Does the Bible contradict itself about whether God can be seen or not?
Some who say that the Bible has contradictions try to point to alleged discrepancies in the Bible about whether God can be seen or not. While some verses in the Bible are unequivocal about the fact that no human has seen God (apart from Jesus - John 6:46, 1 Timothy 6:16, 1 John 4:12), other verses describe various appearances of God to people in the Old Testament such as Abraham (Genesis 18:1), Jacob (Genesis 35:9), and Moses (Exodus 33:11). So which is it, and is there a contradiction?
We can definitively answer the above question that these aren't any contradictions in the Bible. We can point out that the language and theological statements of the Bible and other such reasons account for these alleged discrepancies about whether God can be seen or not. God, in his essence, and His Person, has not been seen by anyone except Jesus Christ as the Bible informs us. Therefore, we have to see what is meant by verses that describe meetings between God and people or appearances to them. To do this more clearly, we're going to assign certain categories for various verses that talk about people having seen God:
A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal - This category assigns biblical verses that are clearly not being literal and are either being metaphorical, symbolic, or poetic in some way, unlike the plain statements of verses like John 6:46 and 1 Timothy 6:16 which state that no one has seen God. Visions and dreams are not seeing God Himself in his essence. Similarly, in Genesis 35:7 we are told that God revealed Himself to Jacob (in Bethel). But when we see the story alluded to there in Genesis 29:10-22, we see that God revealed Himself to Jacob through a dream! - Genesis 28:11-12.
B. It is not God who has been seen - This category fits for verses that describe angels and other similarities that are very often in the Hebrew Bible directly expressed as "someone having seen 'God'", when in fact they've seen "an angel who represents God". For example, while Genesis 32:28,30 say that Jacob wrestled with God and saw God face to face (the meaning of Penuel/Peniel), Hosea 12:4 depicts Jacob as having wrestled with an angel. We see the same in Exodus 3:2 which says that an angel of God appeared to Moses from the burning bush, and in Exodus 3:4 the burning bush is described as God calling from it to Moses, not an angel: technically there was an angel, but the Hebrew is using an expression to depict that ultimately it was God who spoke to Moses and not the angel of his own will.
C. God Himself is not seen, but a manifestation of Him - To this category belong various verses that are obviously not an angel such as when Moses sees the back of God (Exodus 33:20-23), and so on.
Besides assigning to each verse one of the above categories, each verse will be looked at in detail and explained why each designation is legitimate.
Genesis 12:7 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: God appears with messages like this to Abraham and the other Patriarchs until Moses through dreams, visions, or angels (Gen. 15:1, 12; 20:6). From Genesis 15:1, 12 we can clearly see that the appearance of God here to Abraham is either a dream or a vision and not a direct visitation by God Himself.
Genesis 17:1 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Just like in Genesis 12:7 above, here again we have the language simply omit the fact that God appeared to Abraham by a vision, and this is all that the text means given Genesis 15:1, 12; 20:6. Here it is a vision since Abraham falls facedown (Genesis 17:3).
Genesis 18:1 - B. It is not God who has been seen: While the other two persons in Genesis 18 are most probably angels, the person with whom Abraham converses may be a representation of God, a theophany, or it may be another angel. I think it is best to think of all three as angels, however, because if Moses was not allowed to see the face of God without dying (Exodus 33:20,23) and if God scared the Israelites so as to keep them from sinning (Exodus 20:19), then we can be sure that if Abraham thought he might be conversing with God (which would be a representation of Him, category C), he would have been at least a little worried about dying. Perhaps not, and Abraham may not have known to be afraid of seeing God the way the Israelites in Moses' time were (and for good reason - not to sin), but either way, we don't have a contradiction here.
Genesis 26:2 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Again, we see from Genesis 15:1, 12; 20:6 that God appears in visions or dreams, which do not constitute seeing God in the sense of seeing God Himself the way 1 Timothy 6:16 or John 6:46 have in mind. The appearance to God here to Isaac is most likely a vision or dream, and Isaac did not see God Himself who lives in Heaven.
Genesis 26:24 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: The fact that God's appearance to Isaac here is specified as having happened at night strongly suggests a dream.
Genesis 32:28,30,31 - B. It is not God who has been seen: The Hebrews ascribed an action's ultimate end sometimes, instead of the intermediary events. The relevance here is that when God speaks through an angel, sometimes the Hebrew text designates the angel as speaking, and sometimes it goes and ascribes the talking to God Himself. Ultimately, God spoke the words, but through an angel. As Hosea 12:4 notes, Jacob technically wrestled an angel.
