God's Glory (1): Visibility


The experience of God in the Torah and the New Testament is sometimes marked by episodes where God reveals his “glory”. I want to reflect on some examples of the manifestation of God’s glory and argue that various texts indicate that the glory of God is visible in the spatio-temporal universe. In later posts I will further argue that the glory of God is (2) a feature of God that can be communicated to created entities and (3) is in some sense identical to God himself. Lastly, I will argue that this aspect of biblical revelation poses intractable problems for any theology that denies that God and his attributes can be actually manifested in the created world and communicated to it.

Some Examples of the Divine Glory’s Visibility

The first texts come from Exodus, where the glory of God appears among the Israelites.

Exodus 16:7
“…and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, for He hears your grumblings against the LORD; and what are we, that you grumble against us?”

Moses and Aaron here speak of “the glory of the LORD” using a verb for sight or vision to describe the encounter that the Israelites will have. When the experience actually occurs, we read as follows:

Exodus 16:9-10
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, ‘Come near before the LORD, for He has heard your grumblings.'” It came about as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.

The language of spatial location (“in the cloud”) is striking. It seems that God’s glory can be seen (as Moses and Aaron predicted) precisely because it has a localized presence with properties that allow it to be apprehended through the senses. It can also be compared to physical things:

Exodus 24:16-17
The glory of the LORD rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the mountain top.

God’s glory is likened to a “consuming fire”. And, oddly, it is the *eyes* of the people that make them aware of it. Later, Moses makes the following request of God:

Exodus 33:17-34:9
The LORD said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name.” Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” Now the LORD said to Moses, “Cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered. “So be ready by morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to Me on the top of the mountain. No man is to come up with you, nor let any man be seen anywhere on the mountain; even the flocks and the herds may not graze in front of that mountain.” So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. He said, “If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession.”

Moses’ request is for a particular kind of experience–a visual experience. This is brought out by the fact that God is described as moving in a localized way across a specific stretch of space, and Moses is consigned to a vision of God’s “back”. Could the language of “back” be a clue to a metaphorical reading of the text, according to which God’s glory is a *symbol of God* but not God Himself? The language of “hand”, and “back” is interesting and peculiar, because when God manifests his presence, He doesn’t seem to have a physical body per se. Hence, it seems natural to take the language of body parts as metaphorical. Nevertheless, they are not metaphors in an ahistorical, abstract discourse. They are metaphors in a concrete historical narrative, and thus when coupled with language about God’s glory being spatially located and God being “seen” it seems best to take them not as utterly unreflective of concrete historical realities, but as indeed in a pictorial fashion describing localized and visible manifestations of God. In Isaiah we read as follows:

Isaiah 6:1-5
In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said,
“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory.”
And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said,
“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

In this theophany God is seen visibly present before the eyes of the prophet. John refers to this as a vision of the divine glory:

John 13:38-41
This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: “LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT? AND TO WHOM HAS THE ARM OF THE LORD BEEN REVEALED?” For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again,”HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM.” These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him.

God’s glory was thus described as having a particular shape in Isaiah. In Ezekial we read of a similar encounter with language that is equally emphatic about the visibility of God’s glory:

Ezekial 1: 26-28
Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I noticed from the appearance of His loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him. As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD And
when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking.

The glory of God is described in terms of “radiance”, “like fire”, and having “the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day”. All of these visible phenomena resemble the appearance of God’s glory to Ezekial. Several passages in Scripture witness to a kind of general manifestation of God’s glory that will happen in the eschaton:

Habakkuk 3:3-4
God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. The brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand, where his power lay hidden.

Revelation 21:23
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

Revelation 22:5
And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The emphasis in these verses on light, and the comparisons with the sun, definitely give the impression that God’s glory is something visible. When Christ is transfigured on Mount Tabor, the experience of the apostles is a visible one involving light and the presence of a cloud:

Matthew 17:1-8
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud over-shadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

Peter speaks of being an eyewitness to this event.

2 Peter 1:16-18
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

Christ is said to have received honor and glory from the Majestic Glory–the cloud out of which the voice of the Father issued. This cloud is what Peter identifies as the divine glory.

I conclude that the preponderance of the evidence of Scripture supports the idea that one use of the word “glory” can be a special divine manifestation that is visible to the eyes and spatio-temporally located.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: