Michael S. Heiser
The Old Testament tells us that no person can see the face of God and live (Exod 33:20). The New Testament echoes this prohibition (John 1:18). The prophet Hosea, however, seems to disagree.
In Hosea 12:3–4, the prophet revisits the story of Jacob as told in Genesis:
In the womb he [Jacob] deceived his brother, and in his manhood he struggled with God.
He struggled with the angel and prevailed; he pleaded for his mercy.
He met him at Bethel, and there he spoke with him.
If we turn back to Genesis, we find that Jacob “struggled” (sarah, שׂרה) with “a man” in a physical scuffle (Gen 32:27). The same Hebrew word is also used in Hosea 12:3 for Jacob’s struggle with God, thereby linking these two passages. As Jacob wrestled the stranger, he came to realize he was struggling with God (elohim, אלהים) in human form (Gen 32:28). He named the place “Peniel” (“the face of God”), expressing amazement that he had been allowed to live (32:30). This incident led Jacob to rededicate himself to God at Bethel (35:1–7), where he had first seen God in a vision (28:10–22).
Hosea 12:3–4 summarizes this series of events in Jacob’s life and confirms the divine identity of his opponent by saying Jacob “struggled with God.” But Hosea takes it one step further: Jacob “struggled with God” and with an angel (mal’ak, מלאך) during that combat. Yet again, the word “struggled” is another form of the same Hebrew word (sor, שׂור). 1 Here, Hosea is asserting that a certain angel in the Old Testament was the God of Israel in human form.
Later in Genesis, when Jacob was at the end of his life, he blessed the sons of Joseph. The terms for God and angel are parallel as though they are the same being. In Hebrew, the verb translated “may he bless” is grammatically singular, confirming the writer saw the two figures as one.
The God (elohim) before whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked,
The God (elohim) who shepherded me all my life unto this day,
The angel (mal’ak) who redeemed me from all evil,
may he bless the boys. (Gen 48:15–16)
So, is there a contradiction between the verses in Genesis and Hosea and those in Exodus and the Gospel of John that say people are forbidden from seeing the face of God?
The key is in the translation of the Hebrew word used for “face” in these passages. The Hebrew word translated “face” in Exodus 33:20 is panim (פנים), which colloquially means God’s presence. Old Testament passages that make this declaration actually state that no one can see the presence of God unveiled. That privilege was reserved for those in heaven—such as Jesus before coming to earth (John 1:18).
God’s presence had to be filtered for humanity. In the Old Testament, God sometimes chose the filter of human form (the angel) so He could speak with people. They saw the face of the angel but were protected from direct contact with the presence of God. In the fullness of time, this was accomplished even more dramatically through the incarnation of Jesus—Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt 1:23).
Research Hebrew words with the help of the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Pick up your copy at Logos.com/HALOT
Scripture quotations are from Lexham English Bible (LEB).
1.Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, (ed. Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm; Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill Academic Publishers), p. 1313.↩