Genesis 35:7 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: If we see the story alluded to by this verse in Genesis 28:10-22, God revealed Himself to Jacob in a dream - Genesis 28:11-12.
Genesis 35:9-15 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: We can be sure that God talked to Jacob here, just like in Genesis 28:10-22 through a dream or vision. Just because verse 14-15 say "this was the place God talked with him", does not mean this wasn't a dream or vision.
Genesis 48:3-4 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: The story referred to here is Genesis 35:9-15. There, just like in Genesis 28:10-22, God most likely appeared to Jacob in a dream or vision similarly to Genesis 15:1,12; 20:6.
Exodus 3:4 - B. It is not God who has been seen: As Exodus 3:2 notes, an angel spoke to Moses, and the description of God speaking to Moses is an expression in that the angel spoke for God and God was ultimately speaking to Moses.
Exodus 3:16 - B. It is not God who has been seen: This is the same answer as the above for Exodus 3:4 - it was an angel speaking to Moses (Exodus 3:2) for God.
Exodus 4:5 - B. It is not God who has been seen: This is part of the same conversation still going on from Exodus 3:2, thus this is the same answer as the above for Exodus 3:4 and 3:16 - it was an angel speaking to Moses (Exodus 3:2) for God.
Exodus 6:3 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: The appearances to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were undoubtedly in dreams and visions (Genesis 15:1, 12, 20:6, 28:10-11). Although some appearance we designate as angels/theophanies (such as Genesis 18:1ff.), and some appearances may have been through angels just like the one to Moses in Exodus 3:2ff., in Exodus 6:3 God refers to primarily the visions and dreams similar to Gen. 15:1,12, 20:6 and so on. So while category B and C may or may not also apply here, we don't have any statement that God Himself in His essence appeared to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.
Exodus 24:9-11 - C. God Himself is not seen, but a manifestation of Him: They all saw a representation of God, and not God Himself in His essence as He resides in Heaven. This I find is the best interpretation of these verses because God simply appeared to them in a glorious form, but a form that only reflects His image, especially the way He wanted Moses, Aaron, Aaron's two sons, and the elders to see Him. I think this imagery, which was divinely crafted for them to see was just that: a physical manifestation, but not of God Himself, but of a representation that they could understand. This is also supported by the floor on which God stands as being of lapis lazuli (Ex. 24:10) which was the highest prized precious stone in the ancient world. Certainly Heaven is not literally made of lapis lazuli and this is not what the verses want to say.
Exodus 33:11 - C. God Himself is not seen, but a manifestation of Him: We can be sure that God manifested Himself in some way to Moses, but Moses did not see God in His essence. This is supported by the fact that a few verses down in Exodus 33:20,23 God tells Moses that His face can't be seen, not even by Moses. Thus, God speaking with Moses face to face in Exodus 33:11 here is most certainly an expression for God's manifestation to Moses with the pillar of cloud (Ex. 33:10).
Exodus 33:14-15 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: God's Presence here indicates that God will not abandon Israel. Possibly it may mean also the theophany that reflects God in Ex. 33:18-23 will not have God's power leave Israel.
Exodus 33:18-23 - C. God Himself is not seen, but a manifestation of Him: These verses depict God as showing His back to Moses (but not His face). But it's clear that this is simply a theophany and a physical manifestation of a metaphorical reflection of God's image to Moses for symbolic purposes. Two factors support this. First, God and Moses describe His Glory/goodness passing (Ex. 33:18,19,22). While this may be a metaphor or ancient Semitic expressive language for the fact that God is good and so God passing is also "glory/goodness" passing, but if one can have a metaphor like that, certainly one can have a metaphor for God's image here and not that Moses actually saw God but only His glory (which he physically did see). Certainly the Hebrews already had the conception of God as bigger than a cliff for Him to have control over all Egypt and do the 10 plagues that He did, so hardly would this be actually describing the actual essence of God. Secondly, Paul also interprets these passages in a metaphorical way - 2 Cor. 3:7-18. Overall, we do not have God actually having been seen here.
Numbers 14:14 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal and C. God Himself is not seen, but a manifestation of Him: God having been seen face to face is an expression because God is represented by a pillar of cloud. Also, the pillar of cloud is not God in His essence, but a representation of Him.
