There is a meaningful interval in the Biblical calendar: from Shavuot and the presentation of the first-fruits on the 6th of Sivan, till the blowing of shofar on the 1st of Tishrei, there are almost four months – and right now we are in this interval. Therefore, I can allow myself to remind you all about the beauty of Hebrew and to write some posts with some Hebrew insights – showing my readers the precious things that are not seen in the Bible unless one reads it in Hebrew (or, at least with Hebrew). Next time, we will dig together into Joseph’s saga, but today’s article will be discovering these hidden treasures in the story of Jacob. While comparing Jacob’s journey out of the Land of Israel with his entry back into the Land 20 years later, we will discover some amazing details – and even more amazing spiritual truths that these details point to.
Domestic and International… Angels
“Jacob’s Ladder” in Genesis 28 is one of the most famous human encounters with God in the Bible. Jacob was fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau and was on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran. He stopped at a certain place to rest for the night. “Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” Have you ever wondered why the angels, the denizens of heaven, first ascend, and only then descend?
There have been many interpretations of this dream in Jewish tradition. For instance, in Midrash Tanhuma the ladder is taken to imply the ladder of history. The ascent of one nation on it implies the descent of its predecessor. The ladder is not an endless one, but the Lord stands at its top, as the Master of history, assuring us that pride and despotism will be brought low, until His sovereignty alone is recognized.
Interesting interpretations are based on Gematria, a Jewish interpretive method that assigns a numerical value to a Hebrew name or word based on the numerical values of its letters. The numerical value of the word Sulam (ladder in Hebrew) is 130: סֻלָּם: (samekh-lamed-mem=60+30+40). 130 is also the value of the word Sinai: סיני (samech-yod-nun-yod = 60-10-50-10). Thus, according to Gematria, Jacob’s ladder symbolizes the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
The famous Jewish medieval commentator Rashi has yet another approach to this text. He sticks to its plain sense. The subject of the narrative is Jacob the Patriarch, fleeing from his brother to Padan-Aram. Concerning these two groups of angels, ascending and then descending the ladder (Olim VeYordim), Rashi explains: The angels that accompanied Jacob in the Holy Land do not go outside. They therefore ascended to Heaven. When Jacob was outside of the Land, he needed different guardians from those that protected him in his own birthplace. Therefore, another group of angels descended to accompany him outside of the Land.
It’s interesting that when Jacob returns to the Land, we hear, once again, about two groups of angels. In Genesis 32, when Jacob is on his way to the Land after 20 years of exile, something remarkable happens to him again: “the angels of God met him”. This account is very short, especially if we compare it with the dream in chapter 28. However, there is an intriguing detail here that can be seen only in Hebrew. “When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is God’s camp”, so he named that place Mahanayim”. But the Hebrew word for “camp” is “mahane”, and “Mahanayim” is a dual construction of this word! In Hebrew it is clear that Jacob called this place, “Two camps”! This means that the brief account of chapter 32 fits perfectly with Rashi’s approach: probably, Jacob indeed saw two camps: one of the angels outside the Land, who came with him up to there, and one of the angels of Israel, who came to greet him and to guard him inside the Land.
As Jacob prepares to meet Esau, he encounters God! A mysterious man (ish) wrestles with him throughout the night—and Jacob becomes Israel. Then we read: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel.” Why does the Torah find it necessary to inform us about the rising sun?
The Peniel encounter happens during Jacob’s last night outside the Land. If we recall Jacob’s encounter with God during his last night in the Land, we will arrive at the same ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ dream that we just spoke about. Before this dream, we read: “And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.”
Do you see the beauty of this narrative? The sun setting at the beginning of Jacob’s journey and rising at its end seems to bracket his whole journey. The message of the Torah is very clear: the sun had set when Jacob was leaving the Land – and the next time the sun is mentioned it rises upon Jacob at Peniel. The sun rose upon him when he was about to re-enter the Land. His twenty years of exile are placed between this sunset and sunrise—one long night of exile.
