Restoration Quarterly 42.3 (2000) 169-77.
Copyright © 2000 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.
TOWARD A LITERARY UNDERSTANDING
OF "FACE TO FACE" (MyniPA-lx, MyniPA)
IN GENESIS 32:23-32
MARK D. WESSNER
Were those who saw the face and heard the voice of Jesus of Nazareth
during the first century CE the first (and only) people to encounter God
himself in person?1 Hundreds of years earlier, and recorded in five OT
passages, the Lord is said to have encountered humanity MyniPA-lx, MyniPA,
that is, face to face.2 Surprisingly, given the vast amount of existing material
on the OT theophanies, scholars have yet to discover the theological richness
of these specific encounters.3 Therefore, with the use of certain textual,
literary, and historical tools, this essay explores the four central elements
inherent in the ancient Israelite understanding of their Lord's face to face
interaction with his people. In the process, it also touches on how this con-
cept affected the ancient Israelite understanding of God, of themselves, and
even of the great patriarchs of their faith.
The study of the Lord's intimate presentation of himself in OT literature
is central to understanding the nature of God's relationship with his chosen
people, and it is within the context of the Lord's self-revelation that MyniPA-
lx, MyniPA is selectively used in five separate passages, one of which is Gen
1 That the doctrine of Jesus' fully human-divine nature has been repeatedly
challenged and defended by scholars from a wide variety of theological traditions
is well known. The purpose of this study, however, is not to analyze the nature of
the NT Jesus, but rather to develop a deeper understanding of the OT Lord.
2 Gen 32:31; Exod 33:11; Deut 34:10; Judg 6:22; Ezek 20:35.
3 The absence of previous research provides both the wondrous opportunity for
new biblical exploration as well as the daunting task of fresh and original research.
Consequently, the application of critical analysis to the five passages is done hand
in hand with the investigation of ancient interpretations and insights (the Samaritan
Pentateuch, the Septuagint, the targumim, etc.).
170 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
32:31: "For I have seen Elohim face to face (MyniPA-lx, MyniPA )." This Hebrew
phrase is reserved for encounters between the human and the divine, and
although MyniPA-lx, MyniPA is used in specific circumstances and with certain
parameters, it is not limited to use in a single book or a major division of the
OT. Those involved in seeing God face to face include Jacob, Moses,
Gideon, and the Israelites in exile. The Genesis 32 encounter on the shores
of the Jabbok is explored on its own terms, and all the findings are united to
form a comprehensive understanding of the multidimensional nature of
MyniPA-lx, MyniPA interaction. Specifically, the four inherent elements are (1) divine
initiation, (2) profound intimacy, (3) intentional solitude, and (4) super
Although the textual source for this study is the Masoretic Text (MT) as
presented in BHS (4th ed.), other sources are carefully considered as well.
The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) not only sheds valuable light on the text of
the Hebrew Bible, but, more importantly, it also presents an ancient
understanding of the text. For example, given the conservative nature4 of the
Samaritans, it is quite noteworthy5 when the SP attests a different text from
the MT in the MyniPA-lx, MyniPA passages. Likewise, the Septuagint is a valu-
able aid in both the study of the textual history of the Hebrew Bible and the
study of Jewish thought in the pre-Christian era. Finally, the paraphrastic
Targums (Onqelos, Neofiti, and Jonathan) and the Syriac Peshitta have the
same tendency as the Samaritan Pentateuch in that they, too, transcenden-
talize6 God throughout the text and, therefore, provide helpful interpretive
2. Jacob and God "Face to face"
Perhaps no other OT narrative has evoked a wider range of under-
standing than that of Jacob as he wrestled with a mysterious opponent at the
4 See R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (
5 "[The] Samaritan Pentateuch transcendentalizes the concept of God; e. g.,
wherever in the MT God is said to deal directly with man without a mediator, or to
descend to earth, the Samaritan Pentateuch substitutes `the angel of God."' Bruce
Waltke, "Samaritan Pentateuch" ABD 5.938.
