Home Church Community

Statement of Beliefs

Contact Us

Search Our Site

Bible Study Resource



Printer Friendly Version

Particulars of Christianity:
302 The Trinity


The Trinity: A Consistent Expectation
about Seeing God's Face


Introductions
The Angel of YHWH as YHWH God
The Angel of YHWH as Distinct from YHWH God
Immediate Interactive Dialogue
A Consistent Expectation about Seeing God's Face
Survey Examining Eternal Past Existence
Establishing Eternal Past Existence
Distinction of the Spirit of YHWH
Ancient Jewish Recognition of Trinitarian Facts
The Trinity in the New Testament
Addendum 1 & 2
Addendum 3


During our examination of passages with elements in categories A and B, we analyzed several accounts in which the main figure expressed a particular fear of death upon seeing God face to face. This expectation is consistent throughout the Old Testament from the earliest chapters and some of the earliest experiences of the patriarchs. In addition, there are other passages recording such events, which we did not examine directly during our coverage of categories A and B. Although we have commented on this issue as needed earlier in order to fully address the passages included in those categories, this current section will allow us to focus specifically on this expectation of death and what it means for Trinitarian concepts in the Old Testament. Specifically, this thematic doctrine in the Old Testament will further corroborate two facts. First, it will corroborate that the Jewish figures, authors, and audiences of the Old Testament well-understood the angel of YHWH to be a figure of YHWH God, not an angel (or other created being). And consequently, it will also corroborate that there were at least 2 figures of YHWH God, one of which was the angel of YHWH who visited earth and another who interacted with the angel of YHWH but remained in heaven.

The earliest Old Testament passage in which death was expected for anyone who saw God face to face can be found in chapter 16 of Genesis, just 16 chapters into the entire Old Testament. The encounter involves Hagar, the servant of Abraham’s wife Sarah. We examined this passage earlier under our survey of category B.

Genesis 16:5 And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee. 6 But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face. 7 And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. 8 And he said, Hagar, Sarai’s maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai. 9 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands. 10 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude. 11 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction. 12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. 13 And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me? 14 Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

There are several elements to this story that are part of a pattern, which we will see emerge in all of the passages on this topic. First, as we noted already during our previous examination, in verse 13, Hagar reflects on her experience with the statement, “Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?” The Hebrew word for “after” is “achar” (Strong’s No. 0310), which can refer to “after” in the sense of either location or time. In other words, Hagar could be expressing how she has seen God from behind or seen his “hinder parts,” which in turn would exhibit an element similar to Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33-34. In Exodus 33:17-23 and 34:5-7, Moses is only allowed to see God’s back since seeing God’s face would kill him.

However, it is perhaps more probable that Hagar is expressing how she herself continues to be alive to see the world after this point in time when God has seen her. When Hagar says that she has “looked,” the Hebrew verb for “looked” is rendered in the Perfect Mood, which indicates a completed action. In other words, Hagar’s amazement seems to involve two things: first, amazement that she has just seen something and second, amazement about the God that sees her. Here a question arises concerning exactly what Hagar just saw that she considers so amazing. Another closely related question involves exactly how what Hagar has just seen involves the God who sees her (as her statement plainly expresses). The answer can be seen by the fact that Hagar’s words reflect a pun, or play on words, specifically the irony that she has herself seen the God who sees her. In short, Hagar is amazed that she has seen God and lived afterward.

Furthermore, the extremely early occurrence of this passage testifies to its relative importance as a precedent that would inform the understanding and experiences of Jewish people after it concerning the nature of God as well as their relationship and encounters with him.

If we go on further to ask where Hagar received the understanding she expresses in this passage, the most likely answer is from Abraham himself. For in Genesis 18:19, God testifies that Abraham was a man who taught the ways of God to all his household. In fact, just one chapter earlier, in Genesis 17:9-14, 23-27, God would have watched as Abraham passed on the teaching of circumcision to every male in his household, including all his male servants. Consequently, as a female servant of Abraham, we must conclude that Hagar would have learned about God from Abraham. Furthermore, the likelihood that Abraham passed on these things to Hagar is further substantiated by the fact that she was the mother of his unborn son. Certainly, in alignment with the goal of properly instructing his son, Abraham would have shared the truths of God intimately with the boy’s mother, so that in her time with the child, she would also instruct him correctly. Consequently, it should be concluded that Hagar’s perception of God as the Living One who Sees (Genesis 16:13-14) and her perception that seeing God face to face would result in death came from Abraham himself. And therefore, these teachings are seen to be at the very root of Jewish theology at the very beginning of the Old Testament.

