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After Jacob wrestles with the angel, he names the place Peniel, "because I have seen God face to face." (Gen 32:30).

Why does he say that he has seen God face to face? He has only seen an angel, which, although divine and sent by God, isn't God. God Himself will later appear to rename him Israel, but this is before that.


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Why do you suppose he didn't see God face-to-face (in contradiction to what he literally said)? And also, where is support for your claim that angels are "divine"? –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Apr 19 '14 at 3:36
Jacob had at least previously seen God “face-to-face”, back when the Lord stood there as Jacob was traveling and dreaming; he named the place Bethel, or “house of God”. (Gen 28:10-19) biblegateway.com/passage/… As for “divine”, it’s interesting that word is used in certain bibles. E.G. “You shall no longer be spoken of as Jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and humans beings and have prevailed” [Gen 32:29 (NAV )] –  John Martin Apr 19 '14 at 13:50

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Because Jacob encountered God (YHWH) that Night

The Meaning of Face to Face

The phrase "face to face" in the Hebrew (פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים) uses the plural form of the word פָּנֶה (paneh; "face").1 However, it would not necessarily be proper to translate it then "faces to faces," because the word is always found in the plural form in Hebrew.2 This is because Hebrew uses plurality to express compound objects ("a single object that consists of several parts").3

In the context of personal interaction, while the expression can mean literally facing one another to the face (e.g. Jer 32:4, 34:3), it also has the idea of "appearing before,"3 as when all Israel was "face to face" with God at Sinai (Dt 5:4). But the term "face" more figuratively was simply an expression of the "presence" of a person,4 including God (e.g. Ex 33:14-15).

The expression when used of interacting (seeing, speaking, etc.) with God refers to "a form of the LORD," (תְּמוּנָה; "likeness" or "representation")5 as was the case with Moses' interaction with God "face to face" (Num 12:8; cf. Ex 33:11, Dt 34:10). Such is known as a theophany.

Thus while seeing God's face (as in God's full glory) all men were incapable of doing and surviving (and so Moses did not even see Him so; Ex 33:18-23), God could manifest Himself in His creation in other ways that "localized" His presence, and one could interact with Him in a "face to face" manner, but not be expressing His full glory.

That the one encountered was God (YHWH)

We have seen that Moses interacted "face to face" with God through a "form" in which God appeared to Moses. The same is happening here in Genesis 32:24-30. There it refers to the one Jacob wrestled with as "a man" (v.24).

But in the passage, this "man" Jacob sensed was no mere man, but something more. No doubt it was in part because of the wrestling, but also because Jacob knew God had another base of operations near his own camp here.

So Jacob sought this "man's" blessing, which was granted--his new name, "Israel," which this "man" reveals is given because Jacob had "struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed" (v.28; NKJV). The name is believed to come from the Hebrew root שׂרה (srh), which can mean either (1) "to persist, exert, persevere" the idea being contend or fight, or it can mean (2) "rule",6 and the suffix אֵל (el; "God"). Hence the two common routes it is translated: "fights/contends/prevails with God" or "rules with God/prince of God."

So it is this "man" that reveals Himself as God to Jacob by the activity of the night and the name given. Jacob seeks confirmation of this, but the "man" is elusive (v.29; cf. Jud 13:17-18). This apparently only convinced Jacob more that it was God whom he had wrestled with (v.30).

Hosea 12:3-4 tells us that this "man" was indeed not only a מַלְאָךְ (melek; "angel" or "messenger," v.4), but was "God" (v.3) Himself as the messenger, the very same God (YHWH) that Jacob had met in Bethel (v.4; cf. Gen 28:13).


The "man" Himself cryptically revealed that He was God, Jacob testifies that it was God, Moses records in Scripture for us that it was God, and Hosea confirms it was God.

It is God (YHWH) that Jacob wrested with, in the form God appeared to him as (a man), and that is why Jacob names the place Peniel.


1 Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000), s.v. פָּנָה. Hereafter referred to as BDB.

2 R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), #1782.

3 Labeled as a "plural of extension" in Ronald J. Williams, Williams' Hebrew Syntax, 3rd. ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 3.

4 BDB, s.v. פָּנָה.

5 BDB, s.v. תְּמוּנָה.

6 BDB, s.v. שָׂרָה. See also Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999), s.v. יִשְׂרָאֵל.

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Well done, especially "Hosea 12:3-4 tells us that this "man" was indeed not only a מַלְאָךְ (melek; "angel" or "messenger," v.4), but was "God" (v.3) Himself as the messenger, the very same God (YHWH) that Jacob had met in Bethel (v.4; cf. Gen 28:13)." –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Apr 19 '14 at 17:03
+1 thanks, great perspective –  user437158 Apr 22 '14 at 15:15

I'm going to go out on a limb here, because for most readers this is unfamiliar territory. Archaelogists and scholars have long realised that the ancient Israelites were polytheistic - not just occasionally and in rebellion, but systemically. Mark S. Smith says in The Early History of God(p52-53) that a tenth-century cultic stand from the site of Taanach in north-eastern Israel attests to polytheism in this area. Later, the conquering Assyrians boasted of the religious idols ('gods') they took as booty from Samaria. Lester L Grabbe says in Ancient Israel (p120) that Israelite society was long polytheistic, but YHWH (Yahweh - often translated into English as Jehovah) did function in some way as a national god and seems to have been the most widely honoured deity. In Gods, Goddesses and Images of God, Keel and Uehlinger describe hundreds of Israelite and Judahite artefacts that attest to polytheism, including evidence of sun god and moon god worship. I suggest that the story of Jacob originated in this polytheistic milieu but as Judah moved towards monolatry and then monotheism, his story was imperfectly adapted to these new beliefs.

Isaac's son, Jacob was left alone and wrestled with an opponent all night until the break of day, when the man said he must leave (Genesis 32:24ff). Even though his leg was dislocated, Jacob refused to let his opponent go unless he blessed Jacob. That the 'man' was a god is amply demonstrated - Jacob asked for his blessing, he had the prerogative of changing Jacob's name, Jacob's new name was Israel (generally assumed to mean 'wrestled with God') and Jacob called the place Peniel ('the face of God') because he had seen God face to face. If the man who wrestled with Jacob was a god, then Jacob was also a god in a much earlier tradition behind this passage, as demonstrated by the fact that he was such an even match for his opponent. And if the opponent was a god, he was also a sun god - daybreak signalled the end of the contest, he had to leave Jacob before the sun could rise, then the sun rose upon Jacob. This is consistent with the ancient daily struggle in which the sun god defeats the moon god at dawn.

Jacob did see God face to face, not just an angel. The God he saw was the sun god.

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