Light from the Sidra

Vayishlach ('And he left')

Torah: Genesis 32:4-36:43. Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1-21

The Face

The fashion world each year presents us with ‘the Face’ for that season. To be ‘the Face’ is the goal of every aspiring young model but in the Bible the greatest blessing, is to see ‘the Face.’ ‘Blessed are the pure in heart,’ said the Messiah, ‘for they shall see God.’

The greatest bracha, according to the high priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24-26, is to experience the shining of the face of God on us. If God smiles on us, what else could we need? The high priests of Israel were commanded by God to put his name on the children of Israel with the words:

May YHWH bless you and keep you!

May YHWH shine his face upon you and favour you!

May YHWH lift up his face toward you and grant you shalom!

But in Exodus 33:20, when Moses pleaded with God to allow him to see the divine glory, he was told that no one could see the face of God and live. And yet, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there are people, such as the parents of Samson, who see the face of God and live to tell the tale.

Jacob was another who saw God and lived, although he was never the same after his encounter with the Holy One. Throughout his life, Jacob lived by his wits. He outsmarted his older brother and even his father. And he certainly outsmarted his uncle Laban. But at the beginning of this week’s parasha we find Jacob preparing to meet his brother Esau and he is almost at his wit’s end. Twenty years have passed since Jacob ran from his brother who was threatening to kill him and now Esau is coming to him with 400 men! It doesn’t occur to Jacob that Esau might have brought so many men because he was as afraid of Jacob as Jacob was of him. After all, Jacob had been granted the blessing of the firstborn and, as such, was superior to Esau.

Jacob, quite naturally, is taking no chances. In chapter 28, after his first encounter with God, Jacob had struck a deal (as he saw it) with God, vowing that if YHWH brought him home in shalom, YHWH would be his God. At this point, although YHWH had blessed Jacob in almost every other way, Jacob was not home in peace. But the possibility now existed that Jacob might not actually get home in peace if his older brother was still be angry with him stealing from Esau the double portion of blessing that, as far as Esau was concerned, was rightfully his?

Having lived off his wits all his life, Jacob is now at his wit’s end. What is he going to do? After giving thanks to YHWH for the ‘faithfulness and trust’ he has shown to him, Jacob prays to YHWH, the God he has all along referred to only as ‘the God of Abraham’ and ‘the God of Isaac’ will save him from the hand of Esau. And having prayed he sends gifts ahead of him appease Esau.

In Genesis 32:20-21 (verses 21-22 in the Hebrew text), panim (‘face’) occurs five times.

You shall say: Also—here, your servant Yaakov is behind us. For [Jacob] said to himself: I will wipe (the anger from) his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face! The gift crossed over ahead of his face. . .

This sets the stage for Peniel, the Face of God!

According to the Midrash Rabbah, Jacob wrestled with the guardian prince of the guardian angel of Esau. The mystical Zohar identifies the mysterious stranger who wrestles with Jacob as the angel Samael, the chieftain of Esau. Perhaps the rabbis who compiled the Midrash and the Zohar, in the light of God’s caution to Moses that no man could see his face and live, were afraid to take the account of the struggle between Jacob and the stranger at face value (no pun intended) because the text tells us that Jacob saw the face of God.

And the Man said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ And he said, Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince you have power with God and with men, and you have prevailed.’ And Jacob asked and said, ‘Tell me, I pray, Your name.’ And he said, ‘Why do you ask after My name?’ And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [Face of God], ‘For I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.’

Jacob was convinced that he had seen the God of Abraham and Isaac but was astonished to have survived the encounter, just as hundreds of years later Manoah and his wife would find it difficult to believe they had survived seeing God (Judges 13:22).

This event in the life Israel’s patriarch is the great turning point for him and for his descendants. Until this point Jacob has relied on himself but his encounter with the God of his fathers transforms him both physically (he has a permanent limp after wrestling with God) and spiritually. Like Abraham and Isaac before him Jacob pitches his tent, builds his altar and calls on the name YHWH who has now become for Jacob not only the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac but also El Elohe Israel, ‘God the God of Israel.’ (Genesis 33:18-19 (Hebrew text 33:19-20).

Jacob had not only seen the face of God but, as in the blessing of Numbers 26, the face of YHWH had shone on him in grace and favour; YHWH had truly lifted up his face toward Jacob and granted him shalom! The result was that when Jacob met Esau there was peace between them and for Jacob, seeing the face of Esau was like seeing the face of God. Furthermore, everything Jacob had asked from God twenty years before came to pass because in Genesis 33:18 Jacob returned home in peace to Shechem.

There is a sense in which the life of Jacob prefigures his descendants. It is now acknowledged by all but the most intransigent bigots that the Jews are the smartest people in the world. The list of Nobel Prize winners the Jewish nation has produced is way out of proportion to their size as a people. Nevertheless, the number of Jews who are atheists, agnostics and New Age mystics is also out of all proportion to their numbers.

According to David W. Torrance, ‘By all normal laws of geography, history and ethnography, they ought as a distinct race to have disappeared long ago, like so many other larger and greater nations . . .’

‘All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains,’ wrote Mark Twain. ‘What is the secret of his immortality?’

The answer is that God is keeping the promises concerning them that he made to Abraham. God is with Israel but Israel for the most part is not with God. To all intents and purposes, Israel is still Jacob, relying on their wits and ignorant of unconditional providence of their God that has kept them to this day. ‘They are beloved for the sake of the patriarchs,’ says the New Testament in Romans 11:28-29, ‘For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ Because of that, the Jewish people can say, Am Yisrael Chai (‘the people of Israel live’)!

But if Israel is to know God’s blessings in their fulness, like the father of their nation, Jewish must have a personal face to face encounter with their God. I don’t mean in precisely the same way Jacob met God at the Jabbok ford but in the sense in which the first temple rabbi and emissary of Jesus meant it when he wrote to Jewish and gentile followers of the Messiah in Corinth: ‘For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). 

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