In Exod. 33:20, the LORD famously tells Moses, "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." Moses then is allowed to see God's backside (v. 23). One might compare Exod. 3:6 where Moses is afraid to look at God.
Recently I was asked if I would write up a little piece on seeing God in late antique Judaism. It is quite a broad topic, and, of course, should I take up the task I will be looking at some of the Hekhalot texts. But my mind also began buzzing about something else--I wonder how Rabbinic literature, particularly the Targumim and the Midrashim, handle these passages of seeing God and living or not living. That is, even though we have this passage of God telling Moses no one can see the LORD's face and live (although perhaps God's backside), there are plenty of passages where people do see God's face and live--even Moses himself.
God says he speaks to Moses face-to-face in Num. 12:8 (as opposed to everyone else to whom he speaks in dreams and through indirect means). Perhaps most famously, Jacob remarks after he wrestles with the mysterious "man," "For I have seen god face to face, and yet my life is preserved" (Gen. 32:30). Gideon is amazed that he continues to live after seeing the (Angel of the) LORD in Judges 6:22-23. These passages are aware of the rarity of being able to see God; they are both aware that one should die from seeing God; and in both cases they live.
These are all individual visions of God, but there is a collective vision in Exod. 24:11: "And he [the God of Israel] did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and at and drank." As one might suspect, much of this has been explained through source criticism (that is, the differences between LORD and Angel of the LORD, and especially the use of God versus LORD in this verse). Nonetheless, even this source, which does not mention death to those who see God in a pronounced way denotes the danger and exceptionality of the collective vision, since it notes that God did not lay his hand on them--God restrained the typical consequence of death.
Deuteronomy changes much of the language to speaking and hearing: "Did any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live?" (Deut. 4:33). Nonetheless, some visual language sneaks in: "The LORD spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire, while I stood between the LORD and you at the time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up into the mountain" (Deut. 5:4-5). This is an interesting passage because it seems at odds with itself. Part of what marked the Israelites as special in Deuteronomy 4 was that they HEARD God and still lived. Deuteronomy 5 takes us a step closer and then two steps back. They not only heard God and lived, but God spoke with them "face to face" as God speaks to Moses in Numbers 12. And just at the moment of potentially seeing God and living, the Deuteronomist moves away from these implications: they did not quite see God (or perhaps fully hear God), since Moses stood between them and the LORD, because they were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.
I want to end this posting with a meditation on two more passages of seeing God and living. When I first started thinking about this project, I immediately had thought not of Moses, but of Hagar. I thought she might be an interesting figure to track down the history of interpretation, since she is one of the few women who sees the (Angel of the) LORD and lives and one of the few (perhaps the only?) foreigner who does (she's Egyptian). How do later interpreters handle her vision? Genesis 16 is a fascinating passage. I often assign it to students to do an in-depth literary analysis on it. She is fleeing Sarai and is in the wilderness where the Angel of the LORD appears to her. For my current purposes, the ensuing conversation is less important, but it ends as follows: "So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, "Thou art a God of seeing"; for she said, "Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered" (Gen. 16:13-14). This passage has a few quite unique features. Firstly, Hagar names the LORD, "God of seeing." One might compare other passages, such as Moses (Exod. 3) or Jacob (Gen. 32) in which they request the name of the LORD, whereas Hagar names. Secondly, while other passages state or exclaim that one has seen (or heard) God and lived, here Hagar (perhaps...) questions this. Different translators have either placed this sentence in the indicative or the interrogative, and I would like to look at it more carefully to consider this (and perhaps this is something that might come up in Rabbinic interpretation of the verse). It is clearly a marked passage. Not only do we have the exceptional vision of the LORD or Angel of the LORD remarked upon (of course, the LORD/Angel of the LORD appears multiple other places, especially in Genesis, without comment of living/dying, such as with Abraham), but we have a foreign woman who sees and lives and questions this fact.
The most remarkable passage, in my opinion, however, of seeing the LORD and living has to be in Judges 13 when Manoah and his wife (otherwise known as Samson's parents) see and live. I had previously thought that Hagar was the only woman in the Hebrew Bible who sees God and lives (or at least remarks on the case of seeing God and living), but I was wrong. Manoah's wife--never named--does as well. She is the lead seer in this passage, and she takes charge. There are some similarities, I think, between this story and the Jesus birth story--both have an Angel of the LORD, both have the angel appear to both husband and wife, wife first, and both about the birth of a special child. It is a very extensive vision with several important elements. For this reason, I think it deserves a post of its own. So, be on the lookout for Manoah and his wife seeing the LORD and living.