Jesus on Whether Anyone Has Seen God’s “Form”

In a previous post I discussed how some early patristic authors read the Old Testament and found the pre-existing Word of God who is personally distinct from the Father. As I claimed, what they say follows straightforwardly from the “Johannine Paradigm” which comes from the following verses:

John 1:3 All things were created by him [i.e., the Word], and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.

1:18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God [μονογενὴς θεὸς], who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.

5:37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified about me. You people have never heard his voice nor seen his form at any time, 5:38 nor do you have his word residing in you, because you do not believe the one whom he sent.

6:45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ [Isaiah 54:13] Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to me. 6:46 (Not that anyone has seen the Father except [εἰ μὴ] the one who is from God—he has seen the Father.)
—All citations from the NET.

What I want to focus on here is John 5:37 and the term “form.” This term comes from the Greek eidos (εἶδος). When we actually look at what the Old Testament says about God’s εἶδος, what Jesus says in John 5:37 is hard (if not impossible) to reconcile with any view that claims that the Father was seen in the Old Testament. 

Jacob is Named “Israel”

Genesis 32 contains the story of how Jacob received his name “Israel” and was blessed by a “man” with whom he wrestled, apparently, from dusk to dawn. What’s particularly interesting is what we find in verse 30:

Genesis 32:30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.” (NET)

As the NET note to Peniel explains, the term just means “face of God.” 

The Septuagint (referenced as the “LXX” because of the legend surrounding its translation by 70 scholars) is a family of translations of the Old Testament with which the apostles would have been familiar. It is the version mostly cited and alluded to when the New Testament uses the Old Testament. This is a commonly-known fact, but worth bringing up here for those unfamiliar because of what I’m about to show.

The text says:

Genesis 32:30 (LXX) And Jacob called the name of that place “Form of God,” for “I saw God face to face, and my life was spared.” 
Lexham English Septuagint, Second Edition (hereafter, LES2)

Genesis 32:30 καὶ ἐκάλεσεν Ἰακὼβ τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ τόπου ἐκείνου Εἶδος θεοῦ· ἴδον γὰρ θεὸν πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον, καὶ ἐσώθη μου ἡ ψυχή.[1]
The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear Septuagint: H.B. Swete Edition (herafter, Swete)

Swete’s LXX is the basis for the LES2 translation.[2]

What we find here is that the LXX renders Peniel as “εἶδος of God (θεοῦ),” and the explanation is because Jacob saw God face to face. This can’t be written off as a metaphorical way of speaking; this place had meaning to the original audience of Genesis and the story intends to explain why the place has this name. This is a story-telling device about place names that we’ve encountered already in Genesis (cf. 16:14; 21:31) and that we also see later in the Pentateuch (Numbers 11:3, 34; 13:25). This is also clear from the fact that we are told why, from this very same story, Israel doesn’t eat the sinew attached to the socket of the hip. If the story is teaching something definite about Jacob’s dislocated hip, it’s also teaching us something definite about Peniel. The intention of the story is to teach about a real name of a real place from a real event that also has bearing of Israel’s real practices.

So whose form did Jacob see? At face value, the lesson about Peniel, or “Form of God” is that he saw God. But Jesus says nobody has seen the “form” (εἶδος) of God.  

A Promise to Moses   

In Numbers 12 we are told that Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because of the Cushite woman he has married (12:1). This episode is so interesting and important that I want to provide an English translation from the Hebrew (which most English versions do anyway), and also the same story from the LES2, which I also used above. I have presented the verses from the LES2 in the paragraph format the NET uses, just to make comparing each translation easier:

Numbers 12:4 The LORD spoke immediately to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: “The three of you come to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them went. 12:5 And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent; he then called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.

12:6 The LORD said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream. 12:7 My servant Moses is not like this; he is faithful in all my house. 12:8 With him I will speak face to face, openly, and not in riddles; and he will see the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” 12:9 The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he departed. 12:10 When the cloud departed from above the tent, Miriam became leprous as snow. Then Aaron looked at Miriam, and she was leprous!
—NET

Numbers 12:4 And the Lord said to Moses and Miriam and Aaron, “Go forth, you yourselves, the three of you, to the tent of testimony.” And so they went out, the three of them, to the tent of testimony. 12:5 And the Lord descended in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent of testimony, and Aaron and Miriam were called, and both of them went forth.

12:6 And he said to them, “Hear my words: If there may be a prophet from among you to the Lord, I will be made known to him in a vision, and while he is sleeping, I will speak to him. 12:7 Not so with my servant Moses; in my whole household he is trustworthy. 12:8 Mouth to mouth I will speak to him, in appearance [ἐν εἴδει] and not through riddles. And he has beheld the glory of the Lord. And why are you not fearful of speaking against my servant, Moses?”
—LES2

According to the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTTE), a standard reference work, there is debate about rendering the underlying Hebrew as “openly” (NET) or “clearly” (NIV) in English. This Hebrew term is what the LXX renders as “in appearance” (ἐν εἴδει), which the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) translates as “in visible form.” In any case, the NIDNTTE article concludes, “Thus both the Heb[rew] and the LXX seem to express the thought that Moses was a unique witness to the observable manifestation of God’s glory” (volume 2, p. 96). And according to the Lord who is standing at the tent of meeting in the pillar of cloud in Numbers 12, this “observable manifestation” from which God may speak counts as speaking “face to face” (or “mouth to mouth”) with Moses.

It might be harder to catch in English, but what Numbers 12:8 says is that God will (future tense) speak with Moses this way. Now, when did the one Moses knew as “God” and “I AM” do this after the time of Numbers 12:8? This doesn’t happen in Numbers, unless one supposes that of the many times God speaks to Moses in that book, he is also there “in visible form.” But the thing is, it’s quite clear in Genesis and Exodus, at least, when God is showing up because we’re told he is, or he arguably is because of contextual evidence. But we find nothing of the sort in Numbers.

Instead, we see that (according to the LXX and LES2 in translation) “the glory of the Lord appeared” to “all the sons of Israel” (Numbers 14:10), and at the tent of meeting when the people “rushed to the tent of testimony” (16:42). Interestingly, God also seems to appear to Balaam (Numbers 22:9, 20; 23:4; 23:16). Yet there is no special appearance to Moses in the way God promises. 

What about Deuteronomy? Again appearances are sparse, and none of them are specifically to Moses “in visible form” that, as the context of the promise in Numbers 12:8 shows, would be unique to Moses. God descends in the pillar of cloud upon the tent of testimony (Deuteronomy 31:15), but both Moses and Joshua are present. That’s it. 

There doesn’t seem to be any explicit reason to think that God fulfilled what he promised about Moses in Numbers 12:8. But now suppose the Johannine Paradigm holds and that it wasn’t the Father nor his form that was seen by Joshua, but another. Where else in the Christian canon do we possibly see that a subject other than the Father is seen and that plausibly fulfills the promise in Numbers 12:8? The Mount of Transfiguration seems to fit the bill, since that’s where Jesus Christ is transfigured and Moses and Elijah appear. Whereas the Son of God promised to speak with Moses “mouth to mouth” after Moses’ exodus, Moses then speaks with Christ before his own exodus (Luke 9:31). 

There does seem to be one problematic objection to this view, though. It’s the fact that Elijah, a prophet, also appears on the Mount of Transfiguration. After all, didn’t God say that he would speak to prophets in visions (Numbers 12:6), and therefore in a different way he would speak to Moses? And yet, if this is where the promise is fulfilled (as I’m speculating), it’s also being fulfilled in the same way to Elijah, since Christ is speaking to him “mouth to mouth” and “in visible form.”

At present I’m not sure I have a full response to the objection. A response would have to preserve Moses’ uniqueness, and yet allow for Elijah to see God’s form, where the form isn’t the Father’s. One way to do this, it seems to me, is to appeal to the fact that Moses had actually died and Elijah hadn’t. Ancient commentators point out that Moses was raised up to see Christ, but Elijah was brought down, since he never died. (See the Ancient Christian Commentary volumes on the Mount of Transfiguration passages in the synoptics.) Moses would then still uniquely see God “in visible form” in that he is the only one to have done so after being raised from the realm of the dead.

Also, if it’s the case that God cannot appear “in visible form” to any prophet without exception, it seems that we’re going to have a problem with Jesus who had “seen things” in the Father’s own presence (John 8:38). Jesus Christ, after all, the one whom Deuteronomy 18:15 says would be raised up to be a prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22). 

