thinking of God’s face giving physical light. Instead they were asking for God to look in their direction and show them his loving attention. Support for a figurative interpretation of facial light comes from Proverbs 16:15:
In the light of a king’s face there is life,
and his favor is like the clouds
that bring the spring rain.
This verse was written using a typical Hebrew literary device called parallelism. In this case, we have synonymous parallelism in which the second line restates the first. And that means the “light of the king’s face” in the first line is equivalent to the king’s “favor” in the second line. If you’re still not convinced to interpret this reference to facial light in a figurative manner, perhaps a common sense argument will suffice. This proverb was written by Solomon who was known for his wisdom and it’s almost certain that he would have known that human faces, even if they belonged to a king, don’t radiate physical light.
We’ve been analyzing biblical language, but let’s not miss the point being conveyed by that language. Do we care about what God thinks? Do we want his favor? Are we seeking the light of his face?
A Sign of God’s Disfavor
While divine favor is expressed in facial terms so is divine disfavor. David writes, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). David was suffering and although he cried out to God, God didn’t seem to care. The hidden face of God also spelled dismay and doom for David: “You hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps. 30:7). And “Answer me quickly, O Lord! My spirit fails! Hide not your face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit” (Ps. 143:7). In order to survive, David needed access to God’s face; David needed God’s attention and favor.
Why does God hide his face from his people? The prophets assert that sin blocks our view of God’s face. Writing in about 700 b.c., Isaiah declared, “Your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (59:2). And about a century later, the Lord accused Israel of spiritual infidelity and promised to administer the following punishment, “I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity” (Jer. 18:17). Our rebellion causes God to turn away from us.
God turns away from us because we’ve first turned away from him. To sin is to go in the wrong direction; to walk away from God and his plan. After eating from the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve hid from God. “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). (The same Hebrew word that is translated “face” is also at times translated “presence” and that’s the case here.) Adam and Eve recognized the distinct sound of God’s walk which means they must have previously enjoyed his company. Now, however, instead of gladly greeting their approaching Creator, they hide. And specifically, they hide from God’s face. Instead of asking, “Why does God hide his face from us?” we should ask, “Why do we hide from God’s face?”
Jesus and God’s Face
The good news is that although we have turned away from God, God has taken the initiative to restore our broken relationship. And that initiative was expressed in the sending of his Son Jesus.
Looking at Jesus’ life it seems that, despite his difficulties, for most of his life he enjoyed the light of God’s face. But in the hours before his death, while he was hanging on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34; cf. Ps. 22:1). That cry is a quote from David (Ps. 22:1) and it closely parallels another prayerful complaint from David, “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). Both are questions of complaint to God during a time of suffering. And more importantly both questions leave the questioner wondering the same thing: Where is God? And why doesn’t he care? But why was Jesus feeling that way?
In order to save us, Jesus had to experience the judgment that we deserved. In the words of Peter, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). Jesus’ agonizing question shows that he suffered more than physical pain. He also suffered deep emotional and spiritual pain and he did that for us. The point here is that even God’s Son knows what it’s like to experience the hidden face of God.
God’s face, however, didn’t remain hidden from Jesus. Three days after Jesus died, he rose from the dead according to David’s prophecy: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2:27–28; cf. Ps. 16:10–11). God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead and seating him at his own right hand. God’s face once again made Jesus full of gladness.
We also see God’s face in his Spirit. Before we look at the Spirit’s relation to the face of God, a brief explanation is in order. Christians believe God is triune. That means that there is one and only one God, but within the one God there are three primary distinctions. These distinctions are called ‘Persons’—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While there’s a distinction between the three, allowing us to speak of them individually, they are also inseparably connected making them one. As one early church leader wrote, “I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightway carried back to the one.”[i] The doctrine of the Trinity is certainly mysterious, but the concept is not contradictory because the numbers one and three are being used in different ways.
The Spirit and God’s Face
About six hundred years before Christ, the prophet Ezekiel made a direct connection between the face of God and the Spirit of God. “And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God” (39:29). Ezekiel spoke those words during Israel’s Babylonian exile. Although the situation looked bleak, Ezekiel held out hope: God will again show his face to Israel. And the sign that God is showing his face is the giving of his Spirit.
Six centuries later, the Spirit was given to a group of Jewish followers of Jesus as recorded in the book of Acts. Fifty days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the believers were gathered together when the Spirit arrived in dramatic fashion. The people heard the sound of rushing wind, saw the appearance of fire, and were given the ability to praise God in new languages (Acts 2:1–4). God kept his promise and once again showed his face to Israel.
The giving of God’s Spirit, however, wasn’t meant to be a one-time event. Throughout the New Testament it’s assumed that God’s people have received God’s Spirit. Paul said, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal. 4:6). And in another letter, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9). God continues to give his Spirit and therefore God continues to show his face to his people.
A Future Prospect
The last chapter of the Bible includes an exciting prospect. After describing the beauty of God’s new world, John says that God’s servants “will see his face” (Rev. 22:4). The expectation of seeing God’s face can be found a millennium earlier: “The upright shall behold his face” (Ps. 11:7) and “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness” (Ps. 17:15). Could this, in fact, be the very face that Moses was not permitted to see? If so, God’s restriction to Moses wasn’t intended to be permanent. And ultimately God doesn’t want to hide anything from us. He wants to completely reveal himself, but he is waiting for the day when we can fully enjoy that revelation. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).
If we’re looking for God’s face we should consider our struggles because when we do we may realize that God has come to wrestle with us in those struggles. And therefore we may be able to say with Jacob, “I have seen God face to face.” While we have turned away from God in rebellion, God has turned back toward us even to the extent of sending his Son. And Jesus experienced the hidden face of God so that we no longer have to. Since the Christian view of God is trinitarian we also see God’s face in his Spirit whom he has sent to live in our hearts. And finally, an exciting prospect awaits us because God has promised that one day his servants will—dare I say literally—see his face.
[i] Gregory of Nazianzus, Quoted in John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes: Abridged Edition.1.13.17. Ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 19.
For an entire study on divine anatomy see my book Seeing the Invisible God: 52 Biblical Reflections on Divine Anatomy.