Genesis 33

The chapter opens with a dramatic scene in which Jacob and Esau finally reunite and are reconciled. Esau – the wronged one – is nothing but gracious, and there is the heartwarming (and probably familiar from our own lives) exchange wherein Jacob offers a gift, Esau refuses saying that he has enough, and Jacob in turn insists, asking that it please be accepted (verses eight through eleven): the act of receiving as gift to the giver. Here of course is a lesson for us on being generous, but what comes next is quite intriguing when read within the flow of these narratives as the editors and redactors have arranged them: we find a portion buried here that reaches back to its immediately preceding section, a comment that is easy to overlook but may have great significance, a connection which opens the door to numerous meanings we might read into the text, or alternatively allow to hover tantalizingly, refusing to make up our minds. Here is the pair of verses in question:

33.10 : “But Jacob said, ‘No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.’”

32.31: “So Jacob named the place Peniel [a footnote: Understood as “face of God.”], meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’”

“To see your face is like seeing the face of God”, and “Peniel [Understood as “face of God.”], meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face’”: One way to view this linguistically linked set is to find in it evidence for the psychological reading of the theophany in the previous chapter, the exegesis that takes the events as a dream sequence of Jacob struggling internally with the upcoming confrontation with his brother: not knowing what to expect he is troubled, worried, unnerved. This is not a necessary conclusion, however, and I think other possibilities may even be more compelling.

Consider, for example, Jacob’s personal trajectory: Just prior to this in preparation for coming into contact with his brother he was feeling so nervous that he divided his camp and sent multiple and excessive gifts ahead of himself to try and “butter up” Esau; he had the “wrestling match” (whatever it was, or was/is meant to signify within the Jacob story arc), something which clearly affected him deeply and would have left a lingering mark on his thought and emotional state, including keeping him from getting much rest that night; and then the text continues with the implicit (but not outrightly stated) next day as when “Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men” (33.1a), the very same entourage that had struck fear deep into his heart (as reported in 32.7-8). The welcome he gets from his brother, though, is (verse four): “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” Imagine the relief this character would be experiencing! Whatever the historicity of the Jacob figure may or may not be, in such a setting it is easy enough for us to empathize. To have one’s fear-provoked expectations overturned in this manner would indeed cause one to see the other as “the face of God”.

There is yet another way we might comprehend the two verses we have highlighted above: We could take the rather large liberty of reading away from – of launching off of – Jacob in his storytelling setting and with the actions and dialogues that have been given to him and apply these terms re-contextually: Rather than Jacob “wrestling” with a “divine being”, or “wrestling” with the thought of a long delayed reunification with Esau, then “actually” meeting him and finding the encounter exceedingly more pleasant and warm than he had dared hope, thereby encountering God/“God” as Other/“Other”; instead of that we could take only the final variable in this equation (or formula; maybe recipe?) and “see” God/“God” in the others who come into our lives: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God” for everyone all of the time. Wherever we happen to set foot, there is “Peniel”, and each instance of living interaction is a chance for generosity and grace.

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