6 "These more or less paraphrastic targums are of more value in understanding
the way Jewish people understood their OT than for textual criticism." Bruce
Waltke, "Textual Criticism of the Old Testament and Its Relation to Exegesis and
Theology" NIDOTTE 1.59. See also Bernard Grossfeld, "The Targum Onqelos to
TAB 6.19, and Martin McNamara, "Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis"
7 In the discussion of Genesis 32, the verse numbering of the MT will be used
unless indicated otherwise.
WESSNER/FACE TO FACE 171
most controversial). Not surprisingly, previous research has identified
Jacob's exclamation "I have seen Elohim face to face!" as central to the
passage although face to face seems to have been lost in the theological
shadow of Elohim. Consequently, since the nature of MyniPA-lx, MyniPA inter-
action cannot be separated from the identity of those doing the interacting,
both elements are explored, albeit the former issue naturally receives more
attention than the latter.
3. Genre and Form
One of the first OT scholars to suggest that verses 23 and 33 form the
correct textual limits of this passage was Samuel Driver,8 and his
conclusions have been repeatedly confirmed.9 In addition, both the previous
and the following pericopae deal with the relationship between Jacob and
Esau, whereas the story of Jacob at the Jabbok omits any reference to Esau
and instead focuses on Jacob and his mysterious assailant.10 Both the text
itself and the content indicate that Gen 32:23-33 stands apart from the
surrounding text as a distinct pericope.
With regard to the genre of this passage, it is evident that the prohibition
in verses 32-3311 and the name changes in verses 29 and 3112 are primarily
etiological in nature. If the formula "until this day" in verse 33 is also
considered, the best conclusion is that the entire pericope functions as an
etiological folk story13 in which the precise nature of Jacob's MyniPA-lx, MyniPA
encounter at the Jabbok acts as the supporting evidence for the central
8 He noted that the previous pericope ends with "lodged that night," but v. 23
starts with "he rose up that night," thereby indicating that a new unit has begun.
Samuel Driver, The Book of Genesis (London: Methuen, 1904) 294.
9 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 266; Claus
Westermann, Genesis 12-36, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985), 512; Gerhard von Rad,
Genesis, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 314; Hermann Gunkel, Genesis,
(Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), 347. (The MT also seems to suggest these
limits in that both 32:23 and 33:1 start open D paragraphs).
10 This distinction is further elaborated in 4. Literary Context.
" For example, see von Rad, Genesis, 318; George Coats, Genesis (FOTL;
although it is never repeated anywhere else in the OT, this dietary prohibition is later
re-affirmed via Maimonides' Law # 183 (12th cent. CE).
12 See Gunkel,
Genesis, 353; and E. A. Speiser, Genesis
Doubleday, 1964) 256-57.
13 See Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 51. He also suggests that 32:23-33 can be
described as a local story because what is narrated leads to the naming of the place
and "no memorial stone is erected at the end to mark the place out as holy; it is
therefore not a cult story" (ibid., 514).
172 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
element:14 the name change from
encounter serves as a supernatural "stamp of approval," as is expanded upon
later in this essay, not as a Jacob-initiated victory over a local god or spirit
as is suggested by some.15
4. Literary Context
Traditionally, the book of Genesis has been divided into two main
sections, chapters 1-11 (primeval history) and chapters 12-50 (patriarchal
history), with the Jacob narrative placed in the latter. Prior to the events of
Jacob's life, the patriarchal families (i.e., Abraham and Isaac) had been
seminomadic and had not yet fully
occupied the promised land16 of
Jacob's encounter at Penuel took place as he, with caution, was about to re-
enter Canaan from Paddan
the anger of his brother, Esau. It was a homecoming filled with nervous
Brueggemann suggests that within the larger Jacob narrative is a chiastic
structure in which the two main themes of the entire narrative are announced
--the mysterious birth of Jacob and Esau and their intense interaction.
Brueggemann's chiastic analysis,17 presented below, identifies not only that
the births are the centre of the narrative, but more importantly, that the
events of Jacob's MyniPA-lx, MyniPA struggle at Penuel correspond to Jacob's
previous dream of God at
• Conflict with Esau (25:19-34; 27:1-45; 27:46-28:9)
• [Human-Divine] Meeting at
• Conflict with Laban (29:1-30)
• Births (29:31-30:24)
• Conflict/Covenant (30:25-31:55)
• [Human-Divine] Meeting at Penuel (32:22-32)
• Reconciliation with Esau (33:1-17)
• Closure and Transition (33:18-36:43)
14 See 4. Literary Context.
15 For example, von Rad writes, "How close our story is to all those sagas in
which gods, spirits or demons attack a man and in which then the man extorts
something of their strength and their secret" (Genesis, 316). Sharing the same
thought, Gunkel states that this story about Jacob is "closely related to those legends
and fairy tales that tell of a god compelled by a human through deceit or force to
leave behind his secret knowledge or something else divine" (Gunkel, Genesis, 352).
