††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Restoration Quarterly 44 (2002) 109-16.

†††††† Copyright © 2002 by Restoration Quarterly. Cited with permission.

 

 

TOWARD A LITERARY UNDERSTANDING OF

†† ††††MOSES AND THE LORD "FACE TO FACE"

†††††††††† ††††(MyniPA-lx, MyniPA) IN EXODUS 33:7-11

 

††††††††††† †† †††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††MARK D. WESSNER

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Prince George, B.C.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††† I. Background

††††††††††† Throughout the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps no other biblical

character is portrayed as being more intimate with God than Moses, the

unequaled leader of the ancient Israelites. Not only is Moses well known for the

mighty deeds he did on behalf of the Lord, he is also renowned for the profound

nature of his relationship with the Lord of Israel. Within the framework of their

personal relationship, the brief story of Exod 33:7-11 explicitly claims that the

Lord spoke MyniPA-lx, MyniPA)1 with Moses, as a man speaks with his friend. It is

the theological, literary and historical nature of this unique face-to-face com-

munication that is explored in this brief essay.

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††† 2. Text, Genre and Form

††††††††††† Within the book of Exodus, defining the textual limits of this particular

passage does not pose a significant problem, given the distinctive nature of the

material itself. For example, John Durham writes that "verses [7-11] are. . .

strikingly different in both content and style from the dramatically arranged

narrative composite that precedes and follows them."2 Umberto Cassuto sepa-

rates these verses from the rest of chapter 33 due to the use of the imperfect

rather than the perfect verb form found in the surrounding text. Finally, the MT

indicates that verse 7 is the start of an "open" paragraph and that verse 12 is the

start of a "closed" paragraph (indicated by a s).

 

††††††††††† 1 Within the OT, MyniPA-lx, MyniPA occurs five times: Gen 32:31; Exod 33:11; Deut

34: 10; Judg 6:22; Ezek 20:35. The passage in Genesis has previously been explored in

Mark D. Wessner, "Toward a Literary Understanding of 'Face to Face' (MyniPA-lx, MyniPA)

in Genesis 32:23-32," ResQ (2000/42:3): 169-77.

††††††††††† 2 John Durham, Exodus (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987), 440.

 



110 ††††††††††††††††††††††††††† RESTORATION QUARTERLY

 

 

Although verses 7-11 function primarily as a theophany, the passage

appears to have no particular cultic and/or religious significance in the life of

ancient Israel. For example, the tent of meeting, as presented in Exod 33:7-11,

"had no connections with the Ark or with any other palpable symbol of

Yahweh's Presence, or with any rituals of sacrifice or blessing. It was

exclusively and solely a place where Yahweh's Presence could be met. . . a kind

of post-Sinai point oftheophany."3 However, it is not only 33:7-11 that is seen

as a theophany; Frank Polak indicates that, in fact, "the theophany theme

dominates the entire book of Exodus . . . [and] stands at the center of the book

as a whole, and permeates all traditions, sources and redaction layers."4

Verses 7-11, however, do more than just present a one-time theophanic

event between the Lord and his servant Moses. The pericope's use of the

imperfect verb forms causes Fretheim to conclude that verses 7-11 function as

"a retrospective: this is how things have been in the recent past."6 Walter

Moberly concurs that "there is a sense in which the tradition of Exodus 32-34

as a Sinai tradition, functions aetiologically."7 It seems therefore, that Exod

33:7-11 has a twofold form and purpose within the literature of ancient Israel:

it functions as a theophany (due to the appearance of the LORD) and also as an

etiology (due to the habitual nature of the events).

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 3. Literary Context

††††††††††† In contrast to the relatively easy task of identifying the textual limits of

33:7-11, the literary placement of the passage within its larger context is more

challenging. Cassuto, Durham, Fretheim, Noth, and Sarna8 each hold that

33:7-11 properly fits within the larger section of the story of the Israelites'

disobedience and the golden calf (Exod 32:1-34:35). Moberly concludes, "this

unit lies at the mid-point of 32-34 and marks the turning point in the story. It

continues and concludes the theme of Israel as under God's judgment and

prepares for the revelation of God's grace as the theme of what follows."9

 

††††††††††† 3 Durham, Exodus, 440. Nahum Sarna is in agreement with the non-cultic nature of

the text when he states that in this passage "there is no priesthood, cult, or ritual of any

sort (Nahum Sarna, Exodus; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 211.

