Sunday, October 12, 2014

Wandering Thoughts on the Face of God

The Exodus text for Proper 24A/Ordinary 29A/Pentecost+19A  (Exodus 33:12-23) is a visually rich text that is hard to capture. There is plenty to be seen in the story. The trick is figuring how to show it well. The artist might choose to show a man (Moses) hiding in a crevice of a rock. Showing a man being hidden by a giant hand seems more B movie than scripture. And the point of God's glory is that no one could see it and live, so trying to depict something of that scope with the limitations of paint or pencil or photography will probably yield results that are...anticlimactic.

Instead of the sweeping epic vista, then, we offer a few thoughts.

Instead of seeing the face (panim..a plural...faces!) of God, which cannot be seen, God tells Moses that he may see God's back after God's glory has passed by Moses (sheltered in the rock and behind God's hand). That is the normal order of things, but it is infrequent that the backside of God is mentioned in scripture or art. The most famous, perhaps, is one of the two images of God painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling's panel "The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies".
Michelangelo. Creating the Heavenly Bodies. 1508-1512. Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

In that panel, God pictured on the right hurls the sun with his right hand and the moon with his left. Then, at the left, a second depiction of God gestures with the right hand to bring forth vegetation on the earth. Unusually, this second depiction on the left, shows not God's face as it is the other times God is painted. Rather here, what we see is God's backside. 

To be sure, Michelangelo's God, painted as Humanism takes Renaissance Italy by storm, has little to none of the glory that we might imagine from the Exodus account. In the Sistine Chapel, God is often seen floating on a cloud with an entourage of beings and a generous length of flowing garment, but this hardly seems to be so awe-full that no one could live who saw it.

Just as "face" is a plural", so, too, the Hebrew word translated "back" in the NRSV (achowr, plural of achoray) is also plural. In Exodus 33:23 tthe KJV translates the word "my back parts", retaining the plural sense. Jerome's Latin Vulgate uses the phrase "posteriora mea". The English form of this word, like its Italian cognate, posteriore, can mean a body part. Perhaps that is how it traveled to Michelangelo and was then put into the fresh plaster of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

There is a place in scripture, associated with Moses and the Exodus, where the face of God is not hidden. In the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26, the blessing is offered that the Lord's face will "shine upon you and be gracious to you" and that the Lord's countenance will "give you peace". Note, however, that there is no indication that the people should look at God's face while it is shining upon us or giving us peace.

A rabbi giving this blessing uses a certain gesture to accompany the blessing. Both hands are open, thumbs are touching, with forefingers almost forming a triangle. On each hand, the four fingers are separated into two groups of two fingers. When you see two hands (called Cohanic hands, spellings vary) on a Jewish gravestone you know it is the grave of someone who traces their descent from the priestly (cohen) tribe.

For thoughts on the gospel passage for this week (Matthew 22:15-22), click here.

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