After Hagar’s experience in Genesis 16, the earliest Old Testament passage in which death was expected for anyone who saw God face to face involves the central patriarch Jacob, from whom the entire nation of Israel gets its name. This account is recorded in Genesis 32. Moreover, the fact that Abraham’s grandson possesses the same understanding as Hagar, Abraham’s female servant, further demonstrates a common origin to this understanding, namely from the patriarch Abraham himself of whom God testifies that he trained his whole household, including his servants, in the ways of God. While some later Jewish and non-Jewish persons may forget or fail to understand these facts, the earliest generations, including Abraham and Jacob clearly placed great emphasis and importance on passing them on and understanding their significance. As we will ultimately see from Exodus 33-34, this effort to understand the implications of these details comes to a climax in Moses, who indeed sought to figure out the ramifications of this axiom about seeing the face of God. And once again, the prominence and earliness of this episode with Jacob demonstrates the significance of its influence on shaping Jewish theology ever afterward, especially in the Old Testament.

The first important item of note from Genesis 32 can be found in verses 1-2.

Genesis 31:55 And early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his sons and his daughters, and blessed them: and Laban departed, and returned unto his place. 32:1 And Jacob went on his way, and the angels (04397) of God (0430) met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s (0430) host (04264): and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.

Verse 1 records that, as Jacob began his journey from the land of his father-in-law Laban, he came to a location where he encountered beings that both Jacob himself and the author of this account recognize as angels, not God. The identification of these visitors in verses 1-2 of chapter 32 is related to Jacob’s earlier experience in chapter 28, when he first began his journey to acquire a wife.

Genesis 28:10 And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. 11 And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels (04397) of God (0430) ascending and descending on it. 13 And, behold, the LORD (03068) stood above it, and said, I am the LORD (03068) God (0430) of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; 14 And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. 16 And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD (03068) is in this place; and I knew it not. 17 And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God (0430), and this is the gate of heaven.

Here in Genesis 28, just four chapters before chapter 32, Jacob comes to a place where he sees a “ladder” extending from earth to heaven. The author denotes that Jacob saw angels on the ladder but YHWH God (Strong’s No. 03068) standing at the top of the ladder. The Hebrew word for “angels” is “mal’ak” (Strong’s No. 04397) Thus, God is distinguished from the angels here.

Likewise in chapter 32, when Jacob encountered merely angels, “mal’ak” is used. Jacob does not state that he saw God or YHWH in verses 1-2 of chapter 32. And neither does the author make such a comment. As such, we ought to interpret chapter 32 in light of chapter 28 and conclude that both Jacob and the author fully recognize the difference between encountering angels and encountering God himself. These encounters (Genesis 18, Genesis 32, Judges 6) do describe God as having the appearance of a man (or an angel – Judges 13). And in some of the encounters, such as Genesis 32, the person within the story may at first think this is just a man (or even an angel). But we must not think from these early statements in the narratives that this was their ultimate conclusion about their visitor’s identity. Instead, this perception clearly results from two factors. First, God is initially referred to as a man (or angel) because the hints that this is really God only come later in the narrative. And second, God is initially referred to as a man because the figures in the stories are themselves reluctant to proclaim anyone to be “YHWH” or “God” without being absolutely certain. As such, once they do pronounce an individual to be YHWH or God, we must understand that they were certain this was indeed God, not a mere angel or man. Their slowness to identify a visitor as God itself demonstrates their certainty when they finally do apply that title. And inevitably, as more information comes to light over the course of the narrative, they do indeed conclude with certainty that this visitor, though he appears to be a man, is really YHWH God. Consequently, in this light, we understand that in Genesis 28, Jacob saw both angels and YHWH God (just as the passage designates) and in verses 1-2 of Genesis 32, Jacob encountered merely angels, not God, which the terms in those verses likewise reflect.

Now that we understand that both Jacob and the author of the account could and did distinguish between encountering angels and encountering God, we can move to another event at the end of Jacob’s journey, which is recording at the close of chapter 32. Specifically, having experienced mere angels in verses 1-2 of this chapter and expressing no fear of death, in verse 30 Jacob identifies his visitor as no mere angel but as God himself. And he expresses his amazement that, having seen not merely angels but God himself, his life is preserved rather than lost.