††††††††††† 4 Frank Polak, "Theophany and Mediator" Studies in the Book of Exodus (Leuven:

Leuven Univ. Press, 1996), 113.

††††††††††† 5 Cf. Durham, Exodus, p. 439, Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1974),590, and Cassuto, Exodus, 429.

††††††††††† 6 Fretheim, Exodus, 295.

††††††††††† 7 R. W. L. Moberly, At the Mountain of God (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983), 150.

††††††††††† 8 Cassuto, Exodus, 407; Durham, Exodus, 415; Fretheim, Exodus, 279; Noth,

Exodus, 241; Sarna, "Book of Exodus" ABD 2.693.

††††††††††† 9 Moberly, At the Mountain of God, 63.

 



††††††††††† WESSNER/TOW ARD A LITERARY UNDERSTANDING ††††††††††††††††††† 111

 

 

The simple fact that 33:7-11 is within the larger literary section of chapters

32-34 does not answer the question of why it is there. In his commentary,

Durham writes that "there remains the need to consider the text of each pericope

of the biblical text as a whole and in the light of the theological purpose binding

the pericopae into larger sequences, entire books, and even whole sections of the

Bible,"10 and "these three chapters constitute a marvelous literary unity."11

However, he later acknowledges the difficulty of understanding why 33:7-11 is

where it is and concludes "the five verses of Exod 33:7-11, therefore, as impor-

tant as they are, are nonetheless completely out of place in the taut narrative of

Exod 32:1-34:9."12

††††††††††† Perhaps the best way to make sense of the placement of Exod 33:7-11 is to

understand that it is central, not peripheral, to the larger unit of chapters 32-34.

Clearly, Moberly's notion that this pericope is the turning point of the unit must

be correct. It is the reality of the presence of God with his people13 that ties the

larger literary unit together, in which the MyniPA-lx, MyniPA encounter of 33:7-11

plays a crucial role.

††††††††††† An analysis of the Hebrew text reveals that the small pericope of 33:7-11

contains a chiastic structure that suggests the central focus of the narrative itself:

 

 

 

 

 

 

††††††††††† 10 Durham, Exodus, 417.

††††††††††† 11 Ibid., 418.

††††††††††† 12 Ibid., 443.

††††††††††† 13 The repetitive structure of Exod 33:1-23 indicates that 7-11 are semantically

distinct from their surroundings. Throughout the larger section of 1-23, the continuing

presence of hvhy (the LORD), rbd (speaking), hwm (Moses), and Mf (people) occur

repeatedly and serve to hold the chapter together as a unit. However, 33:7-11 is clearly

marked by the exclusive use of lhx (tent), hnHm (camp) and, Htp (door), Hebrew roots

that occur neither before nor after the pericope. Only the face/presence motif (hnp)

carries on after vv. 7-11. The unique element that is being presented in this pericope is

Moses' Tent of Meeting and it is within this context that MyniPA-lx, MyniPA must be

considered. (A review of chapters 32-34 reveals that after each private encounter with the

LORD (32:1-18, 34:1-28), the LORD proceeds to speak to Moses in view of the

Israelites (33:7-11, 34:29-35).)

 



112 ††††††††††††††††††††††††††† RESTORATION QUARTERLY

A Moses pitched the tent outside the camp (7a)

hn,HEm.aha

B those who sought the Lord (7b)

hvAhy;

C all the people/every man arose and stood at the entrance of

his tent (8)

OlhIxA HtaP, wyxi Ubx;.niv; MfAhA-lKA UmUqyA

pillar of cloud at the entrance of the tent (9a)

lh,xohA HtaP, dmafAv; NnAfAh, dUm.fa

E and he spoke with Moses (9b)

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† hw,mo-Mfi rB,div;

D' pillar of cloud at the entrance of the tent (10a)

lh,xohA HtaP, dmefo NnAfAh, dUm.fa

C' all the people/every man arose and worshipped at the

††††††††††† entrance of his tent (10b)

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† OlhIxA HtaP, wyxi UUHETaw;hiv; MfAhA-lKa MqAv;

B' the Lord spoke14 to Moses (11a)

††††††††††††††††††††††† hvAhy;

A' Moses returned to the camp (11b)

††††††††††† hn,HEm.aha

A clear structure such as this likely indicates that the passage is primarily

concerned with the Lord's speaking to Moses--the central point of the chiasm.

