Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Face of God

As the covenant God, Yahweh is one who reveals himself to his people. This capacity of God to reveal himself is fundamental to the possibility of covenant. As Moses says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way Yahweh our God is near us...?” (Dt. 4:7).

God takes the initiative to reveal himself early in the patriarchal narratives. He is not known because men and women seek him; he is known because he graciously condescends to them. At the same time, the pure essence of God is not immediately accessible to humans, and the divine self-revelation is always to some degree veiled, for as God explains to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live” (Ex. 33:20). Hence, the descriptions of God’s self-revelation are invariably anthropomorphic, which is to say, God is described in human terms, even though he is beyond humanness. Hence, God “walks in the garden” (Ge. 3:8) and “lifts his hand” in oath (Ex. 6:8). Furthermore, he expresses a wide range of human emotions. He “snorts” in anger (Ex. 15:8), for instance. The standard Hebrew expression for anger, ‘aph (= snorting, anger) is derived from the Hebrew word for nose, and the English translation, “My anger will be aroused” (NIV), may quite literally be rendered, “My nose will become hot” (cf. Ex. 22:24; 32:10-11, 22). Similarly, God “regrets” actions (Ge. 6:6a), experiences “jealousy” (Ex. 20:5), feels “heart-pain” (Ge. 6:6b), appreciates “goodness” (Ge. 1:31) and “hates” (Dt. 16:22) and “abhors” detestable things (Lv. 20:23). Such anthropomorphisms should probably be understood as poetic metaphors, particularly in light of the fact that God, in his pure essence, was considered to be invisible and transcendent. They express the fact that God is personal as opposed to impersonal; he is a divine Someone, not merely a divine Something. By speaking of God anthropomorphically, the Torah describes God as coming to humans on their level. At the same time, it must be remembered that such metaphors are limited and carry with them the inherent danger that God might come to be understood as made in the image of humans with their vices and failures—which was pretty much the way the rest of the ancient Near East understood the deities. Anthropomorphisms of God in the Torah are carefully balanced by the affirmations of God’s invisibility, his hiddenness and mystery, and the prohibition of carving any likeness to him.

The primary recurring anthropomorphism in the Old Testament is the panim (= face) of Yahweh. The English translation of panim with respect to the face of Yahweh is usually “presence”, and the reader of the English Bible may not be aware that this is most often the word for the “face of God”. The entire personality of Yahweh, his love as well as his anger, is concentrated in his face. The displeasure of God is expressed when his face is against someone (Ge. 3:8; 4:14, 16; Lv. 10:2; 22:3). The approval of God is expressed when his face is turned toward someone (Ge. 27:7; Nu. 6:25; Dt. 12:7, 18; 14:23, 26; 15:20, etc.).

In a special sense, the panim represents the presence of God without reservation. At Sinai, Yahweh instructed Moses to depart with the people for Canaan, but he said that he himself would not accompany them because of their stubbornness (Ex. 33:1-6). Moses, however, pleaded with God so that God promised to send his panim, that is, his “face”, with the Israelites (Ex. 33:12-17). Later, Moses could say that God brought the entire company out of Egypt by his panim (Dt. 4:37; cf. Is. 63:9). Because God was so powerfully present in the Tent of Meeting, the sacred bread, which was to be displayed at all times, was quite literally the “bread of the face”, or more familiarly, the “bread of the presence” (Ex. 25:30; 39:36). Similarly, the table upon which the sacred bread was placed was called the “table of the face” (Nu.4:7).

In a Christian sense, this “face of God” reaches its climax in the face of Jesus:

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.  (2 Co. 4:6)

While on the mountain of God Moses was prevented from seeing God’s face, and indeed, the invisibility of God is upheld by the writers in the New Testament as they speak of God living in “unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Ti. 6:16). Still, the promise for the future is that in the end believers shall see him “face to face” (1 Co. 13:12). “They shall look upon his face,” John says (Rv. 22:4). Roman Catholics and the Orthodox call this theosis, though the broader term is the “beatific vision”. However one describes it, this ancient anthropomorphism of God—the face of God—takes on special meaning, for as Fanny Crosby’s old hymn puts it:

                                                And I shall see him, face to face,

                                              And tell the story saved by grace;

                                                And I shall see him, face to face,

                                              And tell the story saved by grace.


  1. This is a great series of insights about the Hebrew understanding and presentation of the nature of God.

    Too much Christian theology is informed by the absolutely abstract, incomprehensible, and unattainable God of Middle Platonism. Beginning with Justin Martyr and often codified in the creeds and councils of Christianity’s first five centuries, Christian theologians looked to Plato for their understanding of the divine rather than to the foundational stories of the Hebrew faith.

    The God the Hebrew scriptures—-who walked alongside men, who revealed himself to them, who showed compassion, grew angry, and even occasionally changed his mind-—is much less tidy than Plato’s “the One.” But he is the God of the Hebrew people, the God of Jesus Christ, and the God of the Christian family.

    Anthropomorphism when taken overly literally misses what the Hebrew Bible is really saying about God. But equally true, ignoring such language and replacing it with philosophical abstractions misses the message as well. The anthropomorphism of the Hebrew Bible points beyond itself to the true nature of God and it tells us more of who God is than does any philosophical discourse. God is personal and is approached person-to-person. God is moral and demands morality of those who would follow him. Most of all, God is compassionate and calls his people to share the same compassion toward their neighbors.

    The Old Testament anthropomorphic language may be crude and unsophisticated compared with Greek metaphysics, but it much more clearly captures the divine-human encounter—-the invasion of God into human history—-that lies at the heart of the Jewish and Christian faith. Pascal reminded us many years ago, “Not the God of the philosophers and scholars, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

  2. What a perfect comment by our Jansenist brother Pascal!