Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The two verbs פנה (pana) and פנן (pnn) are obviously etymologically related, and have such similar meanings that the division seems somewhat contrived. It's doubtful that an ancient Hebrew audience recognized them as two:
The verb פנה (pana) means to turn toward, or rather to bend or incline: not simply a swirl or arbitrary tilt but rather a deliberate alteration of a course of progression toward a newly declared and desired objective. Our verb is used to describe natural features 'turning' toward a certain direction (Joshua 15:2), a path 'turning' into a better direction (Malachi 3:1), a vine's branches 'turning' toward a tending eagle (Ezekiel 17:6), a person 'turning' into some for onlookers unexpected direction (Song of Solomon 6:1), an enemy 'turning' away from the victim (Zephaniah 3:15), or folks 'turning' toward achieving a situation (Haggai 1:9) or help (Job 5:1).
Our verb is also used to describe how people may stop their natural inclination to pursue practical knowledge of creation (both to communicate with the Creator and to take care of his world: Isaiah 45:22) and 'turn' to fake gods (mostly in order to control other people or to shirk responsibility; Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 31:20, Hosea 3:1).
Although this verb may sometimes coincide with a physical course change, it primarily refers to internal considerations and a change of ambition or objective. This is demonstrated by its small cluster of lesser derivations, which all have to do with the inside of things:
- The adjective לפני (lipne, which is possibly simply ל plus פני, see below), which occurs only in 1 Kings 6:17, where it has caused considerable consternation among translators. Most translations seems to suggest that this verse speaks of some otherwise unmentioned, forty cubit-wide building 'in front of' the main temple, but more likely this statement is about some 'inner dimension' of it.
- The adverb פנימה (penima), meaning toward the inside or within (Leviticus 10:18, 1 Kings 6:18).
- The adjective פנימי (penimi), meaning 'inner' and always refers to the inside of a building (1 Kings 6:27, Ezekiel 8:3).
This word also describes the special bread that God ordered to be kept on permanent display in the tabernacle: לחם פנים לפני (lehem panim lepani): the "bread of turnings" before my face (Exodus 25:30). Obviously, the word for bread also means war, and the word for turnings means "inner contemplation". In other words, the item often translated with "shew bread" or "bread of the presence" was a thing that either denoted "setting a course to bounty" or "contemplations of war". This item is in the Greek New Testament called the loaves of προθεσις (prothesis), or "something previously established".
Turnings, turnings everywhere
Our verb's primary derivation is the masculine noun פנה (pane), which occurs in the Bible pretty much exclusively in the plural form: פנים (panim) or rather its construct plural: פני: 'panim of'. Our noun literally means 'turns' or 'turnings' and with its more than two-thousand occurrences in the Bible, it's a word as ubiquitous and general as, say, the verb 'to do' or the word for 'things'.
Our word's usages and nuances fill seven dense columns in BDB Theological Dictionary but readers of the Bible need to keep in mind that to the Bible's authors this word was the same word each time. They had other words, but chose not to use them simply because using the same word over and over conveyed meaning too. Since there is no real identical catch-all term available in English, translating our word panim with a broad array of different English words is unfortunately unavoidable, but also uncannily like representing one of Mondrian's famous neo-plasticistic compositions in a pallet of tasteful hues and tones; well-meant but wholly missing the point. Just like Mondrian's point lay in monochromaticity, so lies the point of our word panim in its singular meaning: turnings or inclinations.
For instance, when the Lord sent Cain on his way, the latter complained that with this one, single act he was sending Cain (1) from the panim of the land and (2) from the panim of the Lord (Genesis 4:14). The author had many words to choose from, but by utilizing this obvious tandem hinging on the word panim, he deliberately forges the same kind of two-sides-to-one-coin kind of duality that also exists in the famous command to (1) love the Lord with all one's heart, and (2) love one's neighbor as one self — a single mentality that results in two seemingly separate consequences that are really not that separate at all. Just like loving the Lord doesn't go without loving one's neighbor, so is Cain's expulsion from the land concurrent with his expulsion from the Lord's panim.
On the face of it
One of the great many applications of our word פנים (panim) and its construct plural פני, is in the sense of 'face'. This may seem logical because one's face turns to wherever the action is, but it really isn't that simple. It's not the face that turns but the head, and even if a face was known as something that turns, it would be called פנוה (panuah), or 'turner' and not פנים (panim), or 'turnings'.
The curious tendency of translators to interpret nearly every Biblical instance of our word with 'face' is unfortunate and ultimately not very helpful. Additionally confusing is our modern language's adoption of many of the other applications of our word (as in the 'face' of a rock, or the 'facade' of a building), which aren't really metaphors but literal applications of the fundamental meaning of the English word 'face': namely that of the Latin word facies, meaning appearance or form, from the verb facio, to form or make (from whence, interestingly, also come our words fact, facility and facsimile).
The main difference between the Hebrew modus operandi and the English one is that English is a static language and calls things after the way they look (hence verbs derive mostly from nouns), whereas Hebrew is a dynamic language and calls things after the way they act (hence nouns derive mostly from verbs). As we saw above, the other derivations of our verb פנה (pana) refer typically not to the outer appearance of things like buildings but rather to the exact opposite, that is the inside of things.
For living beings our word panim refers to their inner motivations and emotions, which obviously are witnessed of in a person's face but are not the same as the face. For lifeless objects, panim refers to their inner mechanisms. In other words: when in English we speak of the 'face of the earth' we refer to the earth's visible appearance and thus its surface. To refer to the same thing in Hebrew we would have to use words that mean 'image' or 'skin' or something along those lines, but when we use the word panim, we typically don't refer to the way it looks but to the way it acts: it's turnings, it's doings, and mostly its inner workings.
When the translated Bible states that humans multiplied 'on the face of the earth' (Genesis 6:1), readers may understand the earth to have been a mere supporting stage upon which mankind's multiplications happened to have occurred. But the Hebrew explicitly states that humans multiplied (or rather: became great) 'upon the turnings of the earth'. And that means that mankind's greatness waxed within the earthly arena like a baby in its mother's actively caring and protecting womb. In fact, the term 'upon the turnings of the earth' occurs all over the Bible as indicative of an indeterminate period of time or stretch of land — including all activities and events of this period or region — based on the earth's rotation around its axis: 'as the world turns'.
Likewise, when Jeremiah exclaims woes because the day 'turns' (Jeremiah 6:4), he's not stating that calamities occur simply because the day progresses, but rather because of the day's goings on. In much the same way, the 'panim of the waters' (Genesis 7:7) is not merely the 'face/surface' of the waters but its waves and currents.
When Hagar fled from Sarah's panim, she didn't just get out of her face but evaded her whole range of authority (which by then covered thousands of people; Genesis 16:6-8, see 14:14). And despite tradition's slurs, Hagar's son Ishmael and their people would come to value strong social bonds, as upon his 'turnings' all his brothers would live (Genesis 16:12).
People who think that Abraham 'fell on his face' (Genesis 17:3) evidently never did any falling, because one's face is typically that last place one wants to fall on. And to the omnipresent God, it really doesn't matter what physical pose one assumes, and the God of reason rather reasons with someone (Isaiah 1:18) than see someone swoon or behave like a lunatic in order to not have to reason. Instead, Abraham 'prayed with his whole capacity' and earnestly conversed with the Lord the way any responsible adult does.
When Haran died 'upon the panim of Terah his father' (Genesis 11:28) he neither was sitting on his father's head, nor was he loosely in his father's general presence, but within the intimate care of him.
May the Lord shine his panim upon you
When the Bible speaks of the 'panim of YHWH', it neither implies that the Lord has a face (the Lord has no body), nor does it refer to the 'presence of the Lord' (as many translations have) because even though folks have been known to leave the 'panim of YHWH' (Genesis 4:16), no one can leave the presence of an omnipresent being.
When earthly leaders such as Constantine and Charlemagne began to claim that they were God's representatives and even replacement on earth (this, after all, worked wonders for the Caesars), they needed to have their subjects believe that (a) God, like them, was some supreme monarch, who existed far away from his subjects in his heavenly realm, and (b) if God, like the king, would deign to pay the subjects a visit, the subject better fall over from fear and not dare look up. Much imperial theology is derived from those sentiments, but they are wholly pagan.
