Moses understood the importance of having God there, in his life, all the time. This God wasn’t just some abstract idea that could be worshipped at his convenience through some sort of idol. This God was a real being with a presence that Moses wanted to know better:
Exodus 33:12-13 … You have told me, ‘I know you by name, and I look favorably on you.’ If it is true that you look favorably on me, let me know your ways so I may understand you more fully and continue to enjoy your favor. And remember that this nation is your very own people.
After some discussion, Moses asked God to show him His glorious presence. God’s reply? Yes, just because He could:
Exodus 33:19-23 I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.
But there were limits, and Moses wasn’t allowed to get too close — euphemistically called seeing God’s face—because …
Exodus 33:20 … no one may see me and live
So the compromise was for God’s glorious presence to pass by, while Moses hid in a crevice. Moses got to see God’s back.
It’s still a big deal, consider how Ezekiel described God and His glory:
Ezekiel 1:27–28 From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. This is what the glory of the Lord looked like to me.
Even a small portion of that glory would be astounding, even if it were after God had passed by. No wonder Moses was satisfied.
So why can’t we see God’s face and live? We can and we have: it’s Jesus.