Faces have always fascinated me. I remember watching people intently as a wide-eyed child sitting in a shopping cart in a supermarket while my mother pondered the vegetables or fruits needed for the following week. In a pre-smartphone or -tablet world I never needed any toys or other entertainment when I was able to watch people around me.
I was not alone. Scholars tell us that few visual impressions can be compared to humans’ interest in faces. In a Ph.D. dissertation defended at the University of Oslo, Norway, researcher Olga Chelnokova studied how our visual system is able to direct attention to the most important information in a face. “We are very curious about others’ faces; we read stories in them and evaluate their aesthetic value,” says Chelnokova. Looking at an attractive face triggers a physical response creating feelings of pleasure comparable to enjoying tasty food or the recognition that we just won the lottery.*
We all have struggled with our inability to see and “read” real faces in the brave new world of COVID-19 during the past 14 months. Face masks have taken center stage; emotions are difficult to communicate and to discern as eyes have become the only visible real estate in the face of a conversation partner standing six feet away from us.
We are told in Scripture that no one can see God and live (Ex. 33:20). God’s holiness and human sinfulness do not go together, for the entrance of sin changed how we are able to relate to the Creator. Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As they heard the sound of the Lord walking in the Garden of Eden, they sought to conceal themselves. The mere thought of trying to hide from the Creator God by moving behind some trees or vegetation is ludicrous and illustrates the complete loss of connection between humanity and their Creator.
But God’s love driving His longing for His creation cannot be stopped by thick brushes, seemingly impenetrable, lush forests, or even face masks. “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) rings through the ages as God knows our yearning for redemption and our hunger for love and acceptance. Where are you? is not an informational question in the Genesis narrative. It’s a vocal attempt of God to reach the lost—and reconnect them to a new reality that ultimately requires a re-creation and a new beginning.
Wholeness, well-being, and peace are the results of the divine presence in our lives.
Numbers 6:22-27 is one of the most well-known texts in the book of Numbers. It is used in synagogues and churches and is part of Christian lectionaries. It represents a liturgical and theological highlight in Israel’s formative period of camping at Sinai. The three poetic lines of increasing intensity found in verses 24-26 describe the nature of the blessings that the priests are to pronounce over Israel. It’s one way of God to reconnect to His people, who have gone astray like lost sheep:
“The Lord bless you and keep you;
“The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
“The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
Each line is governed by a divine verbal action followed by a concrete manifestation. When God blesses us, He keeps us safe. Making His face shine (or smile) upon us really promises us grace; and when He lifts up His countenance upon us, we will finally get what we so desperately yearn for: we will find shalom, “peace.”
In the Old Testament, causing one’s face to shine upon someone expresses favor, pleasure, and benevolence (cf. Ps. 67:1; 119:132). Lifting up one’s countenance (or, literally, face) describes the concrete action of turning and looking toward someone or something (as in 2 Kings 9:32). Figuratively it can communicate acceptance and favor (Job 11:15; 22:26). When God looks at His children, they will finally find peace. In the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:22-27 this final phrase of the blessing indicates the point of arrival. Wholeness, well-being, and peace are the results of the divine presence in our lives. We are finally close enough to rest in His shalom—in spite of our continuing struggles and challenges. We can rest in Him because He smiles on us, not because of a quality we have brought to the table, but rather because we have finally also turned ourselves to Him, savoring the kindness and love we can read in His face.
Verse 27 concludes this section by telling us that every time a priest pronounces this blessing, God’s name is put figuratively on those receiving the blessing. Putting one’s name on someone or something suggests ownership. We finally belong.
Many of the famous medieval paintings found in awe-inspiring cathedrals in Europe depicting God and His works in Scripture show us a God who often scowls, glares, or frowns. Granted, what He sees in our lives is often disappointing and inadequate. But this is not the picture of the Word who became flesh to seek and save the lost.
When Philip asked Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us” (John 14:8), the answer he received was instructive not only for the disciples listening to the Master, for it also points us in the right direction. “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip?” Jesus says. “So how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (verse 9).
Can we see the face of the Father in Jesus? Do we recognize God’s merciful and just character described in Exodus 34:6, 7 when we see Jesus healing lepers, raising the son of widow, playing with children or engaging kindly with His audience—even when they seek to trip and trap Him? Do we see God when we remember Jesus hanging on the cross to suffer the agony of the second death so that we can live forever with Him?
I enjoy looking at the smiling faces of people who love me and care for me, for they offer me a tiny reflection of the God who makes His face shine upon me and lifts up His countenance upon me and promises me His shalom. So, bask in His goodness and kindness and peace; and whatever you do, don’t look away.
* University of Oslo, “Why We Look at Pretty Faces,” Science Daily. Nov. 10, 2015, online at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151110102344.htm.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist Review.