Genesis 32:24 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 25 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. 26 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. 27 And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. 28 And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. 29 And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. 30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel (06439): for I have seen God (0430) face to face, and my life is preserved. 31 And as he passed over Penuel (06439) the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

Now, let’s examine this passage in terms of the elements we suggested above. Do the author and Jacob himself initially present this visitor (with whom Jacob wrestles) as a man? Yes. This is made clear in verse 24, which states plainly that Jacob wrestled with “a man.” However, by verse 26 it is clear that Jacob may have begun to suspect this was no ordinary man, but a superior of some kind, for he asks the visitor for a blessing. But, neither Jacob nor the author pronounces this visitor to be God just yet.

An additional reason for suspecting Jacob’s opponent is God comes in verses 27-28. In verse 27-28, the opponent tells Jacob that Jacob’s name shall be changed to Israel since Jacob contends with both God and men and has prevailed. The Hebrew word for “contends” here in the context appears to be a direct comment from his opponent concerning Jacob’s success in wrestling with him and holding him there. Consequently, this statement from Jacob’s opponent also gives strong indication to Jacob that this man is identifying himself as God (Strong’s No. 0430, elohiym). In fact, suspicions are running so high as a result of the opponent’s statement in verses 27-28, that in verse 29 Jacob further attempts to directly confirm or deny any suspicions he might have about who this is by bluntly asking for his opponent’s name. The man does not give Jacob his name as verse 29 records. And yet, by verse 30, Jacob is convinced that this visitor was God, and the author of the account is likewise convinced since he records this conclusion without explanation or contradiction of any kind. (Incidentally, Hosea 12:3-4 also connects Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of YHWH to actually wrestling with YHWH God himself.)

Furthermore, once we factor Exodus 3 and 6 into our understanding of these passages, it becomes unavoidable that this visitor in Genesis 32 is indeed YHWH God in the form known as the angel of YHWH. In Genesis 32, Jacob identifies his opponent as God and asks for his name but the name is not revealed to him. In Exodus 3, the figure known as the angel of YHWH appears to Moses. In direct contrast to Jacob, Moses asks for the visitor what his name is and the name is revealed to him as “I AM” and “I AM THAT I AM.” In fact, the figure known as the angel of YHWH appears to Moses and during the passage, is identified as both the angel of YHWH himself and as having the name YHWH. When the same visitor appears to Moses again just 3 chapters later in Exodus 6, he informs Moses that he did not reveal his name to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There can be no doubt that this statement to Moses in Exodus 6 is a reference back to the refusal to reveal the name to Jacob in Genesis 32. As a result, it is clear that the same opponent who refused to give his name to Jacob was indeed YHWH God and was the very same visitor who appeared to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3 and reveals himself to Moses by the name YHWH God. And since, as we have already seen, Exodus 3 is explicit that this is the angel of YHWH who is deemed as YHWH God and bears the name “I AM,” it is clear that Jacob’s visitor is also YHWH God in the visiting form of the angel of YHWH appearing to Jacob in the guise of a man. Thus, when Jacob’s opponent tells Jacob that he has contended with God and prevailed, he was indeed hinting that it was YHWH God whom Jacob was encountering.

Furthermore, we can ask a similar question in order to highlight another pattern of precedent within the passage. Specifically, does this passage exhibit a pattern of hesitation or reluctance on the part of Jacob or the author about declaring someone to be God? Yes, it does. This is demonstrated in two ways. First, by the initial description of the visitor as a man, which itself mirrors and expresses the unfolding of Jacob’s realization that this visitor is actually God. And second, by the manner in which Jacob begins to suspect and then eventually ascertains that this is indeed God by asking for a blessing and then asking for the visitor’s name. Clearly, Jacob first perceives this visitor as a man, then becomes suspicious that he may be more than a man, then proceeds with caution not wanting to make a reckless proclamation, and finally declares with certainty that this was indeed God. Since Jacob and the author can and do distinguish in two earlier encounters the difference between angels and God and since Jacob’s proclamation that this was God (and the author’s implicit agreement with that fact) is proceeded by cautious attempts to verify that possibility, we must regard Jacob’s conclusion here as certain. He did indeed see God.

