My dear readers, from time to time I will post here articles from my favorite series: THE BIBLE STORIES YOU DIDN’T KNOW. Of course, I have no doubt that most of my readers have been students of the Bible for a long time, and know their Bible very well. Yet I do feel confident regarding the title of this series. When we start reading our Bible in Hebrew (or at least with some Hebrew understanding), you start discovering some Hebrew Scripture gems that are completely lost in translation. Sometimes these gems provide a new insight into a well-known story; sometimes they change the traditional understanding of a story completely. Years ago, when I read the Torah Portion Noah in Hebrew for the first time, I had to go back and forth between the Hebrew and the translation, to make sure I was reading the same chapters – it seemed like a completely different story! There are many stories like this in the Torah – when we read them in Hebrew they seem almost unrecognizable! And I am not even talking about those portions of Scripture where everybody understands that if we turn to Hebrew it would definitely help and bring some clarity. No, I am talking about stories where a reader is completely unaware of what he is missing because of translation. I’ve already shared several examples with you, and we will “discover” yet another of these stories today.
In Genesis 33, after the amazing encounter with his brother Esau – the meeting that went much better than everyone expected – Jacob speaks some strange words to Esau: 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 the 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 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 in this translation even once (nor in many others), while in Hebrew, in this verse alone the word panim occurs 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. That is why this fateful meeting between the brothers had a completely different outcome from what was expected: But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. There is little doubt that it was not Esau’s original plan. Esau was approaching Jacob with 400 men, and that didn’t exactly communicate peaceful intentions: one doesn’t need 400 men in order to weep on one’s brother’s neck. However, everything was changed in a moment – and the change happened because it was Israel, not Jacob, whom Esau met. Esau expected to see the arrogant, self-confident brother who had always looked down on him – instead he saw a humble, repentant man limping toward him and bowing humbly before him. The change was radical, and Esau sensed this immediately and ran to kiss this “new” brother.
But there is something more that can be seen in the story of Jacob when read in Hebrew. You probably recall one of the most well-known encounters with God in the Bible–“Jacob’s Ladder”– Jacob’s dream on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran. Let’s go back to Genesis 28. When this chapter is read in Hebrew, we find out that almost as many times as the word “face” occurs in chapter 33, the termמָקוֹם (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 this life-changing encounter, and Jacob’s whole new concept of God, is very much connected to this place.
Twenty years have passed and much has happened and many changes have occurred during these years. Jacob is now a great man who is blessed by God with the blessing of Abraham; he is the father of a large family and is now returning to the Land. At the end of chapter 32, he is about to enter the Land, and then, in his last night outside the Land he has an extraordinary “wrestling” encounter with God (by the way, like his dream twenty years earlier, this encounter is absolutely unique in the Bible). In the morning, “Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
These two meetings with God – when Jacob is leaving the land and when he returns – form a peculiar literary inclusio: everything that happens with him in exile happens between these encounters. However, it’s not just a straight line between these encounters: 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!
It took Jacob twenty years, but finally he saw God face to face – and it is only after seeing the face of God that he becomes truly humble and repentant. Undoubtedly, Jacob had been changing throughout all these years. However, it’s only when he sees the face of God at Peniel, that the transformation is complete – from the place of God to the face of God! Only after that was he able to reconcile with his enemy/brother – only after that was he able to see the face of God in Esau. רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים.
If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a discount) regarding eTeacher courses.
 Gen. 33:4
 Gen. 28:16,17
 Gen. 32: 31
Join the conversation (30 comments)
I have always enjoyed the story of Jacob, especially from the place to the face of God. I am always intrigued by what I can find in Jewish sources to give me a better understanding. There are so many stories within the story of Jacob that you can get really deep in.
Another story that we might miss a lot from is the story of the place called Luz.
You are right, Robert, it is also a fascinating story. Maybe, one day I will write about it.
Wow Julia! It is the most amazing revlation. I got your point. His abundant grace be up on you. Shalom!
I would echo the above four appreciative comments.
Thank you Julia. A remarkable insight. It further buttress the enormous gains I got from the course, “The Jewish Background of The New Testament” which I just completed.
Julia, You have an audience among those of us who are into life-long learning. I have been unable to glean info about one of the ETeacher courses by email, so am going to purchase one of the supplemental books instead. Tuition info is not readily available online. Your weekly posts are a welcomed source of information and education. Thanks so much!
Very enlightening! I really wish someday I can take the classes and learn more. Great articule!
Dear Ruth, Anne, and Ana, thank you for your kind words – and I really hope that someday I will see you in my class!
Yes I’m retired too and I hope someday I can take the classes, but for now the emails I get with more insight is sincerely welcome. Thank You
I am retired,and I wish I could afford the full course but I do enjoy these snippets of insights which makes me see things in a different light. Fascinating!
I have a further possibility and seek your thoughts on it if you wish.
Gen 28:20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God is with me and keeps me in this way which I am going, and gives to me bread to eat and clothing to wear,
Gen 28:21 and I return in peace to the house of my father, then Jehovah shall be my God,
Gen 28:22 and this stone which I have placed as a memorial pillar shall become the house of God; and all which You shall give to me, I will tithe the tenth to You.
This is Jacob’s famous “chutzpah” covenant with God. In it Jacob promises 3 things, the first 2 are fairly straightforward to see happening, but the 3rd is a bit of a puzzle. My proposal is that when Jacob gives the portions of his flock to Esau, this is how he satisfies his tithe promise.
Gen 33:10 And Jacob said, No, please, if I now have found favor in your eyes, take my present from my hands. For I have seen your face, like seeing the face of God; and you are pleased with me.
Very interesting thought, Donald, I’ve never seen it like this. First of all, you probably know that in Hebrew, this “chuzpah” covenant might be read differently. If Gen 28: 21-22 were read: … and if I return safe to my father’s house AND the lord shall be my God, THEN this stone etc.” – the meaning of the passage would be altered, and the Hebrew permits this interpretation. The tithe promise would still be there, however, and so your suggestion might still be relevant. Personally, I don’t see it like this: my post explains why I think Jacob says these words to his brother, I don’t think it had anything to do with his tithe promise. However, I’ve learned a long ago that Torah raises questions without providing single answers – so I am very thankful for this additional answer that I’ve found in your comment.
Thanks, Julia, in my own studies I have taken close note of the exit and entry into the land. What I did not see was the multiple use of place on the way out and the multiple use of face on his return. I often struggled with what it was that caused Esau to make the turn around when they met. Thank-you. This is exactly why I took the Biblical Hebrew course.
I am now retired from ministry and have a very small income. I volunteer as a pastor of a church not too far from my home. I point this out because I want you to know that I read your material and I listen to the seminars that I can get but I really can not take any more structured courses. But I thank you for coming into my study every so often with interesting things for me to read, study and sometimes they work their way into my teaching. Bavakasha
Oh, how I just love to study your words of enlightening! I signed up for your course and bought the Bible, but I am now 81 and could not find out how to do the work on my iPad! I did pay, but had to call and cancel even though I had already paid a good price and lost it. But I do do Thank you for all these beautiful enlightening words!! Thanks, Gay Ford
Dear Gay, have you tried to call our support team? They are always very helpful, and usually they can fix the problem. I am sure they can help you. You love studying the Word – so don’t cancel, I am sure you will be blessed by what you will learn!
Thank you, Rory, I am so glad to hear that you find my articles helpful and interesting. Of course, I understand – but still, I am sorry to hear you can not take a course: based on your comments I believe you would enjoy the “Discovering Hebrew Bible” course greatly. Blessings!