Peniel (also spelled Penuel) means “face of God.” In Genesis 32, Jacob is on his way to meet Esau and is dreading the encounter, thinking that Esau is going to kill him. (Esau had vowed to do just that in Genesis 27:41 because Jacob had cheated him out of receiving his father’s blessing.) Now, over two decades have passed, but Jacob is still fearful when he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men (Genesis 32:6). Jacob starts sending gifts on ahead of him to meet Esau first in hopes of winning his favor. Now, the night before the meeting seems inevitable and still not knowing Esau’s disposition toward him, Jacob sends his entire caravan of wives, children, flocks, and servants across the stream so that they would have a buffer between them and Esau’s entourage (verse 22). Then Jacob spends the night alone, and there, in a place later known as Peniel, he has a mysterious encounter.
“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered. Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’ Jacob said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he replied, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared’” Genesis 32:24–30).
Jacob wrestles with “a man” at Peniel. Hosea 12:4 identifies the “man” as an angel. Many Christians have understood this person to be God Himself. God had appeared as a man prior to this time (Genesis 18). The Lord may also appear as an angel—“The Angel of the Lord.”
The precise identity of this mysterious assailant at Peniel is not clear, but we have some clues: the man wrenches Jacob’s hip out of joint with just a touch, he has the power to bless Jacob, and Jacob finds it significant that he has seen the face of his opponent and lived. These details lead us to think that Jacob met deity. Jacob thought so, too, naming the place “Peniel,” or “Face of God.”
At some time in the next 500 or so years, Peniel became a city. In Judges 8:8, Peniel is mentioned as a city with no further explanation. The assumption is that the city was built on the same location where Jacob wrestled—which was clearly identified as near the ford of the Jabbok River (Genesis 32:22). We are not told of the history of the city nor how it came to be settled by Israelites after the conquest of Canaan. In Judges 8 Gideon asks for help from the men of Peniel in pursuing the Midianites, but they refuse, whereupon Gideon vows to return and tear down their tower—which indicates that the city was of some size. After Gideon finishes pursuing the Midianites, he returns and tears down the tower of Peniel and kills the men of the town (verse 18).
The city of Peniel is next mentioned in 1 Kings 12 as a city that Jeroboam fortified after the ten northern tribes rebel against Solomon’s son Rehoboam and crown Jeroboam as king.
Finally, Penuel is the name of a man who was descended from Benjamin in the genealogy given in 1 Chronicles 2. Although the name is the same, there is no stated connection between the man’s name and the place name or Jacob’s encounter.
Peniel was tremendously significant in the life of Jacob. It was here that his name was changed to Israel, and it seems to have served as a turning point in his life. However, the other mentions of this location in Scripture are in conjunction with strife within the nation of Israel. This should serve as a reminder that the faith must be passed from one generation to the next. A place of holy encounter to one generation can easily become nothing more than a spot on the map to later generations.