Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
IN its primary signification the Hebrew ‘abar, "to pass," refers to the motion of a body in space, and is chiefly applied to living creatures moving at some distance in a straight line, e.g., "And He passed over (‘abar) before them" (Gen. xxxiii. 3); "Pass (‘abor) before the people" (Exod. xvii. 5). Instances of this kind are numerous. The verb was next applied to the passage of sound through air, as "And they caused a sound to pass (va-ya‘abiru) through out the camp" (Exod. xxxvi. 6); "That I hear the Lord's people spreading the report" (ma‘abirim) (1 Sam. ii. 24).
Figuratively it denoted the appearance of the Light and the Divine Presence (Shechinah) which the prophets perceived in their prophetic visions, as it is said, "And behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed (‘abar) between those pieces" (Gen. xv. 17). This took place in a prophetic vision, for the narrative commences, "And a deep sleep fell upon Abram." The verb has this latter meaning in Exodus xii. 12, "And I shall pass (ve-‘abarti) through the land of Egypt" (denoting "I shall reveal myself," etc.), and in all similar phrases.
The verb is next employed to express that a person has gone too far, and transgressed the usual limit, in the performance of some act, as "And as a man who is drinking wine has passed (‘abarv) the proper limit" (Jer. xxiii. 9).
It is also used figuratively to denote: to abandon one aim, and turn to a different aim and object, e.g., "He shot an arrow, causing it to miss the aim (leha‘abiro)" (1 Sam. xx. 36). This is the sense, it appears to me, of this verb in "And the Lord passed by (va-ya‘abor) before his face" (Exod. xxxiv. 6). I take "his face" to mean "the face of God"; our Teachers likewise interpreted "his face" as being identical with "the face of God." And, although this is found in the midst of Agadic interpretations which would be out of place in this our work, yet it is some support of our view, that the pronoun "his" is employed in this passage as a substitute for "God's"--and the whole passage could in my opinion be explained as follows: Moses sought to attain to a certain perception which is called "the perception of the Divine face," a term occurring in the phrase "My face cannot be seen"; but God vouchsafed to him a perception of a lower degree, viz., the one called, "the seeing of the back," in the words, "And thou shalt see my back" (Exod. xxxiii. 23). We have mentioned this subject in our work Mishneh Torah. Accordingly, it is stated in the above-mentioned passage that the Lord withheld from Moses that perception which is termed "the seeing of the Divine face," and substituted for it another gift, viz., the knowledge of the acts attributed to God, which, as I shall explain (chap. liv.) are considered to be different and separate attributes of the Supreme. In asserting that God withheld from Moses (the higher knowledge) I mean to say that this knowledge was unattainable, that by its nature it was inaccessible to Moses; for man, whilst able to gain perfection by applying his reasoning faculties to the attainment of what is within the reach of his intellect, either weakens his reason or loses
it altogether as soon as he ventures to seek a higher degree of knowledge--as I shall elucidate in one of the chapters of this work--unless he be granted a special aid from heaven, as is described in the words, "And I will cover thee with my hand until I pass by" (Exod. xxxiii. 23)
Onkelos, in translating this verse, adopts the same method which he applies to the explanation of similar passages, viz., every expression implying corporeality or corporal properties, when referring to God, he explains by assuming an ellipsis of a nomen regens before "God," thus connecting the expression (of corporeality) with another word which is supplied, and which governs the genitive "God": e.g., "And behold the Lord stood upon it" (Gen. xxviii. 13), he explains, "The glory of the Lord stood arrayed above it." Again, "The Lord watch between me and thee" (Gen. xxxi. 49), he paraphrases, "The word of the Lord shall watch." This is his ordinary method in explaining Scripture. He applies it also to Exod. xxxiv. 6, which he paraphrases, "The Lord caused his Presence to pass before his face and called." According to this rendering the thing which passed was unquestionably some physical object, the pronoun "his" refers to Moses, and the phrase ‘al panav is identical with lefanav, "before him." Comp. "So went the present over before him" (‘al panav) (Gen. xxxii. 22). This is likewise an appropriate and satisfactory explanation: and I can adduce still further support for the opinion of Onkelos from the words "while my glory passeth by" (ba-‘abor) (Exod. xxxiii. 22), which expressly state that the passing object was something ascribed to God, not God Himself: and of this Divine glory it is also said, "until I pass by," and "And the Lord passed by before him."
Should it, however, be considered necessary to assume here an ellipsis, according to the method of Onkelos, who supplies in some instances the term "the Glory," in others "the Word," and in others "the Divine Presence," as the context may require in each particular case, we may also supply here the word "voice," and explain the passage, "And a voice from the Lord passed before him and called." We have already shown that the verb ‘abar, "he passed," can be applied to the voice, as in "And they caused a voice to pass through the camp" (Exod. xxxvi. 6). According to this explanation, it was the voice which called. No objection can be raised to applying the verb kara (he called) to kol (voice), for a similar phrase occurs in the Bible in reference to God's commands to Moses, "He heard the voice speaking unto him"; and, in the same manner as it can be said "the voice spoke," we may also say "the voice called"; indeed, we can even support this application of the verbs "to say, "and "to call," to "the voice," by parallel passages, as "A voice saith 'Cry,' and it says 'What shall I cry?'" (Isa. xl. 6). According to this view, the meaning of the passage under discussion would be: "A voice of God passed before him and called, 'Eternal, Eternal, All-powerful, All-merciful, and All-gracious!'" (The word Eternal is repeated; it is in the vocative, for the Eternal is the one who is called. Comp. Moses, Moses! Abraham, Abraham!) This, again, is a very appropriate explanation of the text.
You will surely not find it strange that this subject, so profound and difficult, should bear various interpretations; for it will not impair the force of the argument with which we are here concerned. Either explanation may be adopted: you may take that grand scene altogether as a prophetic vision,
and the whole occurrence as a mental operation, and consider that what Moses sought, what was withheld from him, and what he attained, were things perceived by the intellect without the use of the senses (as we have explained above): or you may assume that in addition there was a certain ocular perception of a material object, the sight of which would assist intellectual perception. The latter is the view of Onkelos, unless he assumes that in this instance the ocular perception was likewise a prophetic vision, as was the case with "a smoking furnace and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces" (Gen. xv. 17), mentioned in the history of Abraham. You may also assume that in addition there was a perception of sound, and that there was a voice which passed before him, and was undoubtedly something material. You may choose either of these opinions, for our sole intention and purpose is to guard you against the belief that the phrase "and the Lord passed," is analogous to "pass before the people" (Exod. xvii. 5), for God, being incorporeal, cannot be said to move, and consequently the verb "to pass" cannot with propriety be applied to Him in its primary signification.