16 Promised to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), Isaac (Gen 26:3-5), and Jacob (Gen
17 Brueggemann, Genesis, 213. He also theorizes that the previous Abraham
narrative is preoccupied with the concept of promise and the Jacob narrative with
that of blessing (ibid., 206).
WESSNER/FACE TO FACE 173
Within the smaller pericope of Gen 32:22-32 is another chiasm evident as
well. The alternating speech between Jacob and his adversary, presented
within the literary framework of seven rm,xoy.va (and he said), draws the reader
to the central point (the fourth rm,xoy.va) of Jacob's own name, as shown below.
• Adv.: "Let me go for the dawn is rising." (v. 27)
• Jacob: "I will not send you away unless you bless me." (v. 27)
• Adv.: "What is your name?" (v. 28)
• Jacob: "Jacob." (v. 28)
"Your name is not called Jacob anymore but
• Jacob: "Please tell me your name." (v. 30)
• Adv.: "Why do you ask my name?" (v. 30)
Finally, a survey of the repetitive literary texture of Gen 32:23-33 in
comparison to its immediate context highlights several features of the text
itself. The most noteworthy is the complete absence in verses 23-33 of every
element except the characters of Jacob and Myhilox<. While Jacob's posses-
sions and his fear of his brother dominate the text before verses 23-33,
Jacob's concern about the members of his immediate family are his primary
concern in the subsequent passage. As shown in the summary18 below, the
solitary19 events that took place between verses 23 and 33 dramatically
changed Jacob's priorities.
bqofEya Myhilox< vWAfe family20 possessions21
32:1-22 9 3 9 3 24
32:23-33 7 2 0 0 0
33:1-17 3 3 6 15 5
By means of the repetitive texture within the surrounding text, Jacob is
intentionally portrayed as being completely separated from all of his posses-
sions and family; the human-divine MyniPA-lx, MyniPA encounter is between
Jacob and Myhilox< alone. There is no one present (friend or foe) either to
witness Jacob's profound struggle or to verify the change of his name and
18 This table is a summary of the full analysis given in Wessner, Face to Face:
Panim 'el-Panim in Old Testament Literature (Theological Research Exchange
Network, #048-0211, 1998), 109.
19 Jacob's removal and distance from everything else in his life is further
emphasized at the end of v. 24 by means of the phrase Ol-rw,xE, which refers to all
that Jacob had. In addition, the beginning of v. 25 makes Jacob's separation even
clearer by the use of ODbal; bqofEya rteUAyiva (and Jacob was alone).
20 Includes "mother, children, descendants, Rachel, Leah, Joseph, women."
21 Includes "cattle, donkeys, flocks, camels, ewes, rams, goats, hulls, herds,
174 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
5. Biblical Context
Interestingly, the events of Jacob's encounter at Penuel are never
directly quoted in the OT although the momentous occasion of Jacob's name
promise to him. In verse 10 God essentially repeated the words of 32:29:
"And God said to him, ‘... no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but
second reference to Jacob's name change is in I Kgs 18:30-38, during the
Israelites' dramatic and pivotal change of heart. According to verse 31,
Elijah stated that the Lord himself had previously spoken to Jacob, saying,
the changing of Jacob's name to
accomplished by God.
The concept of "God and man," as used in Gen 32:29, is used elsewhere
in the OT, with some scholars seeing it as an expression of totality22 rather
than as referring to two separate entities (i.e., the identification of Myhilox< as
a representative rather than as a distinct individual). For example, Judg 9:9,
13 seem to indicate that "gods and men" is used inclusively and that neither
the "gods" nor the "men" are treated individually. If Westermann's analysis
is correct, the words of Jacob's assailant, "you have struggled with God and
with men," may be representative of Jacob's whole life rather than a specific
reference to an individual event (e.g., the crossing of the Jabbok) during the
course of his life.
