Why Did God Appear So Many Times to Moses?
In answering the question about God’s appearances to Moses, we need to ask a few other questions. Was there something in Moses that moved God to appear and speak to him? Did God call Moses to be a leader because of some innate traits? How many times did God appear to Moses? What does it mean that God spoke to Moses “face to face”? And how does all this information affect us as believers?
Believers with a strong desire to pursue God can find some helpful insight and motivation in considering why God appeared to Moses so many times.
God Saw Moses’ Heart — the Heart of a Leader
Moses had a wonderful, multifaceted relationship with God that unfolded over time; but it was rocky in the beginning. One might even wonder why God didn’t choose Aaron, Moses’ older brother, to deliver Israel from Egypt instead. But no, He called Moses (Exodus 3:1-10).
Although Stephen in the New Testament described Moses as “powerful in speech and action,” Moses objected to God’s call, claiming he was not “eloquent,” but rather, “slow of speech and tongue.” Perhaps Moses had some kind of speech impediment — some suggest he stuttered — or maybe he was simply making an excuse to escape God’s call.
God rebuked Moses, angered with his complaint because, after all, the Lord is the One who creates all mouths. In response, Moses asked God to send someone else on the mission. Again, angered over Moses’ repeated hesitancy, God appointed his brother Aaron to do most of the talking in Egypt.
In spite of Moses’ early show of weakness, God also saw his heart. Moses was firm in character, unlike Aaron, who was a weak people pleaser. God recognized that Moses’ heart, at its root, was strong in faith. He would stand for God, even when the Israelites didn’t. He would be a faithful leader and hero for God’s people — wise, patient, humble, caring, insightful, faithful, and courageous.
What Set Moses Apart as a Leader?
God did not necessarily call, appear to, and communicate with Moses because of his inborn skills or personality. The Scriptures remind us that God often chooses the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised to accomplish His purposes (1 Corinth. 1:27-29).
Yet as the story of Moses’ leadership in Israel unfolds, we surmise that many personal experiences and character traits set him apart as God’s man and Israel’s defender. No doubt his education in Pharaoh’s palace and lessons learned from his own mother prepared him to lead well (Exodus 2:5-10). He was, innately, a just man. Though he did not go about it in a God-honoring way, Moses came to the defense of an abused Hebrew laborer (Exodus 2:11-12). He was a discerning man, rejecting the pleasures and privileges of royalty for a harder life with God’s people (Hebrews 11:24-25).
Moses grew in humility while living 40 years in exile in the wilderness, and this humility developed even more during times of duress and opposition (Numbers 12:1-15). He was a powerful intercessor for the stubborn, idolatrous Israelites (Ex 32:11, 31-32).
Moses no doubt developed a caring nature during his years as a shepherd, protecting sheep. Although he was careless and disobedient at first regarding God’s requirements, in time Moses exhibited exceptional obedience and bravery. He stood, in the power of God, against the mighty Pharaoh, and then lead God’s people out of Egypt into the unknowns of the wilderness.
How Many Times Did God Appear to Moses, and Why?
God may have appeared to Moses more times than we know, but we do have the biblical record of at least nine appearances that came at different times whenever Moses ascended Mount Sinai.
1. Early in the book of Exodus, Moses encountered God on the far side of the wilderness on Mount Horeb, “the mountain of God,” which is also called Mount Sinai. God commissioned Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. He promised His presence and told Moses He would help him speak, teach him what to say, and use him as a conduit to perform “wonders” meant to convince the Egyptians to free the Israelites after 430 years of slavery.
2. Again on Mount Sinai, after the Israelites’ deliverance, God appeared and instructed Moses to tell the Israelites about a covenant He would make between Himself and His people (Exodus 19:1-8).
3. In Exodus 19:8-9, God told Moses He would come to the people in a thick cloud so they would hear Him when He spoke to Moses, and believe Him.
4. In Exodus 19:10-19, God told Moses to consecrate the Israelites and set boundaries at the foot of the mountain because He was going to make an appearance to all of them. The Lord descended in fire from the smoke-wrapped mountain, and when Moses spoke to God, He answered in thunder.
5. In Exodus 19:20 through 20:20, God advised Moses to warn the people not to break through the barriers. He also told Moses to descend the mountain and then bring Aaron up with him the next time. Moses may have been at the bottom of the mountain when God spoke the Ten Commandments to the people (Ex. 20:1-17).
6. In Exodus 20:21 through 23:33, Moses drew near to the “thick darkness” — the manifest presence of God. God trusted Moses to hear and carry messages for His people regarding idols, the kind of altar He required, how to treat Hebrew servants, how to deal with personal injuries, the protection of property, social responsibilities and prohibitions, laws of justice and mercy, Sabbath laws, and annual festivals. God also promised to send an angel to be with them in their conquest of Canaan.
