No one has ever seen God. Except 74 ancient Hebrews.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 July

Exodus 24.9-11 • John 1.18 • 1 John 4.12-13.

Most of the reason we Christians are pretty sure John bar Zavdi wrote both the gospel with his name on it, and the letters with his name on them, is ’cause the same ideas and themes (and wording, and vocabulary) come up in them. Including today’s bible difficulty, the idea nobody’s ever seen God. John wrote it in both his gospel and his first letter.

John 1.18 KWL
Nobody’s ever seen God.
The only Son, God who’s in the Father’s womb, he explains God.
1 John 4.12-13 KWL
12 No one’s ever seen God, yet when we love one another, God’s with us.
His love’s been expressed in us, 13 so this is how we get to know we’re with him and he’s with us.
He’s given us his Spirit.

The reason it’s a difficulty? Because people have seen God. In Exodus 24, we have this interesting little story:

Exodus 24.9-11 KWL
9 Moses, Aaron, Nadáv, Avíhu, and 70 of Israel’s elders,
went up 10 and saw Israel’s God:
Under his feet was something like a manufactured sapphire pavement,
pure as the skies themselves.
11 As for the Israeli nobles, God didn’t strike them down:
They saw God, and they ate and drank.

Wait, what?

Yeah, nobody bothers to read their Old Testament, so it stands to reason they’d utterly miss this one. Or any of the other God-appearances in the scriptures.

In the OT, on a regular basis, humans freak out when there’s a chance they might see God. Jg 13.22 ’Cause a rumor was going round that if they did see God, they’d die. God’s pure, holy awesomeness would consume them like a volcano taking out stupid tourists. Although you do get the occasional dark Christian claim that God would be unreasonably pissed about it, and destroy them for daring to approach his majesty. Pretty sure that second idea only reflects their twisted secret wishes about how they’d like subordinates to approach them. God’s cool with his kids approaching him. Ep 3.12, He 4.16 But I digress.

Yeah, it was a rumor. And sometimes rumors are true. The LORD himself warned Moses he’d only get to see God’s back, because his front was much too much for the prophet.

Exodus 33.20 KWL
God said, “You aren’t able to see my face.
For a human cannot see me and live.”

And yet we have this story in the middle of Exodus, where apparently 74 people saw God, had lunch with him, and lived to tell of it.

And it’s not the only instance! Abraham had lunch with God too. Ge 18.1-7 Well, more like served him lunch. Isaiah and Ezekiel saw God on his throne. Jeremiah even experienced God touching him. Jr 1.9

Whenever I point out this rather vast discrepancy, Christians flinch, then usually respond one of two ways. Either they dismiss the passages where people got to see God, or they dismiss the passages where seeing God would get you struck down. The authors of the bible must not really have meant what the text clearly says.

So nobody literally saw God: The 74 Hebrew elders only saw God’s feet at the most, which is why the Exodus passage emphasizes the sapphire pavement—it’s the only thing they could really look at, and they didn’t actually see God’s face.

Or John didn’t literally mean nobody’s ever seen God. What he meant was nobody’s ever known God; at least not to the level Jesus knows God, ’cause Jesus is God; “God who’s in the Father’s womb” and all that. After all, since Jesus is God and humans have seen Jesus, logically people have seen God. Jn 14.9 But have they known God?—there’s the quandary.

So if Christians were taught to believe in inerrancy, that’s how they achieve inerrancy: One of the ideas must be wrong must not be literal. Which idea would you rather was true? Embrace that one, and put aside t’other.

Both are right.

The way I tend to deal with these contradictory ideas, is to embrace both of them.

  • When the author of Exodus (for convenience we’ll call him “Moses”) put down that the 74 Hebrew elders saw God, he totally, literally meant it.
  • When John put down that no one has ever seen God, he meant it.

Neither author was trying to subtly attach some weird allegorical meaning to their writings. They were trying to express their Spirit-inspired experiences of God as best they could. And it just so happens they contradict. After all they were two different people, and that sort of thing happens.