Jacob’s certainty about this conclusion is demonstrated by the language of the passage as well in two ways. First, is the Hebrew word “Penuw’el” (Strong’s No. 06439), which is translated initially as “Peniel” in verse 30 and then as “Penuel” in verse 31. It is the same Hebrew word in both cases, and it simply means “facing God.” Second, there is Jacob’s own statement in verse 30 in which he declares “I have seen God face to face,” thus providing the explanation for naming this location with a name like “Peniel” or “facing God.” In this statement about seeing God face to face, Jacob (as well as the author who recorded Jacob’s words) chose to use “elohiym” (Strong’s No. 0430), which is the standard Hebrew word for “God” used throughout the Old Testament. In fact, it is the same word used 31 times in Genesis 1 (just 30 chapters earlier) to refer to the Creator of the universe. Furthermore, Jacob’s use of “elohiym” in reference to God is also necessitated by the fact that God’s proper name YHWH was not revealed until the time of Moses. Consequently, it is very clear from the Hebrew vocabulary that both Jacob and the author of the account understood that Jacob had encountered God himself, not a mere angel. And that is the important point. Given the details of this passage and comparative passages (such as Exodus 3 and 6), it is simply impossible to deny that Jacob’s visitor was YHWH God.

Lastly, we should also take note of the other important elements in this account because they will build precedent that will reoccur over and over, not only in later passages, but in the minds of the Jewish men as they contemplated their own experiences and encounters. In particular we notice the expression of the central connection between seeing God face to face and the expectation of death as a result of such an experience. We saw this already with Hagar in Genesis 16. Not only with Hagar and Jacob, but as we move forward we will continue to see these two elements presented in interrelated fashion.

The next passage describing such an event is yet another early, theology-shaping account involving a major patriarchal figure of Judaism. This time the figure is Moses. The account itself is found in Exodus 3, which records the very first time that Moses encounters God and his commissioning by God at that time. This account is actually the first of multiple accounts in the life of Moses that relate directly to this topic. Like the account of Hagar in Genesis 16, this is a passage that we’ve already covered in some detail during our survey of categories A and B as well as elsewhere in our study.

Exodus 3:1 Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. 2 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. 5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. 6 Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. 7 And the LORD said, I have surely seen (07200) the affliction (06040) of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard (08085) their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows…16 Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt:

To understand how much God intended Moses and all those who would later hear or read this account to understand it in light of earlier precedent, all we need to do is compare God’s statements here to the statements made in Genesis 16. In verse 7 of Exodus 3, God says that he has “surely seen the affliction” of his people and has “heard” their cry. The Hebrew word for “seen” is “ra’ah” (Strong’s No. 07200). The Hebrew word for “affliction” is “oniy” (Strong’s No. 06040). And the Hebrew word for “heard” is “shama” (Strong’s No. 08085). In verse 11 of Genesis 16, we see YHWH tell Hagar that he has “heard” her “affliction,” using the exact same two words for “heard” and “affliction” found in Exodus 3:7. And in verse 13, Hagar reflects that God has “seen” her in her trouble, using the Hebrew word “ro’iy” (Strong’s No. 07200), which is, in fact, derived from “ra’ah,” the word used by God in Exodus 3 to describe how he had seen the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt.

Genesis 16:11 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard (08085) thy affliction (06040). 12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. 13 And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me (07210): for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me (07210)?

In short, God is harkening back to the experience of Hagar, recounting his sympathetic knowledge of the Jews’ plight in Egypt in terms identical to his sympathetic knowledge of Hagar’s plight.

However, our current examination concerns the expectation of death upon seeing God. On this point, verse 3 is clear that Moses intends to go and see the burning bush and to examine it in order to understand why the bush was not consumed by the fire. But, although Moses’ intention was to go close and examine the situation, verses 4-6 state that as soon as Moses heard the voice from the bush declare himself to be God, “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look upon God.” The question is: what basis did Moses have to be afraid to look upon God face to face? The answer is precedent. He must have been familiar with the earlier accounts in which both Hagar and Jacob expressed fear of death upon seeing God, even as Jacob stated, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” It should be noted that Jacob’s statement expressing the fear of death for seeing God occurs only 21 chapters before this encounter involving Moses. This close proximity of similar experiences so early on in the Old Testament and in the lives of such major patriarch’s as Jacob and Moses would certainly shape any Old Testament Jew’s understanding of God.

