The Hebrew word פָנִים (pānîm), or face, has many usages that are immediately familiar to English-speakers. This word can indicate the part of something facing the observer: the face of the temple, the face of the earth, the face of the deep. It can also have an anatomical meaning for both humans and animals. And it occurs in several idioms that express emotion, for example, “Cain became very angry, and his face was downcast” (Gen. 4:5) and “Hannah’s face was no longer the same” (1 Sam. 1:18).
The face is the part of the body, and thus of the person, that is most capable of expressing emotion, and so it becomes a symbol for interpersonal relationships and the way we respond to other human beings. To have a downcast face—from anger, sorrow, or shame—is to break the bond established through the eyes, to cut oneself off from the other. On the other hand, to turn one’s face upward, as in prayer, is to seek contact, to seek relationship (Ez. 9:6). After Eli consoles Hannah, asking that God will grant her prayer for a son, her face is “no longer downcast,” and, having committed her cause to God, she is restored to peace and ease within her community.
Furthermore, the face, the seat of emotion, can come to represent the whole person by means of synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole. Because of this emphasis on personhood, the face can also bear with it the ideas of real personal presence, relationship, and meeting.
So much for the human, but what of the divine? Of the four hundred times that פָנִים is used as a noun in the Old Testament, over a quarter of those speak of the face of God, who cannot properly be said to have a face at all. Astonishingly, the usage and meaning of the word פָנִים remains much the same for God as it is for humans. In other words, it symbolizes real personal presence, relationship, and meeting. Thus Moses is set apart from all the other prophets, because he is said to have met God פָנִים אֶל־פָנִ֔ים, face to face.
The expression “make one’s face shine” appears eight times with Yahweh as the subject, and the light of Yahweh’s face is an “all-encompassing sign of God’s favor, a gracious presence of God in the human world.” Those who receive wisdom from God have likewise this shining face, for they reflect God’s presence in a physical way (Ex. 34:29–30; Ecc. 8:1; Ps. 34:5). The presence of God is a gift, and it changes people.
Therefore, in the Aaronic blessing—which is used often in our Anglican liturgy, and often in many others, I’m sure—God’s face shining on his people represents the bestowing of his favor, yes, but also his presence, his real, personal presence:
The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace. (Num. 6:24–26)
Or rather, perhaps the blessing of God, the favor of God, is his real, personal presence.
“O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, into your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
– The Book of Common Prayer, 1978
Prepared for Biblical Hebrew at Calvin Theological Seminary. Information about the OT significance of the word פָנִים was found in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 11, s.v. “pānîm.” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.