A Word for Today – Panim


Human beings have always been fascinated with faces, simply because the face says a lot about an individual. We can quickly detect a person’s mood from their facial expression. Our appearance can change rapidly and radically, depending upon our circumstances at the time, and the whole of our human personality or presence is reflected in our faces. Effectively, the face is shorthand for the person themselves, and the Hebrew word for face, panim, and its New Treatment equivalent, prosopon, both convey this dual meaning of physical countenance as well as the whole person.

The word panim occurs over 2,000 times and in many contexts throughout the Old Testament. The first mention of the word is in Genesis chapter 1 verse 2, when it is twice used to refer to the face of the deep or deep water, as in Exodus chapter 15 verse 8. Scholars are divided over the interpretation of the precise activity of the Spirit of God in verse 2. Traditionally, it has been compared to the hovering or fluttering of a bird over its young, as of the eagle in Deuteronomy chapter 32 verse 11. But, as Victor Hamilton writes, ‘this interpretation may be called into question by the possibility that îr in Deut. 32. 11 does not mean “stir up,” but rather “to watch over”’1 If this is the correct interpretation then it implies that the Spirit of God is controlling the deep rather than simply hovering over it, and panim, in this immediate context, could mean ‘presence’ rather than ‘face’. Later, in Genesis chapter 4 verse 5, the dual function of panim is immediately evident when we read that, as a result of his rejection and that of his offering by God, Cain’s ‘face fell’, again implying not only a reference to his physical face, but a reflection of his emotional state as a result of rejection, cp. Jer. 30. 6, where fear changes the colour of men’s faces. The word panim can also refer by way of metonymy to the process of sudden death, as in the case of Goliath who, when struck in the forehead, fell face down on the ground, 1 Sam. 17. 49. Often, the word is connected with an attitude of prayer, as in Daniel chapter 9 verse 3 NKJV, where we read, ‘Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes’. The worship of God is also an important usage of the word, as indicated in Joshua chapter 5 verse 14, where Joshua threw himself face down to the ground prostrating himself before the captain of the Lord’s host. Similarly, we read of Balaam who, when he saw the angel of the Lord, ‘bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face’, Num. 22. 31. Occasionally, the word refers to the face of God, as in Exodus chapter 33 verse 20, which cannot simply mean some form of physical countenance since God is invisible. The use of anthropomorphic language here helps us to understand that the reference to God’s face relates to the actual presence of God with Moses. It was God Himself who would go up with Moses, Exod. 33. 14. God spoke to Moses ‘face to face’, v. 11, which is interpreted as ‘mouth to mouth’, or the ‘likeness of the Lord’ in Numbers chapter 12 verse 8; cp. Ps. 17. 15. Notice how many times the word ‘presence’ occurs in Exodus chapter 33. The very lifting of God’s face or countenance is an expression of His gracious presence, Num. 6. 25, whereas the withdrawal or hiding of His face or presence leads to judgement, Deut. 32. 20.

In the Greek theatre, the mask worn by actors, which resembled a face, was known as a prosopon, thus enabling the actor to portray some other person.

Turning, then, to the New Testament, we find that the Greek word prosopon occurs around eighty times, and is again linked to both the physical features of an individual’s countenance, as in Matthew chapter 6 verses 16 and 17 of those who show on their faces that they are fasting, and, metaphorically, of the disciples in Matthew chapter 17 verse 6, who, on hearing the voice of God at the transfiguration, ‘fell on their faces’. It is also used metaphorically of the Lord as ‘he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem’, Luke 9. 51. Here, the imagery conveys the idea of turning towards testing or judgement. The word is used literally of the natural face of Stephen, which appeared to take on the likeness of an angel when he stood before the council in Jerusalem, Acts 6. 16. Similarly, it is the natural face that is used by the writer James to illustrate the danger of simply being a hearer of God’s word and not a doer, Jas. 1. 23-25. Paul frequently uses the word prosopon, as, for example, in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 11, where he refers to many ‘faces’ as ‘persons’, making the point, again, that ‘face’ speaks of personality. But it is perhaps the reference in 2 Corinthians chapter 4 verse 6 to ‘the face of Jesus Christ’ that so captivates the heart. This was the face that was once ‘so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness’, Isa. 52. 14 NIV, yet this is the face that eclipses the sun, Acts 26. 13. What then is in this face? Paul’s immediate response would be that in this face, and none other, the effulgent glory of God resides in human form! And this glory, unlike Moses’ fading glory, 2 Cor. 3. 7, will never fade, and the light of that glory will forever shine on His people. May we, with unveiled faces, contemplate the glory of God, and continue to be transformed into His glorious likeness, 2 Cor. 3. 18. Who then is sufficient for these things?

For further reading/study


  • Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (Eds.), ‘Face, Facial Expressions’ in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, pp. 259-261.


  • Willem A. Van Gemeren (Gen Ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Volume 3, Zondervan, pp. 637-640.



The Book of Genesis – Chapters 1-17 (1990), The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pg. 115.


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