What scaremongers and dictators don't want anybody to know is that the Living God is present in every point of the cosmos and can neither be approached nor abandoned (let alone be represented or replaced). Moreover, the Living God continually seeks a kind, loving, fun-filled, marriage-like relationship with all his people; a relationship that is characterized by mutual respect, partnership and autonomy of everybody involved (the word Christ means precisely that: 'autonomous person' or 'king of your own life').
This truly marvelous concept of the panim of YHWH does not refer to the haughty mug of some terrible sky-lord, but to the whole spectrum of things of YHWH we can readily experience (Romans 1:20), including blessings he bestows on us. Recognizing the Creator in creation or even one's own life requires the Holy Spirit, of course, and this in the same way in which one needs to learn how to read before one can recognize meaning and ultimately an author in a text (Romans 1:19). 'Going out from the panim of YHWH' is the same as willfully rejecting the Holy Spirit and denying that the Lord is giving you the wisdom and freedom to fit within the larger mechanism of his purpose (Numbers 6:25, Psalm 97:5).
In other words, the panim of the Lord is not so much something that is a part of him (the Lord has no parts) but rather a part of us: that what we know of Him, and consequently his creation — the entire human library of 'knowledge' of the Lord (which, we'll continue to emphasize, has nothing to do with any religious observance).
God doesn't seem to be in the despotic habit of simply destroying things he doesn't like, but rather waits until the destruction of something would actually mean something to some surviving onlooker(s). The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, occurred only when people such as Abraham had reached a certain level of awareness of these communities' caustic presence in the world (see Genesis 13:10-12 and 18:16-17) as their 'outcry had become great with(in) the panim of YHWH' (Genesis 18:20, 19:13).
Our word is most often preceded by the particle על ('al) or the similar prefix ל (le), and both describe either (1) a motion toward a location or situation, or (2) a position of elevation relative to something. Our phrase 'panim of YHWH' combined with either the particle or the prefix describes (1) a movement towards an intimate entanglement with the Creator, but not a spatial approach to the Lord's location (the Lord has no location), or (2) a 'leaning' upon the knowledge of the Lord in order to plot a next course of action 'based upon' one's understanding of how the world works.
Conversely, by going out from the panim of YHWH, a human being is still as much in his presence as the whole of creation is, but stops being intimate with YHWH and becomes nothing but a smart animal (Psalm 73:22, Ecclesiastes 3:18, 2 Peter 2:12, Jude 1:10), who lives wholly for himself, within complete denial of his symbiotic responsibilities toward the rest of creation, and unaware of the unfathomably spectacular creature mankind must ultimately become. To some this may sound like a lot of fun but it really isn't. Unlike animals, humans have brains that allow them to analyze both past and future, and develop a wide array of desperations upon the full realization of randomness and futility.
The assumed verb פנן (pnn) is obviously a by-form of the previous root פנה (pana). Its extant derivatives are:
- The feminine noun פנה (pinna), meaning corner, which is obviously literally 'a turn'. It may denote the corner of a building (1 Kings 7:34) or of a wall (Nehemiah 3:24) and even the earth (Job 38:9). Since the earth has no corners, not even metaphorically, this word does not simply mean corner but again 'turnings'. This noun is also used to describe a firm foundation for society, usually translated with cornerstone (Judges 20:2 - the "cornerstones" of all the people; Isaiah 19:13 - the "cornerstones" of their tribes). The famous line of Psalm 118:22, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone," uses this same word pinna.
- The plural feminine noun פנינים (peninim), probably denoting corals. BDB Theological Dictionary proposes that corals may have been named this way because of its branches and also because the Arabic cognate means just that: branching. In Ezekiel 17:6 the Lord tells of a vine with branches 'turning' toward its tending eagle. The verb here used is פנה (pana). Corals are noted in the Bible for their value (Proverbs 20:5) and their red color, contrasting snow (Lamentations 4:7).