I’m going to consider this question in order to illustrate two important truths that should apply to other questions. I have heard entire sermons on Exodus 33:20, in which God says to Moses “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” Some elevate the idea of dying at the sight of God to one of the great doctrines of our Christian faith. If your paradigm is that no man can see God and live then you run into problems with other passages of scripture when men do see the face of God. So here come two important lessons.
1) The Bible does not contradict itself. The Bible is the Word of God. At essence it conveys one single message, that of how a holy, righteous God deals with a sinful, fallen, broken humanity. Many apparent conflicts are the result of not understanding historical or cultural context. Bible students must learn something of history, Hebrew poetry, and the language of analogy.
Earlier in the same chapter (Ex. 33) verse 11 says this: “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” This is an apparent contradiction. Verse 11 says they talked face to face, and goes as far as to explain what face to face means. Anyone making a big deal out of v. 20 has not read the entire chapter. So what then… does every person not die that looks at the face of God? No, they do not. If they did, Moses would already be dead in verse 11 and there would have never been a verse 20. Back in Exodus 24 Moses actually makes a point of explaining that not everyone who sees God dies.
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11 ESV)
Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders saw the God of Israel. Verse 11 clarifies that God did not lay his hand on them. It is possible for a human to see the face of God and live. Moses, the same guy that wrote Ex. 33:20, says so in more than one passage. Here 74 men saw God. Is there a real contradiction here? No. So why does God say man cannot see God and live to a man that already has?
2) Listen to what is being said. One of my pet peeves are all the people on Facebook sharing quotes and pictures, repeating every fool thing that is said without checking any facts or even considering if what they repeat is true. People don’t even try anymore. On Facebook or Twitter is can be annoying; do that with the Bible and we fail to “rightly divide the Word of Truth.” The Bible does not say man cannot see God and live. Just because it has been repeated hundreds of time doesn’t mean it’s true.
What God says to Moses in Exodus 33:20 is “man shall not see me and live.” The ESV wording is shall not. The NIV says may not. God does not say it is impossible. It may sound like splitting hairs, but think about it for a minute. When I said to my fourth grade teacher “Can I have a drink of water?” she would say “I don’t know, can you?” The correct question should be “May I have a drink of water?” Any question that begins with “Can God…” is the wrong question. Yes he can. “Why doesn’t he _________ ?” is a whole other issue entirely. Children die with cancer, people starve, the wicked seem to prosper. These are the tough questions unbelievers challenge us with but the answer is not God can’t do anything about it.
Some people never really listen, they just wait for their turn to talk. While it is polite, it’s not the same as listening to what another person is saying. Communication is a two way process. Is a speaker on stage behind a podium communicating or just talking? The answer depends on what the audience is doing. If they are listening, thinking, and attempting to further their own understanding then communication is taking place. Sometimes two people engage in conversation are not communicating, just taking turns in a word joust. Don’t just read Exodus 33:20, or any other verse. We must look at the words, think about what is being said, and do so in the context of what every other verse teaches us about God.
Am I over thinking it? Have we made a mountain out of molehill? Many Christians, including pastors and Sunday School teachers, believe any person will instantly die if they see God. The Bible does not say that, although it does say we probably never will. It is not allowed; we may not/ shall not see God. Can God show himself to us? “Can God” is always yes, in this case with Moses and company. A teaching contrary to what the Bible says is a big deal. We must not only read but study, meditate, on the Word of God. Studying one verse at a time can be problematic. We must study entire chapters, entire books of the Bible, in order to place each verse in its proper context.
Can man see God and live? My goal was to do more than answer this question. I hope a debate does not ensue on the correct answer; the answer is yes. My hope is that a lesson is learned about carefully reading; use a concordance, a Greek dictionary, or read a Bible commentary. One should never assume he or she has learned everything there is to learn.