The other elements (outside the camp, the pillar of cloud, etc.) serve to highlight

both the subtle nuances and the overall significance of the entire pericope. This

also helps to explain how verse 11, "the Lord spoke to Moses MyniPA-lx, MyniPA"

relates to the corresponding chiastic point of "those who wqb (sought) the

LORD." Either the Lord spoke to those who truly sought Him, or because Moses

sought the Lord, the Lord in turn spoke to him face to face.

Finally, the narrative setting of the entire book indicates that the forty-year

wandering of the Israelites took place immediately after the exodus from the

pagan land of Egypt. In Egypt, the Lord had presented himself in dramatic,

powerful and national ways (i.e., the ten plagues, the parting of the sea), and now

in the latter part of Exodus, he presents himself in a personal way, sometimes to

individuals and sometimes for the benefit of the people as a whole. It is within

 

14 The verb-form of'spoke" is piel, from rbd, meaning "to speak" with the primary

subject (the Lord) being active, and the under-subject (Moses) being passive. The

significance of the verb forms is fully explained in Bruce Waltke and Michael O'Connor,

Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 358.

VOICE OF UNDERSUBJECT

†††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††n/a ††Passive ††††††††† †††††Active

VOICE OF ††††† Active †††††††††††††††††††††††† Qal ††††† ††Piel†††††††††††††††† †††† Hiphil

PRIMARY ††††† Middle/Passive †††††††††††† Niphal††Pual †††††††††††††† †††††Hophal

SUBJECT †††††† Reflexive †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††Niphal Hithpael †††Int. Hiphil



WESSNER/TOWARD A LITERARY UNDERSTANDING †††††††† †††113

 

this larger context of the Lord's personal presentation of himself (to both

individuals and to the people) that 33:7-11 takes place.

 

4. Historical Context

If the events of Exod 33:7-11 are to be understood as both theophany and

etiology, then it would be expected that the narrative itself serves a cultic func-

tion for the people. However, the tent of meeting in 7-11 "is not the Tabernacle

--which has not yet been constructed--but a private tent where he [Moses]

might commune with God."15 With regard to this pericope, Durham says "about

the significance of the Tent of Appointed Meeting however there can be little

question. ..this Tent was a primary symbol of Yahweh's Presence, and

especially of the accessibility of the Presence to those in need of guidance,

represented primarily by Moses."16

 

5. Biblical Context

††††††† Within the canon of OT literature, the unique phrase "pillar of cloud" is used††††††

only thirteen times,17 with all but two of the occurrences appearing in the Torah.

Rather than for the guidance and protection of Israel, it seems to be used

primarily in connection with either the Lord's leading of his people (Exod 13:21,

22, 14:19; Num 14:14; Neh 9:12, 19) or the Lord's speaking with his people

(Exod 33:9, 10; Num 12:5; Deut 31: 15; Ps 99:7). The pillar of cloud is reserved

for God himself as he makes his presence known among his people, often as a

means of divinely legitimizing the recipient, or "seer" of the cloud.18 That is, one

of the primary functions of the pillar of cloud is to portray the presence of the

Lord visually.

Also of significance is the term "tent of meeting," with ninety-nine occur-

rences in the Torah and only nine occurring elsewhere in the entire OT. When

the use of this phrase is further restricted to referring exclusively to the tent

 

15 Sarna, Exodus, 211.

16 Durham, Exodus, 441. The primary evidence that the tent of 33:7-11 is not the

formal Israelite Tabernacle is the fact that the Lord visits this tent only occasionally; he

does not "dwell" there, as he does in the Tabernacle. Also, there is no Ark, and the tent

is outside of the camp (in contrast to the Tabernacle), which is an area of impurity (cf.

Lev 9:11, 10:4-5, 13:46, l6:27; Num 5:2-4).