Before leaving this passage, we note once again that while verse 2 plainly identifies the visitor in the burning bush as the angel of YHWH, in verse 16 YHWH God himself explicitly states that it is YHWH God whom Moses has seen here. So, in the words of God himself, the angel of YHWH who appears to Moses is YHWH God appearing in a humbler, visiting guise.

Next, we come to Exodus 33 and 34. These chapters recount the second encounter between God and Moses, which directly relates to this topic. For reasons that will become apparent during our examination, it is impossible to overstate the importance of these chapters in establishing that the angel of YHWH is indeed YHWH God visiting in a humbler, less glorious guise at times as a man and at other times as a fiery angel. The first important point comes as chapter 33:17-23 records God agreeing to let Moses see him in all his glory and chapter 34:5-8 records God actually fulfilling this agreement.

Exodus 33:17 And the LORD said unto Moses, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name. 18 And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. 19 And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. 20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. 21 And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: 22 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: 23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

Exodus 34:5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. 8 And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped.

Now, as we return our focus to previous encounters, we again see the common elements emerging in this account. First, like Jacob’s encounter in Genesis 32, Exodus 33-34 express the desire to hear YHWH God pronounce his own name. For Jacob, this is refused. But for Moses it is allowed. And second, both encounters explicitly express the concept that to see God “face to face” would bring death. This central element was also present in Genesis 16 with Hagar and in Exodus 3 with Moses. As Jacob himself expresses, he had seen God face to face in Genesis 32. However, the reason that he lived was that, unlike Moses in Exodus 34, Jacob only saw God in the humble form of a man, which is indeed how Genesis 32 describes him. In contrast, Moses saw God in all of his glory in Exodus 33-34. Consequently, it is only the fully glorified form of God that mortal men cannot see face to face and live.

These points are fascinating and we will return to lingering aspects of them later on. However, it is also interesting to point out not only the involvement of major patriarchal figures and the earliness of these accounts, but also their regular spacing. Genesis 16 is less than 20 chapters from the beginning of scripture. Genesis 32 is less than 20 chapters after Genesis 16. Exodus 3 is just 21 chapters after Genesis 32. And Exodus 33-34 is again only 31 chapters after Exodus 3. This frequency, in addition to the earliness and prominent figures of these stories further demonstrates how profoundly these encounters would have impacted and been engrained into the Jewish understanding of God from their earliest history.

The next important pieces of information surround the fact that, in addition to Moses’ own specific encounters with God in Exodus 3-4 and 33-34, Moses and the rest of the people of Israel also have other encounters with God in which we find this expectation of death upon seeing God. These other experiences of seeing God no doubt lead to Moses’ request to see God in all his glory in Exodus 33. We will explain this more as we continue. But what is important is that Moses regarded God’s presence among the Israelites in the pillar of fire and cloud and in the fire on Mount Sinai as God interacting with his people face to face. We see this reflected by Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 5 and Numbers 14 as he recounted to the Israelites God’s visit on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24.

Deuteronomy 5:4 The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire…

Numbers 14:13 And Moses said unto the LORD, Then the Egyptians shall hear it, (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them;) 14 And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou LORD art among this people, that thou LORD art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night.

However, as we can also see from Moses’ comment in Deuteronomy 5, the fire acted as a medium obscuring God in all his glory. The fact that God’s glory was on the mount behind the fire is stated plainly in Exodus 24, which itself hints at the fire (and the cloud) being a mitigating partition preventing the people from seeing God’s glory directly or clearly.

Exodus 24:16 And the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 And the sight of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.

As indicated above, the function of the fire (and the cloud) was to prevent the people from seeing God’s face and form clearly because such a sight would have killed them. These facts are stated plainly in Deuteronomy 4 and Exodus 19.

Deuteronomy 4:12 And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice.

Exodus 19:18 And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly…21 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish.

Exodus 19 is interesting because it indicates that if any of the people attempted to break through the obscuring wall of fire to gaze at the glory of the Lord directly, they would perish. So, once again, here we have the idea that seeing God face to face would bring about a man’s death. And this concept is explicitly expressed by the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 5 where they themselves state their expectation that seeing God face to face would bring about a man’s death. Of course, because of the intervening and obscuring fire, it did not. But this particular element of the obscuring fire stands in direct contrast to Moses experience in Exodus 33-34 in which there was no intervening fire (or cloud) between Moses and God’s glorious form.

