And no other prophet arose in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face; for all the signs and the miracles that God sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all who served him, and to all his land; and for all the strong power and all the great awe that Moses carried out before the eyes of all Israel. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 34:10-12)
That’s the ending of this week’s Torah portion, Vezot Habrachah (And this is the blessing); of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim; and of the Torah proper (the first five books of the Jewish canon).
In one sense, this passage is a eulogy for Moses, who died at age 120 “by the mouth of God” after liberating the people from Egypt and shepherding them for forty years until they were ready to cross the Jordan River into “the promised land” of Canaan.
But the passage also tells us something about God.
panim = face; indicator of mood; identity
panim el panim = face to face, directly, without an intermediary
The first place that the Torah uses the expression “face to face”, is at the end of the mysterious account of Jacob wrestling all night with an unnamed “man” who blesses him with a new name (Israel) at dawn.
Jacob called the place there Penieil (Face of a god), ‘Because I saw Elohim face to face, and my life was saved.’ (Genesis/Bereishit 32:31)
eil = God, a god
elohim = God, gods
The next place we see the phrase “face to face” is after the golden calf incident, when Moses pitches his tent some distance from the camp. Whenever Moses returns to the tent, now called the Tent of Meeting, everyone can see the pillar of cloud descend and stand at the tent opening. Then, the Torah says,
God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his neighbor. (Exodus/Shemot 33:11)
This verse uses the personal, four-letter name of God, so there is no ambiguity about whether the speaker is a god or the God. Moses is able to hear God’s speech “face to face”, as clearly as one man can hear his neighbor speak. Moses is able to hear God directly at the burning bush, and according to the Torah, this straightforward communication occurs repeatedly for the rest of Moses’ life. The ability to hear God is not unique to Moses; the Torah reports that many of the characters in Genesis, as well as all true prophets, also hear God speak. But Moses hears God’s voice much more often than anyone else, and only Moses can count on initiating a conversation with God.
Yet despite their close relationship, when Moses asks to see God’s kavod (glory, heaviness), God tells Moses:
You will not be able to see my face, because no human can see Me and live. (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)
Then what about Jacob, who said he saw God’s face and lived? I think Jacob neither saw nor wrestled with God’s real identity, but only with a few aspects of God, which he called elohim. He was grateful to live through the experience of beholding even one divine aspect, or angel, or god.
“Seeing” God’s face is different from having a face-to-face conversation with God. Like English, Biblical Hebrew often uses the verb for “see” to mean “understand”. If one’s “face” is one’s identity, then nobody can know God that intimately and live.
Two humans in an intimate relationship often watch one another’s faces for clues about what the other person is thinking and feeling inside. Yet anyone who has had a loving partner for decades knows that we can still get it wrong. The expressions on a well-known face indicate a fleeting mood, but the observer can only guess at the thoughts behind the face. Experience over time makes the guesses somewhat more accurate. Yet the innermost person is still inaccessible, unknowable.
In fact, we cannot even fully know ourselves, or even predict what choices we will make in every circumstance. Watching our own faces in a mirror is not much help. The face itself is an intermediary between the soul and the observer; a person’s inner identity is still hidden.
Does the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy tell us that Moses finally saw God’s true “face” at the moment of his death? Not really. The Hebrew says that God knows Moses face to face, not that Moses knows God that way.
Since God knows Moses’ true “face”, his inner self, God knows that Moses has the potential to carry out all the signs and the miracles, and to demonstrate all the strong power that creates all the great awe, and moves the religion forward.
Whatever our notions about God are, if we are wise we know we can never see God’s “face”, as long as we live. But maybe it’s more important that God can see us.