The passage in Exodus in which God shows Moses his back is one of the oddest in the Bible. In brief, Moses asks to see God’s glory and God says “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name” but warns him that no one can see God’s face and live. God promises to put Moses in a gap in the rock and cover him until he has passed by, then God will remove his hand and Moses will see God’s back. Questions surround this passage with no clear answers. Does God have a face, back, and hands, or is this merely anthropomorphism? Elsewhere in Exodus, Moses is described as talking to God face to face (Exod. 33:11). Why then does God say that no man can see his face and live? There are also rich connections made here about God’s nature. God will show Moses his glory by showing him God’s goodness. God’s declaration of his name, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” is powerful in what it tells us about how God sees himself. Though all these issue are important, I don’t want to touch on any of them in this post. Instead I want to consider God’s back.
God’s back is the only part of him that Moses sees (with the possible exception of God’s hand). While I do think that we see God’s face in Christ (which perhaps explains how Moses is both able and not able to see God’s face) I think there is still a sense in which humans only ever see God’s back. This doesn’t mean that God has “turned his back” on humanity. Rather it is a matter of our perspective. We are standing behind God, like someone standing behind a billboard. Someday we will be on the opposite side and then we will be able to see his face. Everything will shift from being in the foreground to God’s back to being in the background of God’s face. From that perspective things will look very different.
This brings up the question, why can’t we see his face now? To say that we would die isn’t a very satisfactory answer. It is a natural human reaction to assume that something is hidden because it is terrible. Spouses hide affairs, politicians hide corruption, businesses hide exploitation of their workers and the environment. We hide our bodies beneath clothes because we are ashamed of them.* What if the face of God is that of a monster? What else would we expect from someone who watches nuclear bombs level cities and humans burn in holocaust ovens without apparently intervening? The other face that we fear is the stern expression of a disappointed and disapproving parent? “Why can’t you humans get your lives together?”
Yet we also hide gifts beneath wrapping paper, and this suggests a different possibility. Perhaps God hides his face not because it is so terrible, but because it is so wonderful. In his Silmarillion, Tolkien describes an island called Númenor. It was placed between the Blessed Lands and Middle Earth as a gift from the gods. Despite this generous gift of permitting mortals to live close to them, the gods forbid the Númenóreans from going too near the Blessed Lands. Naturally, some Númenóreans become suspicious that the reason for this ban is that the gods want the Blessed Lands all to themselves. In reality, the ban is for the good of the mortals. Humans are finite and can only take so much blessedness. Like a moth drawn to the warmth and light of a flame, drawing too close would cause it to combust. The goodness and beauty of God could be so great that no mortal could see it in full and live. A single instant of bliss and then puff like a moth in a flame.
Not all that is hidden is bad or terrible. Of course, according to Christian theology, we will not always have these bodies in their current form. They will be something different, though what they are even Paul struggled to express. I would like to suggest that with these perfected bodies we will be able to gaze fully on the face of God. Until that day comes, we must learn to live in the shadow of God’s back.
*(This is an observation of a false presupposition rather than a recommendation of a healthy approach to our bodies. God graced us by taking on a human bodies. The idea that bodies are inherently bad or shameful comes from Greek philosophy and too often has been absorbed by Christianity. The degree to which we choose to cover or reveal our bodies should not be driven by shame.)