Our last (for now) installment of this series is taken from the life of Jacob the Patriarch. While comparing his way back to the Land of Israel with his journey out of the Land of Israel 20 years earlier, we will discover the amazing details – and even more amazing spiritual truths that these details point to.
We will start our comparison from the end. After the amazing encounter with his brother—an encounter that went much better than everyone expected—Jacob said some strange words to him, saying that for him, to see Esau’s face was “like seeing the face of God”: ָאִיתִי 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 o rder 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 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.
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”—Jacob’s dream on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran. 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, this life-changing encounter and Jacob’s whole new concept of God was very much connected to this place.
These two meetings with God – when Jacob is leaving the land and when he returns – 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!
Twenty years have passed since Jacob deceived his brother Esau and had to flee from his wrath. For twenty years he had stayed outside the Land. The time has come to go home. 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 to 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 whole twenty years of exile are between this sunset and sunrise—this whole journey is to be understood as one long night of exile.
We must remember that the first audience of the book of Genesis was the generation of the Exodus. Undoubtedly, this ‘night of exile’ message would have spoken powerfully and loudly to their hearts. Like Jacob, they too went through a long night of exile – but the sun finally rose upon them because, like Jacob, they came back to the Land.
In Genesis 33, we witness the beautiful scene of the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Esau, who was accompanied by 400 armed men, obviously didn’t originally have peaceful intentions. All was suddenly changed, however, during this amazing encounter: 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. Then when we come to Jacob’s response, 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 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, but it’s very important to understand, in order to really understand the story of the ‘stolen blessing’!
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) .
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