My dear readers, we are still in the “three” part of “THREE PLUS FOUR” series. Our final installment of this part is about Jacob the Patriarch. Today, we will dig into the story of his way back to the Land of Israel after 20 years of exile – and will discover the amazing details and even more amazing spiritual truths that these details point to. Together, we are rediscovering the Hebrew Bible on these pages.
We will start in Genesis 31. After long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return to his land. He takes his family and possessions, and off he goes. His wife Rachel steals (ותגנב רחל) her father’s idols. The word תגנב here is the same word that we have in the Ten Commandments. When Laban overtakes him and accuses him of stealing his idols, Jacob is insulted by such suspicion. He is convinced that there couldn’t be any stolen goods in his camp. Jacob knows that stealing is a grave sin, and the very thought that he would be suspected of theft is unbearable to him. Indignant at the accusation, and not knowing of his wife’s theft, he invites Laban to search the whole camp.
And yet, he is not aware that he has also committed theft. To our great surprise, in the very next verse after Rachel’s theft, the same word refers to Jacob: ויגנב יעקב. Thus, we discover that Jacob also stole – he “stole the heart of Laban,” because he did not inform him that he was leaving with all his wives and children, i.e. Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. His whole departure, or rather flight, was so unseemly and ungodly that Scripture, using the same very word, accuses him of the grave sin of theft: ויגנב יעקב את-לב לבן. The message of Scripture is clear: to steal a heart is also a sin in God’s eyes!
There is another connection here that is lost in translation, but is very clear in the Hebrew Scriptures. As we would all know Laban searches the tents but doesn’t find his idols: Rachel hides them by sitting on them. Thus, the story seemed to end favorably. But is it really the end? Shortly after arriving in the land, Rachel, still a young woman unexpectedly dies in childbirth. Most readers don’t connect this death with Laban’s search in Genesis 31. Yet, the Jewish commentators connect this tragic event to Jacob’s oath to Laban: ‘With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live.’ This oath was fulfilled—not by Laban, but by God Himself: the one who had stolen the teraphims, had to die.
The Hebrew shows that both Jacob and Rachel realized this connection as well. The name that the dying mother gives to her son – Ben-Oni – probably means “the son of my iniquity” (און שלי, “my evil”). Understandably, Jacob didn’t want the child to carry this name, therefore he called him Benjamin, “son of the right hand,” which may be also interpreted as “son of the oath,” since right hand in the Bible often symbolizes an oath.
The Scriptures tell us about the laws of the spiritual world. Unseen and often ignored, they are nonetheless just as inviolable as the law of gravity. This is why the search of Rachel, who had actually stolen and yet on whom nothing was found, ends with her tragic death; that is why Jacob, who still didn’t know that to “steal a heart” or to deceive, was a sin, desperately needed the Peniel experience – the one that will change his name and will change his heart!
FROM THE PLACE OF GOD TO THE FACE OF GOD!
Peniel (פְּנִיאֵל) – the place of Jacob’s wrestling with God – in Hebrew means, “face of God”. It was there, at Peniel, that as Jacob said, he 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. In English, this name – “face of God” – comes 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 Peniel encounter. In order to understand the difference between the Hebrew and 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.
But there is something more that can be seen in the story of Jacob when read in Hebrew. The Peniel encounter happens during Jacob’s last night outside the Land. You probably remember “Jacob’s Ladder”—Jacob’s dream on the way from Beer-Sheba to Haran, during his last night in the Land. When this chapter is read in Hebrew, we find that almost as many times as the word “face” occurs in chapter 32, 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.” Therefore, we see very clearly that, at that point, this life-changing encounter and Jacob’s new concept of God was very much connected to this place.
Remarkably, before this dream – before his last night in the Land – we read: “And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.” And then, after the Peniel encounter, we read: “And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him”. Do you see the beauty of this narrative? These two meetings with God – when Jacob is leaving the Land and when he returns – form a peculiar literary inclusion. The sun setting at the beginning of Jacob’s journey and rising at its end seems to bracket his whole journey. Within these divine “brackets” we see a beautiful progression that we shouldn’t 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!
There are many more amazing details that we find in Jacob’s and other stories in Hebrew Scriptures. 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 teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher’s wonderful courses (firstname.lastname@example.org). You might also enjoy my books, they all are Bible based and have a lot of Hebrew insights – you can get them here.
 Gen. 31:32