Deuteronomy 5:4 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal and C. God Himself is not seen, but a manifestation of Him: Just like the explanation for Numbers 14:14 above, God here did not literally speak face to face with Moses since He spoke to Him out of fire. Thus this is an expression by the Hebrew author, and the fire is not God actually (nor was He in it - very possibly an angel like in the burning bush: Ex. 3:2), but the fire was a representation of Him. Perhaps Category B might also apply here if an angel spoke to Moses from the fire on the mountain, since like Exodus 3:2 vs 3:4, the Hebrew expression of "God spoke with..." could be an angel speaking for God.
Deuteronomy 34:10 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal and C. God Himself is not seen, but a manifestation of Him: The times where God appeared "face to face" to Moses are explained as an expression in the above situations: Exodus 33:11, 14-15, 18-23, Numbers 14:14, Deuteronomy 5:4. "Face to face" was an expression that denoted the personal nature of the communication between Moses and God that existed. This is shown by the fact that although in Exodus 33:11 it says Moses and God spoke "face to face", a few verses down from there in Exodus 3:18-23, God says Moses can't see His face. Thus, God speaking to Moses face to face is clearly an expression.
Judges 13:22 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal and B. It is not God who has been seen: It's clear from Judges 13:3, 6, 9, 13, 15-17 that it was an angel who spoke to Manoah and his wife and Manoah eventually realized that this was an angel (and not God Himself) who was there (Judges 13:21). His statement that he and his wife had seen God is just an expression of the kind that Category B talks about above - Manoah knew it was an angel seeing Judges 13:21, and his wife did not dispute his assertion by saying it was an angel they'd seen and not God because she knew he wasn't being literal, even though she also suspected an angel (Judges 13:6, 21 - if Manoah figured out it was an angel, so would have his wife). Thus, Judges 13:22 does not record anyone seeing God but an angel.
1 Kings 22:19 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Micaiah had a vision through which the prophecy came here or simply had a prophecy where he is describing having "seen" God in the sense that Micaiah's prophecy announces Ahab's loss so he is being figurative about his prophecy - 1 Kings 22:7-8,18. I think the second suggestion is better.
Job 42:5 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Job had only heard of God, but now he has also conversed with God. Thus Job is being expressive in his language to say that "his eyes have seen God". Very possibly, God also "appeared" in some way such as speaking from the sky, or perhaps an angel speaking to Job for God, though that I find unlikely. Either way, Job did not see God in His essence.
Psalm 63:2 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: The author of Psalm 63, David, is being metaphorical in that he is near to God - see Psalm 63:6-8, etc.
Isaiah 6:1,5 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Here Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision or prophecy - Isaiah 1:1, 21:2, etc. Very possibly, though not very likely, Isaiah saw a theophany of God, which is not God's essence but merely a representation manifested on Earth God decided to show to Isaiah.
Ezekiel 1:26-28 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Ezekiel here had visions - Ezekiel 1:1. These do not have God having been "seen" the way Christ would have prior to His Incarnation.
Ezekiel 20:35 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: This verse is metaphorical in its depiction of God speaking "face to face" with the Israelites. It simply means that God's wrath is so much that He "Himself" will execute judgment against the Israelites "face to face".
2 Chronicles 1:7 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: God appeared to Solomon here in a dream, hence the note that God appeared to Solomon at night.
Amos 7:7, 9:1 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Amos here describes a vision he had of a prophecy from God (Amos 1:1, 7:12-13,15), and so he did not see God Himself.
Habakkuk 3:3-6 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: Habakkuk is being figurative here. For example, in Habakkuk 3:9 he describes God as having "uncovered His bow" and calling for many arrows. This is clearly figurative language and so is Habakkuk 3:3-6 (e.g. Habakkuk 3:10, right after the metaphorical phrasing in 3:9 says, "The mountains saw you and writed..."; surely mountains don't see and surely they did not see God!).
Matthew 18:10 - This one doesn't even fit a category at all! It is the angels in heaven who see God, not the little children!
John 1:18 - Here we don't have a category since the New Testament verses such as 1 Timothy 6:16 and John 6:46 say that no one has seen God, but Jesus is an exception. This is simply grammar: in Romans 3:23 Paul says all have fallen short of the glory of God, but clearly Jesus Christ is not included in that category! - Romans 3:24-25.
John 14:7 - A. The language is metaphorical/non-literal: As the request by Philip and Jesus' subsequent answer in John 14:8-11 show that Jesus is speaking metaphorically of believers (such as the Twelve here in John 14) "seeing" God in that they are in communion with God.