The Face of God.

Lost In Translation: Face Of God

By Julia Blum November 24, 2021No comments

Our portion today, VeYishlah, covers two very important meetings in Jacob’s life. Traditionally, the encounter at Peniel is considered the most important event in Jacob’s life—and rightly so, it defined not only Jacob’s own name and destiny,  but the name and destiny of the whole people! However, I would like to bring your attention to the often-overlooked fact that this encounter – indeed, the most important encounter of Jacob’s life – happens right before his meeting with Esau! Have you ever thought about it? Twenty years have passed, so many things have changed, all the external circumstances of Jacob’s life are completely different, yet evidently the most important change and the most important transformation in God’s eyes is the transformation of his heart, and the most clear criteria for this transformation is his reconciliation with his brother. “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”  Everything that has happened to Jacob since he obtained both the birthright and parental blessing by doubtful means has been tainted with his own guilt and enmity with his brother. Now Jacob can fully face his own past and move on to his future only as he seeks reconciliation with Esau—and this he can only do as he becomes a different man. That is why, precisely as he prepares to face the biggest danger of his life, he will also have the most important encounter of his life. Only then does Jacob become Israel—and when Jacob becomes Israel, he can then achieve reconciliation with his brother.

Last year, while commenting on this Torah Portion, I spoke about the Peniel encounter[1]. This year, we will discuss the meeting of the brothers.

Appeasing or Atoning?

First, we read in our Portion about the gifts Jacob sends to Esau hoping to pacify him, and we find there the verb: אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה. The root of this verb is kafar (כפר), which is the same root that forms Yom Kippur. The great majority of usages of this root in Torah refer to “making atonement,” which is why it eventually becomes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Precisely because of that, its occurrences in the book of Genesis, where sacrificial atonement is not yet established, present a particular interest: there is no word “atonement” in the story of Jacob, so what is this root doing here?

Literally, the root kafar (כפר) means to cover up something physically. In the story of Jacob preparing for his meeting with Esau, Scripture uses this word to ensure we understand that it was not just a gift – it was an act of “covering up” his sin, so in this sense it was an atonement. The reconciliation with Esau was not simply a family affair, as it probably seemed to the brothers, it was not only about having a safe passage for his family – it was much deeper and more significant than that, it was an event of global significance. This was an amazing road, an amazing path, and as Jacob was walking on this path, he was being humbled, changed and transformed. Coming to Jacob at Peniel, right before his meeting with Esau, God shows that this reconciliation, this humbling himself and repenting before his brother, was vitally important in God’s eyes. It still is: reconciliation, humbling oneself and repentance are crucial parts of Yom Kippur, and that’s why in Hebrew we find root kafar here, completely lost in translation!

Twins’ Speaking Styles

Then, in Genesis 33, we witness the beautiful scene of the reconciliation. Esau, who was bringing 400 armed men to this meeting, obviously didn’t originally have peaceful intentions. All was suddenly changed, however, during this amazing encounter:  they both wept, kissed and reconciled! Then, they began talking to each other – and from the very first moment of their communication we see a dramatic difference in their speech regarding both content and 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 (Gen.33:10) and completely lost in translation – which is a sign of a 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.

This comparison helps us better understand the story of the “stolen blessing” twenty years earlier. It was probably 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.” This difference is almost lost in translation, however, comparing them in Hebrew can teach us a lot regarding their characters.

From the Place of God to the Face of God!

After this amazing encounter, Jacob said strange words to his brother: that for him, to see Esau’s face was “like seeing the face of God”.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 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 (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.

However, 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 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! Indeed, now this transformed Jacob can see the face of his brother as “the face of God”.

[1] You can read the article here: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/transformation-and-light/

Published by neaseno

I was born on Powers Bluff in Wood County, Wisconsin, into a traditional community of Neshnabek. I was raised speaking only native languages, and learned to speak English upon entering school at the age of 6. As of this writing, I am one of 5 remaining Heritage Fluent Speakers of Potawatomi.

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