††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 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
††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††† †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
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
"had no connections with the
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
has a twofold form and purpose within the literature of ancient
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
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
prepares for the revelation of God's grace as the theme of what follows."9
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
††††††††††† 5 Cf.
††††††††††† 6 Fretheim, Exodus, 295.
††††††††††† 7 R. W.
L. Moberly, At the
††††††††††† 8 Cassuto,
Exodus, 241; Sarna, "Book of Exodus" ABD 2.693.
Moberly, At the
††††††††††† 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,
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
††††††††††† 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:
††††††††††† 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)
B those who sought the Lord (7b)
C all the people/every man arose and stood at the entrance of
his tent (8)
OlhIxA HtaP, wyxi Ubx;.niv; MfAhA-lKA UmUqyA
Dí 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)
A' Moses returned to the camp (11b)
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
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,
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.
than for the guidance and protection of
primarily in connection with either the Lord's leading of his people (Exod ,
22, ; Num ; Neh , 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
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.
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
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 , , 33:9, 10; Deut 31 :15, Neh (NnAfAh, dUm.fa), Exod ,
Num 12:5, Deut 31: 15, Ps 99:7, Neh (NnAfA dUm.faB) and Num (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 ) 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
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 -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
<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
Meeting," Tehillah le-Moshe (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 74.
20 The seventy elders (Num -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.
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-
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
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.
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