Deuteronomy 5:1 And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them…4 The LORD talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire…24 And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. 25 Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?

As we move forward, we find two additional passages involving this expectation of death upon seeing God face to face. Both of these passages occur in Judges and we have seen them already during our discussion of categories A and B. The first of these accounts occurs in Judges 6 and it contains both of the central elements under examination. First, in verse 22 Gideon expresses great concern about having seeing the angel of YHWH “face to face.” Second, in verse 23, YHWH responds to this outburst from Gideon and assures him that he will not die, thereby confirming the existence of this expectation of death.

Judges 6:21 Then the angel of the LORD put forth the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and there rose up fire out of the rock, and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the LORD departed out of his sight. 22 And when Gideon perceived that he was an angel of the LORD, Gideon said, Alas, O Lord GOD! for because I have seen an angel of the LORD face to face. 23 And the LORD said unto him, Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die. 24 Then Gideon built an altar there unto the LORD, and called it Jehovahshalom: unto this day it is yet in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

Similarly, the very nearby story involving Samson’s parents in Judges 13 also contains this expectation. And while Gideon applies this expectation of death to the figure known as “the angel of YHWH,” just 6 chapters later, Samson’s parents apply this expectation to YHWH God himself, as was the usual expectation, just as we have already seen.

Judges 13:20 For it came to pass, when the flame went up toward heaven from off the altar, that the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar. And Manoah and his wife looked on it, and fell on their faces to the ground. 21 But the angel of the LORD did no more appear to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was an angel of the LORD. 22 And Manoah said unto his wife, We shall surely die, because we have seen God. 23 But his wife said unto him, If the LORD were pleased to kill us, he would not have received a burnt offering and a meat offering at our hands, neither would he have shewed us all these things, nor would as at this time have told us such things as these.

What is so interesting about Judges 13 is that, like chapter 6, it specifies that the visitor is the figure known as the angel of YHWH. Yet, Judges 13 also specifically denotes that Samson’s parents were afraid for seeing YHWH God face to face. Thus, it identifies the figure known as the angel of YHWH as YHWH himself. In fact, this point is irrefutable since verse 21 specifies that Samson’s father “knew this was the angel of YHWH,” which rules out any suggestion that Samson’s father mistook this visitor. According to the text, Samson’s father knew this was the figure known as the angel of YHWH and yet, in verse 22, Samson’s father described seeing the angel of YHWH as seeing God himself. This equation between seeing the angel of YHWH and seeing YHWH God in turn explains Gideon’s application of this expectation of death to seeing the angel of YHWH just seven chapters earlier. Like Samson’s parents 7, Gideon understood that the angel of YHWH was indeed YHWH God whose face, if seen, was thought to bring about a man’s death. And this expectation was well-founded for it had not only been taught by Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, but YHWH God himself confirmed this expectation in Exodus 33-34. However, apart from Moses, others apparently did not understand that this expectation only applied when the angel of YHWH revealed himself as he truly was, not as a humble man or even a fiery angel, but as the fully glorious YHWH whose face no man can see and live.

And we must ask ourselves this question. What is more likely? Is it more likely that Gideon and Samson’s father are applying the expectation of death to two different beings (one to YHWH God and the other to a mere created being such as an angel)? Or, is it more likely that Gideon and Samson’s father were applying the same expectation to the same Being, YHWH God himself, who when visiting was known as “the angel of YHWH”? The fact that Gideon applies this expectation of death to the angel of YHWH while Samson’s parents apply it to YHWH God himself while at the very same time regarding the angel of YHWH as YHWH God, demonstrates that the angel of YHWH was indeed understood to be YHWH God.

It is also important to note at this point how early even these last references to this expectation are. They occur in the seventh book of the Bible. In fact, we have found 7 such instances (counting Deuteronomy 4-5 as a recounting of Exodus 19 and 24). And from start to finish, these 7 encounters begin just 16 chapters in the Bible. The first 5 occur at intervals less than 20 chapters apart and they involve major patriarchal figures, such as Jacob and Moses, who are foundational to the Jewish understanding of God. The passages span from the time of God’s choosing of Abraham and Jacob to the establishing of the Covenant of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt and they continue in the period just after the Israelites conquered the Promised Land under Joshua. This is long before the Jewish kings and long before the Old Testament prophets. As such, the frequency and earliness of these instances demonstrates their foundational level in Jewish theology. Neither can they in any way be considered the product of later evolution in Jewish thinking.