Even though Gen 32:23-33 is never directly quoted elsewhere, there is
a significant (and necessary) allusion to it in Hos 12:4-5,23 which states that
Jacob contended with Myhilox< and also struggled with a j`xAl;ma (angel). This
text, which looks back to various events throughout Jacob's life, is divided
into three separate bicola. The first bicolon shows both syntactic and seman-
tic parallelism B;, perfective verbs, tx,), while both the second and third have
syntactic parallelism (two imperfective verbs with an object in each line and
imperfective verbs and object suffixes in each line, respectively).
In this passage, Douglas Stuart notes that the bicolon in verse 4 is the
first half of a quatrain that includes verse 5a, thereby uniting the first two
bicola under one theme24--Jacob's struggle25 with his adversary. In fact, this
four-line unit also has an inherent chiastc structure of its own, as shown in
22 Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 518.
23 As in Genesis 32, the verse numbering in Hosea 12 will follow the MT.
24 Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah (Dallas: Word, 1987) 190.
25 hrAWA in v. 4 and either rUAWA (a by-form of hrW) or rraWA in v. 5.
WESSNER/FACE TO FACE 175
the text below, further clarifying the intentional correspondence between
j`xAl;ma and Myhilox<.
a In the womb he grasped the heel of his brother
b and in his strength he contended with Elohim.26
b' He ruled over/struggled with an angel and prevailed
a' he wept and he pled for grace with him.27
Therefore, despite the elaborate attempts of some scholars28 to explain verse
5a as parallel to events in Jacob's life29 other than his wrestling at the Jabbok
(e.g., Gen 30:8), Hosea is simply referring to Jacob's physical struggle with
Myhilox< and is as ambiguous about the identity of his assailant as is the
narrator of the Genesis account. For Hosea, the Myhilox< with whom Jacob
contended is not to be understood as God himself but rather as corre-
sponding to j`xAl;ma, that is, a messenger sent on behalf of God.
6. Other Ancient Literature
Although the story of Jacob's wrestling at the Jabbok has no biblical
parallels, it does have a loose connection with other Ancient Near Eastern
accounts, and its apparent association with other ANE river-deity encounters
is well documented.30 Ronald Hendel, however, is careful to say that
"Jacob's adversary is neither a night demon nor a river-god; Jacob names
him in v. 31 as Elohim. Nonetheless there are thematic continuities in the
Penuel encounter with traditional images of other conflicts and other
gods."31 Hendel also sees YHWH's adversarial role evident in other OT
passages such as when YHWH seeks to kill Moses (Exod 4:24-26) and when
he tests Abraham (Genesis 22). Quite possibly, the narrator of Genesis may
have had such a parallel in mind, although he did not mimic it exactly. For
example, Jacob was not completely victorious (he left with a physical limp),
and although he received a blessing, the focus of the text seems to be on the
changing of his name.
26 Myhilox< can refer to God, divine beings (Zech 12:8) or ghosts (1 Sam 28:13),
and even Moses was given the title by the Lord himself (Exod 7:1).
27 Cf. Gen 33:4, 8.
28 Francis Anderson and David
Noel Freedman, Hosea (AB;
Doubleday, 1980) 608-14.
29 For example, nowhere else does the OT record Jacob weeping or pleading
with an angel.
30 For example, see John Scullion, "The Narrative of Genesis" ABD 2.952,
Westermann, Genesis 12-36, 515; and Gunkel, Genesis, 352.
31 Ronald Hendel, The Epic of the Patriarch (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987)
105. He gives the example of a 7th-cent. BCE Phoenician incantation of the god
Sasam that says, "The sun rises 0 Sasam: Disappear, and fly away home."
176 RESTORATION QUARTERLY
Since it is generally accepted that the ancient Samaritan Pentateuch
systematically avoids any anthropomorphic presentation of God, it is
significant that the Genesis 32 pericope does not reflect any variant from the
text of the Masoretes. This could indicate that 1) the passage was "over-
looked" in the translation/interpretation process (which is unlikely, given the
thousands of variants elsewhere); 2) the Samaritans were not offended by
God's personal encounter with Jacob (also unlikely considering the prev-
alence of transcendentalization throughout the text); or 3) the Samaritans did
not consider the recorded events as portraying a physical and direct
encounter between God himself and an earth-bound man. Clearly, the third
option is the most logical because the Samaritans likely understood that
Jacob's statement "I have seen Elohim face to face" was not blasphemous
since Jacob's adversary was not actually YHWH in person, but rather was
someone with God-sent authority.