After the encounter with this mysterious ish, under the rising sun, Jacob enters the Land. In Genesis 33, we witness one of the most beautiful reconciliation scenes in the entire Torah! Esau, who was accompanied by 400 armed men, obviously didn’t have the peaceful intentions originally. All was suddenly changed when he saw his brother, humbly and meekly limping towards him: they both wept and kissed and reconciled! Then they began talking to each other. In English, the difference in their speech might not be distinctive – however, comparing them in Hebrew can teach us a lot regarding their respective characters.
From the very first moment of their communication, we see a dramatic difference in their speech regarding both the content and the style. Esau’s sentences are short and coarse, and when he says: “I have plenty, my brother (אָחִי)” – even though they are real brothers, in Hebrew it sounds like a very familiar and informal appeal. But from Jacob we hear a completely different, refined and polite speech, with a very different attitude.
One of the most remarkable details of Jacob’s speech is a particle “na” (נָא), repeated twice and completely lost in translation – the sign of a very polite and formal speech. We also notice God mentioned in his every sentence, while Esau doesn’t mention God at all. Moreover, their attitudes are completely different. While Esau says “I have plenty” (יֶשׁ־לִי רָב), Jacob states “I have everything” (יֶשׁ־לִי־כֹל); Esau speaks of wealth; Jacob speaks of sufficiency. That’s why Midrash says that “the moment Isaac heard his son mention God’s name, he knew it was Jacob and not Esau”. It is precisely this difference in speaking style that Isaac referred to when he said: “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau.” Obvious in Hebrew, this difference is almost lost in translation, and yet it is very important to see it, in order to really understand the story of the ‘stolen blessing’!
At the end of this amazing meeting with his brother—a meeting that went much better than everyone expected—Jacob said something strange, saying that for him, to see Esau’s face was “like seeing the face of God”: רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים. This phrase comes at the end of their meeting, when the danger is clearly over, and leaves a reader confused and perplexed. Why would Jacob say that? Is it pure flattery, or is there more to it?
In English, these words come rather unexpectedly. However, in Hebrew the idea of panim (“face”) is certainly one of the main motifs in the whole narrative of Jacob’s return to the Land. The root פָּנִים (panim), and the words derived from this root, occur many times in the Hebrew verses preceding the meeting of the two brothers (Gen.32:17-21). In order to understand the difference between the Hebrew and the English texts, let’s read, for example, Genesis 32:20: “For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” The word ‘face’ is not used even once in this translation (nor in many others), while in Hebrew, in this verse alone the words derived from the root “panim” occur four times. This builds a case and prepares us for the name, Peniel (פְּנִיאֵל) – “face of God” – the place of Jacob’s wrestling encounter with God. It was there, at Peniel, that Jacob saw God “face to face” (hence the name of the place); it was there, at Peniel, that not only was Jacob’s name changed, but also his heart.
But there is something more that can be seen in the story of Jacob when read in Hebrew. Let’s go back to Genesis 28, “Jacob’s Ladder”. When this chapter is read in Hebrew, we find that almost as many times as the word ‘face’ occurs in chapter 33, the term מָקוֹם (makom) ‘place’ occurs here, in chapter 28. Remember, here Jacob is about to leave the Land on his way into exile. His encounter with God in the dream probably happened during his last night in the Land, and as far as we know this was the first time God spoke to him personally. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” So we see very clearly that at that point, Jacob’s concept of God was very much connected to this place.
These two encounters with God – when Jacob is leaving the land and when he is returning – form a peculiar literary inclusio: everything that happens to him in exile happens between these two encounters. However, it’s not just a straight line between them: within these divine ‘brackets’ we see a beautiful progression that we don’t want to miss—the progression of Jacob’s faith; the progression of his knowledge of God; the progression of revelation: from the place of God to the face of God!
 Gen. 28:12
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (email@example.com) .