17 Exod 13:22, 14:19, 33:9, 10; Deut 31 :15, Neh 9:19 (NnAfAh, dUm.fa), Exod 13:21,

Num 12:5, Deut 31: 15, Ps 99:7, Neh 9: 12 (NnAfA dUm.faB) and Num 14:14 (NnAfA dm.ufab;). In

the New Testament, a cloud is often mentioned with regard to both the presence of God

(cf. Matt 17:5, Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34) and the coming or going of Christ to the heavens (cf.

Matt 24:30, 26:64; Mark 13:26, 14:62; Luke 21:27; Acts 1:9; I Thess 4:17; Rev 1:7). The

cloud motif, as representative of the presence of the Lord, is presented throughout the

entire Bible.

18 Thomas W. Mann, Divine Presence and Guidance in Israelite Traditions,

(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), 138.

 



114 ††††††††††††††††††††††††††† RESTORATION QUARTERLY

 

 

described in Exod 33:11 (i.e., not the "official" tent of meeting), it occurs in just

three other passages: Num 11:16-17, 12:4-10, and Deut 31:14-15.19 All three

instances portray the Lord's initiation of communication with his servant Moses;

and interestingly, in all three cases, the Lord desired to communicate with

someone other than Moses,20 but insisted on having Moses there in his presence

instead. Within the context of the exodus and the wandering, Moses was the only

person with whom the Lord spoke in private.

Perhaps there is no other passage in the OT that is more apt to cause

difficulty in understanding how the Lord spoke to Moses MyniPA-lx, MyniPA than

Exod 33:17-23:

<20>And he said, "You are not able to see my face, ynAPA-tx, (qal) txor;li lkaUt xlo rm,xyo.va

For no one can see me and live"†† yHAvA MdAxAhA ynixar;yi-xlo yKi

<23>"Then I will take away my hand "yPiKa-tx, ytirosihEva

and you will see my back "†† †††† yrAHoxE-tx, (qal) tAyxirAv;

but my face will not been seen by you" (niphal) UxrAye xlo ynaPAU

 

The difficulty, however, quickly becomes the solution if Waltke' s linguistic

lens (see n. 15) is used to view the text. When one considers the verb forms, it

becomes apparent that Moses could be the active agent (qal) in seeing the Lord's

back, but he could not be the active agent (qal) in seeing the Lord's face. The

Lord would not let His face be the passive object of someone else's seeing. As

the concepts of the Lord's actively speaking (rbd) to Moses face to face and the

Lord's face being passively seen (hxr) deal with different issues, they are not

in contradiction; rather, they expand and clarify the nature of the Lord's

revealing of himself, both verbally and physically. As a result of this verbal

nuance, verses 17-23 help the reader attain a more complete understanding of

verses 7-11. As in the other OT uses of MyniPA-lx, MyniPA, humankind does not

actively initiate face-to-face interaction (hxr, rbd, etc.) with the Lord.21 Instead,

the Lord is active initiator, and the people are the passive receptors of his

intimate presentation of himself.22

 

19 See Durham, Exodus, 440, and Israel Knohl, "Two Aspects of the Tent of

Meeting," Tehillah le-Moshe (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 74.

20 The seventy elders (Num 11: 16-17), Miriam and Aaron (Num 12:4-10), and

Joshua (Deut 31: 14-15).

21 See Wessner, Face to Face: Panim 'el-Panim in Old Testament Literature

(Theological Research Exchange Network, #048-0211, 1998), 103-4.

22 Num 12:8 ("with him I speak mouth to mouth") is possibly a reference to the

events of Exod 33: 11, although this passage uses hP,-lx, hP, as the description of the

Lord's communication with Moses.rbd (to speak) occurs in the Piel form, in which the

subject (the Lord) is active and the undersubject (Moses) is passive.


 


WESSNER/TOWARD A LITERARY UNDERSTANDING ††††††115

 

6. Other Ancient Literature

Due to the anthropomorphic nature of Exod 33:7-11, the transcendentali-

zation of God might be expected in the Samaritan text of this passage in order

to "adjust" the theology.23 It is significant to note that the only difference

between the MT and the Samaritan Pentateuch is in verse 11, where the MT has

wymy, while the Samaritan Pentateuch instead has wvmy, likely a scribal variance.