Anyway, I’ve given this whole speculation about what would be true if God didn’t appear to Moses and speak to him as he promised in the Old Testament. If this happened prior to Moses’ death, we have the same question that we had with God’s appearance to Jacob in Genesis 32:30, and the same issue with regard to John 5:37.  

God in Human Form

Now let’s turn to a final example in Ezekiel 1. This is a baffling text where Ezekiel sees the four living beasts carrying a figure above them upon a flaming chariot. The descriptions in the text make it clear that that Ezekiel is seeing God above the living beasts, and is even able to describe what God looks like to him. Here are the relevant verses in the NET and LES2 again. 

Ezekiel 1:25 Then there was a voice from above the platform over their heads when they stood still. 1:26 Above the platform over their heads was something like a sapphire shaped like a throne. High above on the throne was a form that appeared to be a man. 1:27 I saw an amber glow like a fire enclosed all around from his waist up. From his waist down I saw something that looked like fire. There was a brilliant light around it, 1:28 like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds after the rain. This was the appearance of the surrounding brilliant light; it looked like the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I threw myself face down, and I heard a voice speaking. 

Ezekiel 1:25 And look! There was a voice from above the firmament that was above their head. 1:26 There was a likeness of a chair upon it, and above the likeness of the chair was a likeness as the appearance of a human from above [ὁμοίωμα ὡς εἶδος ἀνθρώπου ἄνωθεν]. 1:27 And I saw what looked like an appearance of amber from the vision of the loins and up, and from the vision of the loins and down I saw what looked like fire and its splendor around about. 1:28 As the appearance of a bow when it is in the cloud on rainy days, such was the standing of the light from all around.

2:1 This was the vision of the likeness of the Lord’s glory.

Even though this is a vision, the entire point of this post remains: Whose form is directly seen by Jacob, (perhaps) by Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration, and by Ezekiel in this vision of God himself? If nobody has seen the Father’s form at any time, which is the inescapable meaning of John 5:37, then it isn’t the Father’s form. 

Summary

Genesis 32:30 and Ezekiel 1:26 are two examples that show it is neither implausible that it was Christ who was seen in the Old Testament, nor that the idea is “made up” to fit Platonic Greek categories or something. This is a natural problem that arises from the text of Scripture itself, and I didn’t even remotely touch on other texts where “God appeared,” or texts that explicitly say that God was heard in the Old Testament. 

If the speculation about Numbers 12:8 holds up, it’s also not implausible that Christ is the one who made the promise to speak to Moses “in visible form.” And yet this was supposed to be “the Lord” who said this.  

After I had done the research for this post, I found that Kittel says this in the famous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT):

[The term εἶδος] can be used of God. Thus LXX translates “Peniel” (Gn. 32:30 f. == 31f.): Εἶδος τοῦ θεοῦ. Nu. 12:8: (God says concerning Moses) στόμα κατὰ στόμα λαλήσω αὐτῷ, ἐν εἴδει καὶ οὐ διʼ αἰνιγμάτων, καὶ τὴν δόξαν Κυρίου εἶδεν, (→ I, 178; I, 217 f.). It is against this background, in the context of hearing and seeing, that we have the saying in Jn. 5:37: οὔτε φωνὴν αὐτοῦ πώποτε ἀκηκόατε οὔτε εἶδος αὐτοῦ ἑωράκατε.
—Volume 2, p. , entry on εἶδος

Kittel apparently missed Ezekiel 1:26. Regardless, this confirms that I’m not alone in my suspicion that there’s an explicit connection between John 5:37 and Old Testament appearances (and hearings!) of God. 

That God’s “form” was seen in the Old Testament is a surprising fact, and this fact is precisely what Jesus (through John’s writing) had in mind in John 5:37. John is very deliberate here. Again, who is this one called “God” and “Lord” whose εἶδος is seen in the Old Testament? According to second century Christians (and beyond), it is the Son of God.

 


Footnotes:

[1] Rahlf’s and the Göttingen text differ with Swete in that they have εἶδον γὰρ θεὸν instead of ἴδον γὰρ θεὸν. The Rahlf’s text number this verse as Genesis 32:31. 

[2]The Lexham English Septuagint: A New Translation, Second Edition, xi.