Now that we have examined all of these passages containing this expectation of death for seeing God face to face, we can comment more directly on the implications that result from this Old Testament theme, particularly as this theme relates to Trinitarian issues.

First, this theme itself demonstrates that the Jews of the Old Testament understood the angel of YHWH to be YHWH God in visiting form. Some of the passages, such as Genesis 32, Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy 5, and Exodus 33-34 all identify the visitor by the title YHWH God and associate seeing YHWH God with the expectation of death. Other passages, however, identified that the visitor was the angel of YHWH, yet they still associated seeing him with the fear of death for seeing God face to face (Genesis 16, Exodus 3, Judges 6, and Judges 13). Thus, the Old Testament clearly applied the axiom to the figure known as the angel of YHWH, thereby recording their understanding that the angel of YHWH was YHWH and to see the angel of YHWH was, in fact, to see YHWH God himself. Consequently, the application of this fearful expectation to the figure known as the angel of YHWH constitutes yet another definitive proof that the Jews of the Old Testament understood that the figure known as the angel of YHWH was indeed YHWH God in visiting form, which is why on occasion we see them worshipping and making sacrifices to him as YHWH God.

Second, there is something specific to be learned from the record of these encounters, particularly the encounters of Moses. As we have seen, when YHWH God first appeared to Moses in Exodus 3, in verse 16 YHWH God himself explicitly states that it is Himself, YHWH God, that has appeared to Moses even though verse 2 is clear that it was the figure known as the angel of YHWH who was appearing to Moses.

Exodus 3:2 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed… 16 Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt.

Consequently, we might consider whether or not all of Moses meetings with YHWH were meetings with the figure known as the angel of YHWH. Since the very first encounter between Moses and YHWH is between Moses and the figure known as the angel of YHWH and in that encounter the angel of YHWH is identified as YHWH God, whenever we see later encounters which describe Moses’ visitor as “YHWH,” we have no reason or basis for thinking it is anyone other than this figure known as the angel of YHWH. In addition, we must also note that in this very first encounter, which sets the precedent for all later encounters, it is the angel of YHWH from whom Moses hides his face so that he will not die. This is seen clearly in verse 6 of chapter 3.

Exodus 3:2 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. 4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. 5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. 6 Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

So, Moses understands from the very first encounter that the angel of YHWH is YHWH God in visiting form and that to see his face means death. Yet Moses does not die in this encounter. However, Moses met with YHWH face to face on many occasions and yet he did not die. In fact, the Old Testament is very explicit that Moses was unique because frequently met with him face to face.

Exodus 33:11 And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.

Deuteronomy 34:10 And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.

The questions facing Moses as a result of these frequent face-to-face encounters are readily apparent. Since Moses saw God face to face on many occasions, why didn’t Moses die? This was the very question that we saw repeatedly plagued all those who encountered God face to face including Hagar, Jacob, Moses, the Israelites, Gideon, and Samson’s parents every time someone saw YHWH God face to face. There are only a few possible answers. Either the axiom itself is not true and seeing God’s face would not kill a man or the axiom is true and we must discover what factor prevented Moses from dying in these instances. Fortunately, the same passage answers both questions, telling us that the axiom is true and identifying why Moses did not die. In fact, the passage even indicates that Moses himself figured out how both items could be simultaneously true.

It is interesting to note that Exodus 33:11 itself describes Moses’ seeing God face to face frequently right before it records Moses’ request to see God in all his glory in verses 12-18.

Exodus 33:11 And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle…18 And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.

It is quite clear that the text intends for us to understand that Moses’ frequency in seeing YHWH God face to face is directly related to his request to see God face to face in this new way, for the first time in all God’s glory. There can be no doubt that every time Moses saw God face to face and did not die, he pondered the meaning of the axiom that to see God’s face would bring death. Moses had seen God face to face in Exodus 3-4, Exodus 13 and 14 along with Numbers 14, as well as Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 4-5. But all of these passages indicate that the fire surrounding God in the bush, in the pillar, and on Mount Sinai acted as a buffer preventing the people from seeing God’s form and from breaking through the fire to gaze at him for which they would die. From his frequent encounters with YHWH God face to face up to the time of Exodus 33:11, Moses apparently figured something out. He apparently discovered how it was possible that God could meet with him face to face and yet he still lived. What was Moses’ conclusion? He reckoned that the axiom was true but that neither he nor the Israelites had been seeing God as God truly was in all his glory, but only in a humbler, visiting form.

