Photo of Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God, by Jack Baumgartner, ©2009
Photo Courtesy of the author Jack Baumgartner
Guest post by Anna Rose O’kelley, © September 7, 2011
Genesis 32: 22-32: Wrestling with God
“And he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.” But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” So He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.” And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.” And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip. Therefore to this day the children of Israel do not eat the muscle that shrank, which is on the hip socket, because He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrank.”
The New King James Version. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 1982, S. Ge 32:22-32
This story is one of the stranger stories in the Bible. It’s one that I think is skimmed over a lot. But I would like to share what I think it means.
The story of Jacob starts when Rebekah and Isaac have two twin boys. The eldest son is named Esau who is born moments before his younger brother Jacob. Jacob’s name means deceiver. From the time he is born, Jacob has a certain identity thrust upon him by his own parents. From the very second that he came out of his mother’s womb he was called by the name of “Heel Grabber,” or “Supplanter,” or “Deceiver.” That was his identity, someone who takes the place of another. As Jacob grows up, he doesn’t trust that God could possibly have anything else in mind for him. He takes on the responsibility of his destiny by himself. He doesn’t trust that God might have a different identity than the one that the world has been taunting him with since the moment he was born.
Living up to his name, Jacob deceives his own brother out of his birthright. He deceives his own Father out of his blessing that was meant for the eldest son, and Jacob seeks to take the place of his older brother. This all comes back to haunt him, however, when Jacob is deceived by his own future Father in law when he is trying to marry his future wife Rachel. Jacob gets the older daughter instead of the younger, in an ironic twist of fate, and has to work another seven years for Rachel. Jacob later tricks his Father-in-law and steals his wealth and flees, enacting revenge and again living up to his name.
Jacob is consumed by this deception identity that he has been given. He is painfully aware of his name. This leads us to one fateful night. One night a man comes to Jacob and he and Jacob begin wrestling together. They fight and they fight until daybreak. When “the man” sees that Jacob is not giving up, he supernaturally touches Jacob’s hip and miraculously dislocates it, yet Jacob still will not give up. The man says to Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak!” but Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” By now you may have guessed that the person Jacob is wrestling with is God. Jacob also recognizes that this is God he is wrestling with.
After this life of accepting people’s opinions and titles for him and people’s false identities for him, Jacob is now face to face with God and saying “I will not let you go until I receive your blessing and until I receive my identity from you!” God looks at Jacob and he asks a simple question, He says, “What is your name?” There is a long pause, I imagine, and the word comes out with a bitter taste and a sigh… “Jacob…” Jacob says… “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, liar, and coward. My name is Jacob and this is who I am.” And with that, God looks lovingly at Jacob and says, “Because you have struggled with your identity in man, and now you have struggled with God, you have overcome. Now I will give you a new name. Your name is…Israel.” This name means struggling with God.
As the account draws to a close, we watch as Jacob shakes off the judgment that has clouded over him his whole life. He finally takes on the identity that God had for him all along. And as he lets go of his old name, a peace that he has never felt before floods over him and he is transformed by the renewal of his mind.