Reflecting and Doing
A lot of Bible names have meanings that are something to do with God. Here are a few:
- Abiel means “God is my father”
- Areli means “lion of God, hero”
- Azarel means “God has helped”
- Bethel means “house of God”
- Bethuel means “man of God”
- Bithiah means “daughter of Yahweh”
There are lots of others. Use a Bible dictionary or an internet search to find one with a meaning that you would like to live up to, and use it in some place that you will hear or see often. Perhaps ask family members to call you that, or change the user name on your phone or computer. Every time you see or hear the name, remember who you are and whose you are.
There is so much about this passage that is familiar, but a whole load that makes us go, “What the flippin’ ‘eck is that about?”
Let’s start with the familiar. We’ve seen Jacob here before. Alone in the desert, at night, afraid for his life … and then something weird happens. First time it was a ladder, now it is a wrestling match. A brief recap of what’s happened since the last weird something:
Back in chapter 27, Jacob did his best-ever job of irritating his big brother Esau, by stealing the eldest son’s blessing from their father. In return, Esau vowed to kill Jacob. Afraid for his life, Jacob legged it to his cousin Laban’s house, and while he was alone in the desert with nothing but the clothes he lay down in, he had a dream. He dreamed of the God that his father worshipped, and when he woke, Jacob had made a deal with him. The deal was that if the Lord would stay with him so that he could return to his father’s house in peace, then the Lord would be his God.
Twenty years later, Jacob has married both of Laban’s daughters, had eleven sons and grown very rich at Laban’s expense. Jacob seems to have forgotten about the deal with God, but as we will see, God is about to remind him. Laban has had enough of his son-in-law by now, so Jacob gathers all that he has and does a runner again.
We’re spotting a pattern in Jacob’s life – dodgy dealing until friends and family can’t stand him, then leg it and start all over again. Except this time he can’t start all over again. History is catching up with him. Particularly his brother Esau is catching up with him. Look back at the start of this chapter. As Jacob travels towards the land of his father, he sends a message to Esau in the neighbouring region. No doubt he was hoping for something along the lines of ‘Great to hear from you, bro. All is forgiven.’ Instead he gets stony silence and an approaching army of 400 men. Gulp.
Quickly, Jacob separates his family and possessions into two, so that if one group is slaughtered the other can escape, and puts a lot of distance between them and him. He knows he deserves nothing but trouble, fair’s fair after all. The night sees Jacob, once again alone, in the desert and frightened for his life. All his scheming has got him nowhere, not in the things that matter.
So he turns, finally, to God. He makes probably the one honest prayer in his life, asking God to deliver him from his furious brother. He admits that he does not deserve the least amount of God’s favour, but he asks for it anyway. And then something weird happens, and that where we come in.
The Bible is infuriatingly vague about who this mysterious wrestler is. A man, and angel, the Lord God himself? Whoever it is, he declines to give his name and is eager to be away before daybreak. Is that so that Jacob does not see his face? After a long struggle, neither can subdue the other so the wrestler inflicts an instant injury on Jacob to end the fight. Presumably he could have done that at any time, and could have done a lot more if he had chosen. It was enough to show who had won but not enough to seriously injure. It’s like when I play with my cat and she grabs me with all her claws – not to hurt me, but to show who’s boss. Jacob understands that he is wrestling with God, and demands a blessing.
That’s an interesting request. Perhaps the struggle has reminded Jacob of all the struggles with his father, his brother, his father-in-law, and the ‘blessings’ he has stolen. The wrestler does not fulfil Jacob’s hunger for blessing right away, but instead directs Jacob’s attention to the root of the problem, his name. Jacob has spent his life living up to his name (it means ‘sneaky little rat-bag’) and it’s time to change.
So God renames the cheater. Instead of a name that hangs around his neck, dragging him down until he became what people called him, Jacob gains a name that takes the best view of his life. Israel – ‘He struggles with God’. It is a reminder of his Lord every time he hears his name, encouraging him to live up to his promise that ‘The Lord will be my God.’ And Jacob, now Israel, is instantly reformed.
No, he isn’t. But he is changed. He wants to know the stranger’s name, like Moses after him, but here the name is kept hidden. The God that Jacob knows only dimly will stay dimly known for the moment. However, Jacob does get the blessing he has been struggling for all these years – a blessing given, not taken.
He leaves the scene a changed man. The limp is a permanent reminder of his encounter, and reassurance that it was not just a dream. Twenty years earlier, alone in the desert and frightened for his life, Jacob had asked that God stay with him. Israel found that he had.
A blessing given not taken.
Jacob had used bargaining and trickery to get blessing for himself in the past. Now, when he knew he did not deserve it, blessing was freely given.
Do we expect God to bless us because we are ‘good Christians’? But God chooses to also bless those who do not deserve it. It can be hard to accept that God makes his sun to shine on the evil just as much as on the good.
Genesis 32:22-31 New English Translation
During the night Jacob quickly took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream along with all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone. Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.
Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” “I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” “No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” “Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”
The sun rose over him as he crossed over Penuel, but he was limping because of his hip.
New English Translation (NET)
NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.
Image: Jacob Wrestles With Angel, woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, with apologies
Image Jacob Wrestles With Angel, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld