The Bible Stories You Didn’t Know: From The Place Of God To The Face Of God


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[1] 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.[2]  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.[3]  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.”[4]

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.

[1] NIV

[2] Gen. 33:4

[3] Gen. 28:16,17

[4] Gen. 32: 31

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Troy McClure

    I just enrolled today to start the beginner course in Hebrew and am looking forward to learning more. These comments tell me that there are many older people (such as myself), who love the LORD, who are thirsting for more from the wonderful Word of God. Perhaps this will inspire you to do more of the blogs.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Troy, it is indeed inspiring to hear that.

      1. Jesse

        I would like to take the courses but I don’t want to build up student loan debt again. Can I pay for each course separately?