The Christian Perspective

Here are the relevant passages (NASB)...

Exodus 33:20
But He said, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!"

Genesis 32:30
So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved."

Neither of these passages is intended to be taken literally. We know this with absolute certainty because God is invisible (Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17), so seeing Him with our physical eyes in a literal sense can simply never happen. Further, God is not a material being, limited in space or time -- He has no material physical attributes, such as a face (Jeremiah 23:24; 1 Kings 8:27; John 4:24; Luke 24:39).

The Bible frequently speaks of things like God's face, His hand (Deuteronomy 3:24; 1 Samuel 5:7), His finger (Exodus 8:19, 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10), His wings (Psalm 17:8, 36:7), etc. The attribution of human characteristics to something that is not human is called an "anthropomorphism". These types of statements are metaphors, poetic language, figures of speech, and so on.

Since we know that these passages are not intended to be taken literally -- neither of them are -- they must mean something slightly different than what they literally say.

In Exodus 33:20, most commentators seem to agree that God's face is here a metaphorical reference to His most intimate presence. Many of these commentators refer to it as seeing God's full glory (Exodus 33:18).

In Genesis 32:30, however, the phrase "face to face", which comes up frequently in the Old Testament and appears to be a common idiom (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 5:4, 34:10; Judges 6:22), carries with it the meaning "as equals", or "open and not hidden", or perhaps "up close and personal". Jacob fought one who appeared as a man and Jacob beat him. Jacob was rightly astounded that God appeared to him as an equal, spoke with him as one speaks with another human, and was especially astounded that he was allowed to win the fight!

So we see that both statements are clearly necessarily metaphorical, and they are metaphorical in very different ways, and since they do not address the exact same thing, they are not contradictory.

If there are other apparent Pentateuch discrepancies you would like to see addressed on this website, please ask.

God bless you in your studies of the scriptures.