In the previous Torah Portion, we saw Jacob fleeing from the wrath of his brother. Now we see him returning to the Land – but in order to secure the future, Jacob has to face the past: he must reconcile with Esau. Twenty years have passed, many things have changed, and all the external circumstances of Jacob’s life have been dramatically transformed, yet it seems that the most important transformation in God’s eyes is the transformation of his heart, and the clearest criteria for this transformation is his reconciliation with his brother—just like in the New Testament: “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen”. It is extremely significant, therefore, that as Jacob is going to face this biggest challenge of his life, he also has the most important intervention of God into his life. The encounter that Jacob had at Peniel, is an absolutely unique scene in the whole Bible, and it is during this encounter that Jacob becomes Israel! Only after this encounter can Jacob achieve true reconciliation with his brother—“First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”.
This connection with the New Testament emphasis on reconciliation becomes even more evident when we read this Portion in Hebrew. In Genesis 33, after the amazing meeting with his brother Esau – the meeting that went much better than everyone had expected – Jacob says strange words to Esau indicating 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 rootפָּנִים (panim) and the words derived from this root, occur many times in the Hebrew verses preceding the meeting of the 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 (and in many others as well), while in Hebrew, in this verse alone, the word panim occurs 4 times. This builds a case and prepares us for the name Peniel (פְּנִיאֵל ) – “face of God”, the place of Jacob’s wrestling and encounter with God. It was there, at Peniel, that Jacob saw God “face to face” (hence the name of the place); and it was there, at Peniel, that not only Jacob’s name, but also his heart, was changed. That is why this fateful meeting between brothers went completely differently to how everybody thought it would go:” 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. He was approaching Jacob with 400 men—which certainly didn’t communicate peaceful intentions; he didn’t need 400 men in order to weep on his brother neck. However, everything changed in an instant – and that change happened because it was Israel, not Jacob, who 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 and bowing humbly before him. The change was dramatic, and Esau sensed this change immediately and ran to kiss this new brother.
But there is something more that we can see in the story of Jacob when we read it in Hebrew. You probably remember “Jacob’s Ladder” from the last Torah Portion, and his dream on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran. If we go back to Genesis 28 and read this chapter in Hebrew, we will find 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 was on his way to exile and about to leave the Land. This 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 personally to Jacob. When he awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 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 this point, Jacob’s whole new concept of God becomes connected to this place.
Twenty years have passed—many things have 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 re-enter the Land—and then, in his last night outside the land he has this amazing “wrestling” encounter with God (by the way, as with his dream twenty years earlier, this encounter is absolutely unique in the entire 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 is returning—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, and undoubtedly, he had been changing throughout these years, however it’s only when he saw the face of God at Peniel that he was completely transformed and became truly humble and repentant. Only then was he able to reconcile with his enemy/brother, because only after that was he able to see the face of God in Esau: “I see your face as one sees the face of God”.
 1 John 4:20
 Matt. 5:24
 Gen. 28:16,17
 Gen. 32: 31