New Testament Reflections: Vayishlach

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”[1]. 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”[2].

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[3] 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[4]. 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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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] 1 John 4:20

[2] Matt. 5:24

[3] NIV

[4] Gen.33:4

[5] Gen. 28:16,17

[6] 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. Francis Pumbu

    Thankyou Julia.
    Divine intervention is experienced after the transformation is complete. Firstly, Jacob encountered transformation through wrestling with God thus resulted him getting new name – Israel. This is necessary before entry into the promised land Canaan. Secondly, God’s divine intervention was seen when Esau dropped the planned attach with 400 men on his brother Jacob and welcomed him safely instead. This is similar to Esther & Mordechai’s story in the book of Esther when Jews were saved from mass destruction when God divinely intervened.

    Joseph had to be sold and imprisoned to be promoted, Daniel to be thrown into the lion den to be elevated, 3 Hebrew boys had to go through the fire for the king of Babylon to know that our God is to be worshiped and him only.

    For us to be restored, promoted, elevated and etc, we must go through first the wrestling, imprisonment, persecution, etc.

  2. Milla

    Thank you, Julia! I was thinking when reading your text; do you think this is also prophetic? That this is going to happen to Israel in the end times with his neighbours (arabs)? Between “Isaac and Ishmael”? And also; when Israel comes back to the Land, they will experience the spiritual reborn and after that the encounter with “Esau”, the descendants of Ishmael?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Milla, it’s wonderful to hear from you on these pages! You raised very important questions here – and, when seen in this light , this piece is very prophetic indeed. As I wrote , the most important transformation in God’s eyes is the transformation of the heart – and the most clear criteria for this transformation is reconciliation. And even though the reconciliation we witness happens between Jacob and Esau, not between Isaac and Ishmael, – we can definitely hope and pray for that new Encounter with God, both for Isaac and for Ishmael, that would lead to their encounter and reconciliation!

      1. Milla

        Thank you, Julia. You are right, I mixed the two stories in my mind. I just saw here two brothers united after long separation. The encounter with God face-to-face, the changed heart, REBORN JACOB <3 It is so comforting, so fresh, so holy, so "Godly". It reminds us about not only Isaac and Ishmael (I remember the amazing picture that you showed us in your book "Abraham had two sons") but also the reunion of the 10 lost tribes and Judah… At least that is how I see Ezekiel 37. But I may misunderstand who is who in the bog picture.

  3. Garold Spire

    Thank you for your insightful posts. PS I think he was crossing the Jordan at the Jabbok crossing rather than the Jabbok river since his says with only this staff I crossed this Jordan and he ends up in Shechem not Moab.

  4. Garold Spire

    I think it was the face of Forgiveness he saw in his brother and understood that forgiveness is divine.

  5. Garold Spire

    The Lord knew what Jacobs name was so why did he ask him his name? that question should have reminded Jacob that he deceived his brother father and uncle. I think this is his Confession of sin when Jacob answered “deceiver” only then could the Lord bless him.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Garold, it is a very good point: He asks us questions not because He doesn’t know the answer – but because He wants us to confess. In this sense, I really like and prefer that reading of the name Israel that reads it as Yashar-El (ישר-אל). Hebrew word Yashar (יָשָׁר) means straight, honest, honorable, law-abiding; in biblical usage, it also means “righteous, God-fearing person”. The root עָקֹב֙, on the other hand (the root of the name Ya’akov) might mean also “crooked,” as in this verse: the crooked (הֶֽעָקֹב֙ ) shall be made straight. This concept really emphasizes the profound meaning of the transformation: Jacob-Israel is the one whom God makes straight, as opposed to “being crooked and uneven”.

  6. Nick

    Wow. Many years of self examination occurred between Jacob’s two dreams. Maybe there are no shortcuts, I’ve always heard. Great teaching Julia!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Nick for your kind words! You are right: all these years had been years of tremendous inner work for Jacob – and humbling himself , probably, was the most difficult and the most painful part of this inner work. Even when he is parting from Lavan, this work has not been completed yet, he is still not there – he needed this impending meeting with Esau and his own full dependence on the Lord, in order to be able to humble himself fully. It is a very sobering and a very profound thing – to watch this journey!