Sunday, October 29, 2017

Seeing God "Face to Face" and Biblical Metaphors

It is hard to deny the overt metaphorical cast of Scripture: ignoring metaphorical tropes leads to textual misunderstandings. Besides apprehending biblical tropes, however, one also needs to be attentive to the idioms found in Scripture. Idiom in this context means that the whole of an utterance is greater than its individual parts.

For example, the words "face to face" (Numbers 12:8) hardly denote that Moses saw God in a sensuous manner. Maimonides and others think the verse refers to an intellectual encounter with God. I would also suggest that we're dealing with possible metaphor with the face to face language and it is certainly idiomatic. But the Bible becomes clearer if we go with the flow of metaphors, and come to understand the conceptual structures contained therein.

There are some who claim that the Israelites saw God with their physical eyes (sensuously) as reported in Exodus 24:9-11. Others assert that Moses not only conversed with God face to face, but he supposedly beheld God too. However, what Numbers 12:8 really states is that YHWH spoke to Moses like one person speaks to another (= "face to face"). The language is idiomatic and probably figurative.

Thomas Aquinas writes concerning this account:

"As Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xii, 27), it is stated in Exodus that 'the Lord spoke to Moses face to face'; and shortly afterwards we read, 'Show me Thy glory. Therefore He perceived what he saw and he desired what he saw not.' Hence he did not see the very Essence of God; and consequently he was not taught by Him immediately. Accordingly when Scripture states that 'He spoke to him face to face,' this is to be understood as expressing the opinion of the people, who thought that Moses was speaking with God mouth to mouth, when God spoke and appeared to him, by means of a subordinate creature, i.e. an angel and a cloud. Again we may say that this vision 'face to face' means some kind of sublime and familiar contemplation, inferior to the vision of the Divine Essence" (ST I-II. Quest. 98. Art. 3, Reply to Obj. 2).

Maimonides makes this profession about the face to face idiom: "All this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eye's seeing" (Guide of the Perplexed 1.4).

4 comments:

Duncan said...

See numbers 12.

Was the cloud not face to face?

Also the voice before the cloud descended?

Edgar Foster said...

Yes, the face to face/mouth to mouth language could refer to the cloud or the Shekinah glory. See Numbers 7:89. But the idiom likely denotes intimacy with God--speaking with him as one human speaks to another.

The cloud descended, but when did the voice of YHWH descend? See Exodus 33:9-10; 34:5; 40:35.

Which texts speaks of Jehovah's voice descending?

Duncan said...

Perhaps I am misreading the account but it does appear to be saying that the voice was heard by all three inside the tent before the cloud descended?

Is clearly hearing and understanding the definition of face to face or is it implying that Moses is the one whom the voice spoke through when no one else heard it but instruction was given? Was Moses the logos? Following the structure of exodus 7:1.

Edgar Foster said...

I believe the face to face passages about Moses suggest that he was set apart by YHWH and privileged in this respect. Even when Deut 5:4 indicates that the nation of Israel communed with God face to face, Deut 5:5 qualifies the statement. Furthermore, Moses was like God to Aaron, as you mentioned and he was mesiths (mediator of the covenant).