Steve Wells over at the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible has noted a few times that there is a contradiction about whether one may see the face of God and live. There is a summary table of the contradiction here.

The argument essentially runs that verses like Exodus 33:20 explicitly state that no one may see God and live (in that passage, God gets around the issue by only showing Moses his “back parts” in Exod. 33:23), yet we find plenty examples of people doing just that, such as in Judges 13 where Manoah freaks out that he’s seen God, certain that he will now die.

In Numbers 8, we were told that the barrier of consecrated Levites is necessary to protect the people from the raw power of God (Num. 8:19). At the time, I explained that this imagines a holiness that does not mean, as we tend to think of it today, “goodness,” but simply a pure, uncontrollable power. I compared it to the ark in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark – once opened, it would unleash a power that would kill, indiscriminatingly, anyone who laid eyes on it. Indiana Jones is not preserved by virtue of being the Good Guy, but rather because he understood the power of the ark and looked away from it.

I also compared the tabernacle to a modern day nuclear power station:

Only consecrated people may approach (people who have the right training and are wearing the right protection). If a lay person were just to walk in and start fiddling with stuff, they’d probably die – or at least get very sick.

I also noted at the time that this notion of power seems to strip God of agency. He is power personified, and contact with humans without proper protection and ritual would kill them, whether he wanted them to die or not.

But as we see here and elsewhere, that’s not necessarily true. It’s clear that God is capable of appearing directly to people, such as Manoah and his wife, albeit the phrasing includes the possibility that he is speaking through some special vessel, the “angel of the Lord.”

I agree with Wells that there is a contradiction here, one that requires explanation, but I don’t think that it is what he points out. Rather, the contradiction is in the nature of God’s power, and in his power to control it.