Whenever I say such things, inerrantists tend to go out of their minds. “No!” they screech, “you can’t say one of them’s right in his experience, and the other’s right in his experience. That’s subjectivism. That’s relativism. That’s postmodernism. God isn’t like that!”

Says you. And the only reason you say God isn’t like that, is because you aren’t like that. (Or you don’t think you’re like that.) You’re projecting. Don’t do that. God is perfectly free to define himself, through the scriptures, without your help.

For his own reasons, God decided to allow Moses to define him as someone who let 74 Hebrews take a gander at him. At the very same time, God decided to allow John to define him as having never been seen.

You’re confusing God’s customized revelation to his kids—his adaptation of his message to the finite, limited understanding of each individual—with inconsistency. You might call it subjectivism, but it’s only subjective in the sense that each person subjectively sees God from their own unique perspective; not that God is different to every person. God’s the same. Our perceptions vary. God’s still God.

God’s never inconsistent in his character. But in his application and revelation, he varies from person and person. He’s not inconsistent; we are. And the bible happens to reflect this.

So, “Which of these guys is correct, Moses or John?” is really the wrong question. Both of ’em are right.

Now deal with it. Don’t shove the inconsistency under the rug by reinterpreting one passage or the other as allegory. Deal with it. Try to understand God from the point of view that two very different ideas, almost contradictory ideas, happen to both be true at the same time. Hey, you can do it with the trinity (three persons, one God) and the incarnation (fully God, fully human). You can do it with this too. Yeah, it stretches your brain a bit. Good. That’s what your brain is for.

I remind you we Christians are to take the bible seriously. Tweaking passages in order to make them “line up” properly does not do this. It treats one passage or the other as if it’s cancelled out, irrelevant, mythological, falsehood, too mysterious for our understanding, or never meant to be understood. It teaches us it’s okay to not take a part of the bible seriously. And that’s a dangerous ground to walk on.

What Moses meant, and what John meant.

So in the Exodus story, the LORD was presenting his covenant to the descendants of Jacob/Israel. God stated his terms: In exchange for peace, prosperity, and a good relationship with him, his people would serve him and obey his commands. They’d start with ritual purification and end with ritual worship; this event took place at the end part, where God presented his covenant, and they agreed to it. Ex 20-23

Then God told Moses to come up the mountain to worship him personally, and bring priests and elders with him. Ex 24.1-2 So they did. And of course God was there to receive them. Had he not been there—had he only sent a representative, like a herald or angel or pillar or something which wasn’t actually him—ancient custom would mean the covenant would be invalid. God had to be there. So the being they saw was of course God.

And while ordinarily seeing God would devastate them, God accommodated them. He was in a form they could look at without dying. Which of course he can do; he did it before with Abraham, and does it today through Jesus. He 1.2

Now for John. In his gospel, he’s emphasizing how Jesus makes God known. We don’t really know God apart from Jesus. Jesus exigísato/“explains” God; this Greek word is the basis for our English word exegesis, the detailed study of a text. Jesus interprets the LORD in a way absolutely no one before or since can and does. You wanna know God? Jesus explains God.

In his letter, God is love. This love is demonstrated by sending us his Son. 1Jn 4.8-10 John concludes God’s love must also be demonstrated by us Christians showing love for one another. When we love one another God, who’s ordinarily invisible, becomes visible. If God is love, and we see love, in a sense we see God. See?

This focus on visibility is a bit overrated, you know. The one thing Exodus clearly demonstrates is that a visible God certainly doesn’t mean people are gonna be any more obedient, or have any more faith. The ancient Hebrews sucked at following God. Yet they saw his mighty works, and 74 of them saw him personally—for all the good that did.

We Christians, on the other hand, have to make the effort to suck less at following God. We don’t get to see him till we obey Jesus, and love one another. Jn 13.34-35, 15.12

Bible difficulties.