James Wood on the Books of Moses


In the beginning was not the word, or the deed, but the face. ‘Darkness was upon the face of the deep,’ runs the King James Version in the second verse of the opening of Genesis. ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ Two uses of ‘face’ in one verse, and a third implied face, surely: God’s own, hovering over the face of his still uncreated world. The Almighty, looking into the face of his waters, might well be expected to see his face reflected: it is profoundly his world, still uncontaminated by rebellious man.

The committees of translators appointed by James I knew what they were doing. The face of God and the face of the world (or of mankind) will become a running entanglement throughout the five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Man will fear to look upon God’s face, and God will frequently abhor the deeds of the people who live on the face of his world. Once Cain has killed Abel, and has been banished by God, he cries out: ‘Behold thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid.’ When the Almighty decides to flood his world, he pledges to destroy every living thing ‘from off the face of the earth’. After wrestling with a divine stranger all night, Jacob ‘called the name of the place Peniel: For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’

more at the LRB here.