Today, we are going to discuss the most important encounter of Jacob’s life – the one that defined his name and destiny, and the name and destiny of the whole people: Penuel. This encounter happened right before his meeting with Esau, and undoubtedly changed this meeting from how it could have been to the amazing story we actually witness in the Bible. It’s really interesting that after all that happened in these 20 years, this reconciliation is still clearly God’s priority. The external circumstances of Jacob’s life have changed dramatically – yet, as we see, it’s not the change that God is looking for. God is interested in the transformation of Jacob’s heart and his reconciliation with his brother. God knows that everything that has happened to him in these years has been tainted with his guilt and his fear of his brother. Now it’s time for his heart to be cleansed and transformed – but in order for this to happen, Jacob finally has to face the past.
I absolutely love these chapters where we are watching Jacob on his way to meet his brother. This is an amazing road, an amazing path, and we see that as Jacob is walking on this path he is being changed—transformed. The Torah shows us very clearly that Jacob can face his own past only as he seeks reconciliation with Esau, and this he can do only as he becomes a different man. And the truly remarkable thing is – and may it be a comfort to us all – that as he is about to face the biggest danger of his life, he is also having amazing help from God in this most important encounter of his life. Then Jacob becomes Israel—and it’s only when Jacob becomes Israel, that he can achieve reconciliation with his brother.
Jacob was named Israel after he had wrestled with mysterious “ish” (man) at Penuel. Being absolutely unique in the whole Bible, this meeting has caused a lot of different interpretations. Scripture doesn’t say clearly who this man was – and it’s definitely not clear who Jacob thought he was. Maybe, he first thought that the “man“ who struggled with him was a river demon – after all, we have the assonance between the words Yabbok (the name of the river) and yabek (struggled) in this verse. Moreover, the man’s request: “Let me go for dawn is breaking” – might have confirmed Jacob’s belief that he has met a demonic being. I love Jewish commentaries about the ambiguity of this encounter. Many commentators say that, while struggling, Jacob didn’t know whom he was struggling with – “for when a man struggles with a force beyond himself he can, at the moment, not be sure whether it is God or Satan who is his adversary, whether a divine or demonic force”. However, as long as he believes his adversary is a demonic force, the old Jacob is rooted in his past; it is only as the light breaks that he realizes it was not Satan, but God, whom he has struggled with, and this puts his struggle in a whole new light. He then asks his adversary for a blessing—and the man who fought with Jacob does bless him, and in blessing, changes his name to Israel. What is the meaning of this change?
It is widely believed that the word “Israel” comes from the Hebrew word שרית , which in biblical Hebrew means “to struggle”, “to exercise influence”, “to prevail”, because “the man” said to Jacob: Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” However, personally I prefer another interpretation of this name – an interpretation that helps us comprehend the depth of the transformation that happened at Penuel.
The name Israel might be read 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. We then understand the meaning of this change: Jacob/Israel is the one whom God makes straight, as opposed to “being crooked and uneven”.
It is after this encounter that Jacob meets his brother – and this meeting definitely went much better than everyone expected. In Genesis 33, we witness the beautiful scene of the reconciliation. Esau, who was bringing 400 armed men to this meeting, obviously didn’t have peaceful intentions originally. Esau expected to meet the old Jacob, the hated brother who had outsmarted him several times. He was preparing vengeance and violence.
All was suddenly changed, however, during that fateful meeting of the brothers in Genesis 33—because it’s not Jacob, but Israel, whom Esau sees: a completely different man limps towards him and humbles himself before him. The essentially simple and impetuous Esau feels this difference at once and runs to kiss his newly discovered twin brother. The brothers weep and kiss and reconcile – they are now at peace!
The Festival of Lights
I can’t finish this post without mentioning the amazing Festival that we will begin celebrating tonight – Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. For many people in the diaspora – both Jews celebrating Hanukkah and Gentiles observing this celebration – Hanukkah is all about dreidels and latkes. In reality, however, the Festival of Hanukkah is all about light overcoming darkness. Hanukkah celebrations often begin in full darkness, then the light of a candle – the first Hanukkah candle – pierces the darkness, and then – more candles and more lights! It’s very beautiful and very profound! One of the central songs sung during Hanukkah is called Banu Choshech Legaresh – “we came to drive away the darkness” – and this is indeed the overwhelming feeling one gets during these celebrations: the Divine Light overcomes even the darkest of darkness! As we light our Hanukkiah candles, we identify ourselves with this solemn message! I do hope you will join us in lighting the candles this year. Hanukkah starts tonight (Thursday, December 10) – but it is an eight-day celebration (which makes it really prophetic, because of this amazingly profound eighth day – the day “beyond”), so even if you read this article later and have missed the first candles, you still have time to join in! The message of Hanukkah is clear: the Light of God shines in this dark world, and the darkness cannot overcome it! I invite you to become part of this message – and also, part of the Light!
 Is. 40:4
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