In a 1928 essay entitled “The Secret of Biblical Narrative Form,” Franz Rosenzweig makes use of an example from this week’s portion to illustrate how paying attention to the inner connections in the biblical text can yield fruitful readings. He highlights the meaningful repetition of a particular word, “face” (Hebrew panim), as the key to understanding the text.
Three scenes highlight the most fateful encounters in Yaakov’s adult life in in this week’s reading. First, Yaakov prepares to meet his brother Esav after a space of twenty years. This is followed by a dramatic nighttime scene where Yaakov wrestles a stranger. Finally, the long-awaited meeting of the brothers at last takes place. Rosenzweig, by linking each section’s usage of “face,” shows how these three moments in the narrative are linked together and integrated into a whole.
In the first scene, when Yaakov plans to give his brother gifts in the hope of placating him, he explains his strategy (Gen. 32:21). I have translated it as follows:
I will cover his face
with the gift that goes before my face;
afterward, when I see his face,
perhaps he will lift up my face.
More idiomatic translation, such as the New JPS Version, tends to obscure the same text’s use of repetition:
“If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me
The rhythmic sound of the Hebrew, however, suggests that we should pay special attention to the looming confrontation with Esav, and Yaakov’s attempts to de-escalate it.
And soon, confrontation enters the picture, as Yaakov engages in combat with a mysterious “man.” Wounded in the encounter, in which the patriarch emerges victorious, Yaakov realizes that his opponent was no ordinary man, but an emissary from God–or perhaps God himself. Yaakov reacts with fear and amazement in v. 31:
I have seen God, face to face, yet my life has been saved!
This is not just an issue of dangerous proximity to God. Once again we see the importance of the Bible’s use of the word “face.” By mentioning it again, Yaakov is in effect reminding himself that his brother awaits. And indeed, when they finally meet the next day, and Esav refuses his brother’s proffered gift, Yaakov counters (33:10) with a telling statement:
Pray, if I have found favor in your eyes,
then take this gift from my hand.
For I have, after all, seen your face as one sees the face of God,
and you have been gracious to me!
Thanks to the repeated “face,” the story has now come full circle. By creating a narrative that incorporates preparations for facing Esav, then moves on to identify the face of his wrestling opponent as God’s, and finally ties brother and the deity together by referring to both faces, the text seamlessly connects Esav and the divine wrestler. In so doing, it delineates Yaakov’s inner journey from trickster to supplicant. The man who had just been blessed by the stranger may now have the courage to say to his brother, “Pray take my token-of-blessing that is brought to you” (33:11). By facing his inner demons, the blessing Yaakov had stolen from Esav in chapter 27 is finally returned, at least symbolically. Even though Yaakov will continue as the central figure, and inherit his father’s birthright and blessing, he has made his amends with his brother.
The wrestling match at the Yabbok may well have started out as a classic hero story, with the protagonist forced to fight an adversary in order to get across a river and reach home and his destiny. But the Bible, as it does so many times, here absorbs this folktale-like narrative into its larger story by means of its language, using a key repeating word to get at the heart of what the text is trying to teach.