It is with this contemplative process in view that, after describing God’s frequent face-to-face visits with Moses in verse 11, Exodus 33:18 records Moses’ peculiar request to see God in his glory. And although God could meet with Moses face to face when he appeared in fiery form as he did in the burning bush, in the pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21-22, Exodus 14:19, 24, and Numbers 14:14), and on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18-21, Deuteronomy 4:12, and Deuteronomy 5:1, 4-6, 23-27, 30-31), God tells Moses that in this form – in “all his goodness” or glory – Moses cannot see his face and live.

Consequently, this request from Moses in Exodus 33 itself demonstrates that Moses understood the angel of YHWH to be YHWH God in a humble – sometimes human, sometimes angelic – guise. For how could Moses have perceived that God had a more glorious form than the fiery form he had been encountering unless he first perceived that the form he had been encountering was God in a humbler form, the fiery form of an angel? And how could Moses have realized that he had been conversing with God in a humbler, angelic form without understanding that the angel of YHWH was the title for this humbler, visiting form of YHWH God? While Moses no doubt knew from the accounts of Hagar (Genesis 16), Abraham (Genesis 18-19), and Jacob (Genesis 32) that the title “the angel of YHWH” was a term for God, by Exodus 33 he had also learned that the function of this visage of YHWH was to be a form concealing God’s full glorious form. Thus, Moses most certainly knew that the angel of YHWH was YHWH God. And, as Exodus 33 records, by that time Moses also knew that the figure known as the angel of YHWH could discard that humbler visage and exhibit his true, fully glorious form as God, the form which no man could see face to face and live.

These encounters tell us two paramount facts about God that are extremely significant to Trinitarianism. First, it tells us that God has “humbler” forms, forms in which men can see him face to face, forms which conceal or disguise his full glorious form, forms like that of a man (whom Jacob wrestled) or of a fiery angel (whom Moses saw in the bush). Second, and even more importantly, since precedent defines for us that it is the angel of YHWH who meets with Moses in Exodus 33-34 (as it was in all cases going back to Exodus 3), we know that in fact it is the angel of YHWH who has these multiple forms. The angel of YHWH has the humble guise of a man. The angel of YHWH has the fiery form of an angel, which was awe-inspiring and glorious in its own right. Yet, the angel of YHWH, in his true form, was the glorious YHWH God, a form that so much surpassed the angels that to see it face to face would kill a man, something that seeing an angelic form would not do. The angel of YHWH is YHWH God in a humbler form. Moses discovered that it was the glory that was deadly. He began with the same perception as everyone else but, through experience and contemplation, he discovered what God was prompting him to discover all along. But apart from Moses’ deduction in Exodus 33, the other people in these encounters did not understand this fact. They did not ponder these things as fully as Moses did. And so they feared seeing God in any form and they were perplexed when they saw him face to face.

And, as we have pointed out on numerous occasions already, while this fact may lend itself to Modalism when viewed in a vacuum, when combined with the explicit occasions in which there is side by side coexistence of YHWH and the figure known as the angel of YHWH, this fact leads to the fundamental component of Trinitarianism. YHWH God consists of more than one consciousness and his separate consciousnesses exist simultaneously alongside one another.

As we close this section, we want to include some critical commentary that might otherwise be lost in the midst of all the analysis. What a remarkable testimony to God’s ability to interact with his creation and with his creatures that he loves so much. He is not the God of the pagans and philosophers who is so transcendent that he is unknowable, whose only contact with creation is through a series of intermediary sub-deities. He is a God that can come down to men, a God that can himself mediate with his creation and needs no other intermediary on his behalf. He is a God that is capable of relating to his creation and his creatures. He is a God who is capable of even dwelling with his creation. And in these intermittent Old Testament encounters, he not only foreshadows his prolonged visitation among men for 33 years from the incarnation to the ascension, but he also foreshadows a time when he will permanently dwell with men on earth, after he has restored it and made it ready to receive him in all his glory, including making men immortal so that they can see him and not die. This is the plan further revealed by the New Testament but initiated and communicated in the Old Testament. God was coming here, humbly at first to relate to us, but ultimately as with Moses in Exodus 33-34, he would reveal his fully glorious form as well.