7. In Exodus 24-31, God, through Moses, invites others to the mountain: Aaron, his two sons, and seventy of the elders. Moses built an altar and stone pillars to represent the 12 tribes, and then he offered offerings to God and read the laws he had received from God. God revealed Himself to all of these men (Ex. 24:9-11). God commanded Moses to come further up the mountain alone, and he stayed there for 40 days and nights. He chiseled out two stone tablets and God inscribed the Ten Commandments on them. God then instructed about objects for worship and the priesthood, and He emphasized the Sabbath as a sign. Then God told Moses the Israelites were at the foot of the mountain worshiping a golden calf. Moses descended the mountain and in anger broke the tablets, smashed the idol, and disciplined the wicked Israelites.
8. In Exodus 32:30-35, Moses climbs the mountain to intercede and “make atonement” for the people’s idolatry, and he offers his own life in exchange for theirs — foreshadowing Jesus’ sacrificial atonement. After God struck the people with a plague for their idolatry, He commanded them to depart, saying that He would give them Canaan but He would not go with them. The people mourned to hear this and Moses again interceded for them at the tent of meeting, pleading for God’s presence to go with them. During that time, a pillar of cloud came down from the mountain and stayed at the tent’s entrance while God spoke to Moses as one would speak to a friend. God agreed to Moses’ request, and allowed Moses to see His glory.
9. In Exodus 34, God told Moses to remake the stone tablets, and then He inscribed the Ten Commandments on them to replace the ones Moses broke. God described His character to Moses as being compassionate, gracious, patient, loving, faithful and forgiving, but He also clarified that He cannot abide sin. Moses stayed on the mountain with God another 40 days and 40 nights, fasting from food and water. When he descended, Moses’ face shone because of His time in the presence of God — so much so that the people were afraid to come near him.
Were There Other Conversations between God and Moses?
There were many conversations between God and Moses that do not necessarily include actual appearances. Moses may simply have heard God’s voice, as in a vision.
Some were during Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh, continuing until the Israelites were released from bondage. God also spoke to Moses concerning the Passover and the consecration of male firstborns. He also warned about Pharaoh’s determination to pursue the Israelites with chariots and horsemen in the desert.
God also spoke to Moses (or Israel through Moses) a number of times during their journey across the desert.
What Does It Mean that God Spoke to Moses “Face to Face”?
Exodus 33:11 confuses some people. It says God would speak to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Does that mean Moses actually saw God? Or does the verse mean something else?
A few verses later, in Exodus 33:20, God says Moses cannot see His face, adding, “for no one may see me and live.” Paul, to Timothy, sheds more light, declaring that God lives in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16). So how can God speak to Moses “face to face” if humans are not allowed to see God’s face?
God is a Spirit (John 4:24), so He doesn’t have an actual face or any other body part. In Exodus 33:18-23, Moses asked to see God’s glory, and the passage says God only showed Moses His “back,” but not His face. God’s “goodness” and glory passed by Moses as God’s “hand” covered him in the hollow of a rock.
Another Scripture helps to clarify. Deuteronomy 34:10 says the LORD “knew” Moses face to face. The phrase “face to face” is an idiom that can be understood as “intimately,” or in a close, harmonious relationship — like God had with Abraham who was called “the friend of God.” God and Moses were more than acquainted; they were good friends. The “face” and “back” and “hand” of God might represent various degrees of experiencing God's glory in our interactions with Him. For instance, we come to know the “hand” of God’s protection.
It should be noted that God can appear in human form in order to manifest Himself in a tangible way to human senses. These are called theophanies or Christophanies.
What Does This Mean for Christ-Followers?
The idea of speaking intimately with the God of all creation should be an exciting thought for all believers. Here’s an interesting note: At Jesus’ transfiguration, when His glory was revealed, Moses was present along with Elijah; and they were both “talking with Jesus” — face to face (Matthew 17:2-3).
God’s glory is wondrous. He is resplendent in His holiness. Only our Lord Jesus has seen Father God in all His glory (John 1:18), and even the seraphim cover their eyes as they worship (Isaiah 6:1-4). Isaiah, who saw the Lord Almighty in a vision, cried out that he was ruined because he saw God as he truly is, and his own sinfulness in comparison (Isaiah 6:5).
Yet Jesus said to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus was deity in bodily form. His glory on earth was veiled so we could look Him in the face, an actual bodily face. According to Dr. Michael Rydelnik, professor of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute, “We will see God in our forever future, but it will be God the Son, the Lord Jesus.”
Writing about God’s children entering His presence in eternity, Rydelnik says a better translation of Revelation 22:3-4 is this: “‘The throne of God, even the Lamb, will be in the city, and . . . They will see His face.’ It is the Lamb, the Lord Jesus, who is fully God, who will be seen.” May we eagerly anticipate and long for His appearing!
Today In the Word, “Will We See God in Heaven?”
Photo credit: Unsplash/Ahmed Hasan
Dawn Wilson has served in revival ministry and missions for more than 50 years. She and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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