With regard to the Genesis 32 pericope, the Septuagint reflects the same
textual nuances as the MT, especially in two significant elements. Similar to
the Hebrew Myhilox<, the Greek term qeo<j used in verse 31 ("I saw qeo>n face
to face") does not necessarily refer exclusively to God, but can also refer to
a man, as in Exod. 7: 1. Of prime importance to this study, however, is the use
of "face to face" (pro<swpon pro>j pro<swpon) in the Septuagint text of
verse 30. In his speech, Jacob declared, "I saw (o[ra<w, 2d aorist active)
qeo>n face to face" reflecting the corresponding Hebrew syntax of "I have
seen (hxr, Qal) Myhilox< face to face." In both texts, Jacob (the subject)
asserted himself to be acting as the active agent in the face to face encounter,
a role that the Biblical narrator reserves exclusively for God or his agent in
the four other OT passages.
Written hundred of years later, Targum Onqelos, Targum Neofiti, and
the Peshitta all reflect significant variations from the Hebrew text sur-
rounding the phrase MyniPA-lx, MyniPA in Genesis 32. Since the nature of these
writings is to paraphrase and interpret freely during the process of transla-
tion, it is not surprising that Jacob's adversary is clearly identified in the
texts as an angel.32 By the time of the targumim and the Peshitta, there is
little room for misinterpreting the identity of Jacob's opponent at Jabbok; he
is clearly understood as an angelic being representing the Lord.
The Genesis text unquestionably says that Jacob physically saw some-
one face to face, but that someone was neither an ordinary man nor God
himself,33 as is often assumed, but rather a messenger acting on behalf of
32 Targum Neofiti goes even further by actually naming the angel as ‘Sariel’ (v. 25).
33 As for other instances of the seemingly intentional blurring of the distinction
WESSNER/FACE TO FACE 177
God. Not only does the text itself suggest this conclusion by the intentional
use of Myhiilox</qeo<j, but the earliest readers also understood that Jacob's
adversary was a divine messenger (cf. Hosea, Targum Onqelos, Targum
Neofiti, and the Peshitta).
As in all five biblical occurrences of MyniPA-lx, MyniPA, the four inherent
elements of divine initiation, profound intimacy, intentional solitude, and
supernatural verification are clearly evident in Gen 32:23-33. For example,
Jacob's wrestling match was caused by the sudden appearance and unex-
pected attack of the heavenly sent "man" during the night. Ironically, Jacob
had spent the previous day preparing for a dramatic encounter, but he was
expecting to meet his brother Esau, not the powerful messenger who was
declared to be Myhilox< not only was Jacob's encounter physically intimate,
but it also involved the very essence of his identity-the identification and
the change of his name. The physical touch, the name change, and the
personal blessing all serve to portray the profound intimacy experienced
between Jacob and the divine messenger.
As well, the Hebrew text of the pericope presents Jacob's complete
solitude quite effectively not only by stating that "he sent across [the
Jabbok] all that he had" and he "was left alone," but also by the complete
absence of any terms of possession or family in verses 23-33. Therefore, the
divinely initiated MyniPA-lx, MyniPA interaction, including the supernaturally
induced limp (and possibly the prohibition), served as a God-sent physical
"sign" to verify and legitimize the primary (and private) event of the
pericope, that is, the change of
Jacob's name to
theological significance of his encounter required some type of verification
from God himself (cf. Moses and the pillar of cloud, Gideon and the
sacrifice consumed by fire) if his unique encounter was to be taken seri-
ously. His was no mere spiritual or illusory encounter that could easily be
dismissed by his contemporaries: it was a physical encounter with the divine.
between a man, the Lord, and an angel, one need look no further than other passages
such as Genesis 16 (Hagar), Genesis 18-19 (Abraham), or Judges 13 (Manoah).
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