The Samaritans did not transcendentalize this passage, as they may have

understood that the Lord was in the pillar of cloud and therefore not personally

present, although it is more likely that, in fact, the Lord's MyniPA-lx, MyniPA

encounter with Moses was not theologically upsetting.

As is often the case, the textual witness of the Septuagint is an aid in

determining the ancient Jewish understanding of Exod 33:11. With regard to our

immediate concerns, the only significant textual feature of this passage is its use

of e]nw<pion e]nwpi<w rather than pro<swpon pro>j/kata> pro<swpon, which is

used in each of the four other OT uses of "face to face." This Greek phrase is

used nowhere else in the Septuagint and seems to present a more abstract (there-

fore, less physical) notion than pro<swpon pro>j pro<swpon.

Targum Onqelos is also helpful in seeking to uncover the way this passage

may have been understood by the ancient readers due to its combination of both

translation and interpretive commentary:

 

<7> Now Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp far from

the camp and called it the Tent of the Place of Instruction. Now anyone seeking

instruction from before the Lord would go out to the Tent of the Place of

Instruction which is outside the camp. <11> Now the Lord would speak

with Moses literally just as one would speak with his fellow man, and he

would return to the camp, while his attendant, Joshua son of Nun, the

youth, would not depart from the tent.

In the same manner as both the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Septuagint,

Targum Onqelos leaves the MT essentially unmodified in verse 11, except to add

the word "literally" in order to remove any doubt as to the "real" nature (i.e., it

was not a vision, dream) of the face-to-face communication between the Lord

and Moses, again initiated by the Lord and received by Moses. Targum Neofiti

also varies from the traditional Hebrew in verse 11 by using "speech to speech"

the nature of the communication.

 

7. Conclusion

There is essentially no uncertainty that the text says that the Lord spoke to

Moses "face to face" due to the witness of the MT, the Septuagint, and even the

Samaritan Pentateuch. In addition, the chiastic structure of the text, the recurring

theophany motif throughout the book of Exodus, as well as the numerous OT

 

23 See Bruce Waltke, "Textual Criticism of the Old Testament and Its Relation to

Exegesis and Theology" NIDOTE 1.59.

 



116 ††††††††††††††††††††††††††† RESTORATION QUARTERLY

 

 

and NT allusions to the passage, indicate that it was indeed the Lord who

descended within the supernatural pillar of cloud. However, the fact that the

event itself is presented and understood as fact does not answer our questions

about the theological/spiritual nature of God's communication with Moses.

As indicated in the text of Exod 33:7-11 (and also Num 12:8), the Lord

spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend--clearly and not in

riddles. In fact, the Lord considered Moses to be such a friend that not only did

he speak to him MyniPA-lx, MyniPA but he also required Moses to be present in the

tent when he wished to speak to others. Clearly, face-to-face communication

with the Lord was not possible for every one of his people, at least not at the

same level of intimacy that Moses personally and privately experienced

throughout his time as leader of God's people.24

In addition, it is the Hebrew morphology that brings to light a secondary

component of the unique nature of face-to-face communication with the Lord-

the Lord is the active and initiating participant in interacting MyniPA-lx, MyniPA

while his partner is passive. The face-to-face communication in Exod 33:7-11,

as presented in the biblical text (Exodus, Numbers) and further confirmed by the

earliest readers (Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, and Targums), is a picture of

immediate and profound intimacy that reflects both God's initiative25 and Moses'

fulfilled desire to seek his Lord within an ongoing relationship. As in the other

biblical MyniPA-lx, MyniPA encounters, verses 7-11 reflect the four common charac-

teristics of divine initiation, profound intimacy, intentional solitude, and super-

natural verification.

 

24 In fact, there were occasions when the people were saved from divine destruction

due solely to the close relationship between Moses and God (e.g. Exodus 32, Numbers

14).

25 Interestingly, in Genesis 32 Jacob thought he had actively encountered God face

to face, and he expected to lose his life as a result. Moses however, was the recipient of

the Lord's active encounter, and he went back again and again and never seemed to

become tired or fearful of spending time with his God.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

†††† †††††† Restoration Quarterly Corporation

†††††† †††† P. O. Box 28227

††††††††††† Abilene, TX79699-8227

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Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:thildebrandt@gordon.edu