Q: From the description in Genesis 3:8-24, it does not sound as though Adam and Eve saw God face-to-face. When Moses encountered the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-22), he heard God speak but did not see God. At the terebinth of Mamre, three angels conveyed God’s message that Abraham and Sarah would soon have a son (Genesis 18:1-15). Did anyone see God before Jesus came?
A: The biblical evidence about seeing God is mixed. After the patriarch Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger, Jacob names that place Peniel, “Because I have seen God face to face…yet my life has been spared” (Genesis 32:31).
According to Exodus 33:11a, “The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” This passage is cited in Numbers 12:8, Deuteronomy 34:10 and Sirach 45:5.
In Exodus 33:20, however, God says to Moses, “But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives.” For this reason, God created a hollow place in the rock where Moses could see God pass by, but see only God’s back (v. 22-23).
References to God as hiding the divine face occur in Deuteronomy 31:17, Psalms 13:2, 51:11 and 104:29, plus Isaiah 8:17—to mention only a few of the biblical references.
In the New Testament, Jesus says that angels look on the face of God (Matthew 18:10). The author of 1 Peter 3:12 says that the “face of the Lord is against evildoers.” The Book of Revelation has two references to God’s face. After saying that the face of the son of man [Jesus] “shone like the sun at its brightest” (1:16), John later states that God’s servants “will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (22:4).
All comparisons of God to humans are approximate—whether we are talking about parts of the body (the Bible refers to God’s face, hands, heart, arms, feet, etc.) or about emotions (anger, laughter, contentment, etc.).
I once made a list of Scriptures that speak of God as having human body parts. Using the New American Bible translation, the most common usages in the Hebrew Scriptures were hand (201), voice (92) and eyes (52). The most common New Testament usages were also hand (23), voice (23) and eyes (10).
The Bible includes many verbal portraits of God but strictly prohibits any physical representations (see Exodus 20:4-5 or Deuteronomy 5:8-9). The Book of Genesis says that men and women were made in God’s image and likeness (1:27).
Any divine/human comparisons must remain tentative this side of the eternal banquet. Once people are there, however, there is no need for description because they are experiencing God directly.