The story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being served as the basis of a chapter in the 2001 Herald House book, Claimed by a New Name, which guided my denomination (Community of Christ) in a year-long discernment process. I wrote chapter 2, “Wrestling with God,” and served as the book’s editor. The complete article is, of course, too long to reproduce here, but I have excerpted a portion.
Wrestling with God
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. –Genesis 32:24-31 NRSV
The titans struggled through the night, neither able to get an upper hand. As the morning mist evaporated over the Jordan one weary wrestler slipped away, as mysterious and unknown as before. The other limped into the dawn with a new name and calling, challenged to return home to confront a troubled past and an uncertain future. Only now could he–and countless heirs–claim and be claimed by God’s blessing.
Few Bible verses have been written about more than these. Some of that is due to the story’s open-endedness (like Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, we’re left wondering what happened next to the brothers and the rest of the family).
There’s more to this name change than first meets the eye. People wanting to change their name today simply make application before a judge who can grant the new legal status. For ancient people, though, names were incredibly important, revealing much about character, purpose, and life’s calling.
And so this is not just a way to explain how a man named Jacob got a new name, “Israel.” It’s as much or more about the twelve Hebrew tribes named for his sons: who they are as a people, their relationship with God and other nations, and–perhaps most importantly–their divine calling as a “chosen people” through whom God’s will and eternal purposes were to be lived out.
That’s a lot to consider, of course, so before those complex issues can be dealt with, let’s back up and begin where Bible study rightly should begin: the story in the written text.
A century ago the German scholar Hermann Gunkel identified four levels in the jacob saga: (1) Stories of the twin brothers, jacob and Esau, and their parents, Isaac and Rebekah; (2) Jacob’s dealings with his Uncle Laban; (3) Jacob’s encounters with divinity; and (4) the twelve tribes of israel, who looked to Jacob as their founding patriarch, role model, and namesake.
Scholars throughout the 19th and 20th centuries argued over who wrote down and edited numerous oral traditions to get the Old Testament into its present written form (probably at least 2,500 years ago). This isn’t the appropriate place to delve deeply into those hypotheses. But we do have to recognize that these four elements existed independently and in relationship with one another, as a unified whole, and as meaningful holy scripture through the ages and into the 21st century of the Christian era.
Like practically everybody else in the Bible, Jacob was a paradoxical mixture of good and bad, morally gifted and substantially flawed. In other words, he was truly human. On the basis of the Genesis account, it’s apparent Jacob was faithful to the “family promise” while at the same time deceptive, ambitious, greedy, and willing to stop at nothing to promote his own well-being. Yet this is the man God’s “chosen people” looked to as their founder. You have to ask, Why?
The simple answer: Because he was so much like them; his life story and relationship with God reflected their own. The mystery and complexity grow with the realization that these few chapters in the Pentateuch are not just a biographical sketch of Jacob, the man. They reveal a “type” of what Israel experienced with God, and so they took his new name for their own…..
The point to remember through all the stories leading up to Jacob’s fateful crossing of the Jordan at the Jabbok ford is that grasping conniving, deceit, and trickery were simply a means to an end for Jacob. He successfully outwitted his brother, father, and uncle and eventually acquired enormous wealth: two wives, concubines, many sons (and probably daughters, too), land, and herds of livestock.
Then one night he encountered divinity in a dream. He renamed the place Beth-el (Hebrew for “house of God”) because there he witnessed the close connection between heaven and earth. This almost always is referred to as “Jacob’s ladder” although the text describes it as more of a ramp. What is more important for Jacob is that he realized God wanted him to return home (yes, the “promised land” of Abraham and Sarah) to reconcile with his brother and his God.
His fears of what that might entail were only heightened by the news that Esau was already on the way to meet him with 400 men! So Jacob did the expected: he plotted to first bribe his brother and, failing that, to at least outwit him by dividing his considrable possessions. The “children” of his favorite wife, Rachel, were sent to the rear (so even in defeat they might escape), while Leah’s sons would bear the initial brunt of Esau’s expected fury.
Then Jacob camped alone at the Jabbok. Once again there was a divine encounter, but this time he was awake and ended up wrestling all night with a mysterious foe. Jacob is described as a man of incredible strength. That had come in handy before–most notably in his ability to move a huge boulder at a well where he met the love of his life, Rachel.
But this stranger possessed incredible strength and stamina, too, and as daybreak approached the weary wrestleers began to negotiate a draw. There is probably significance in the fact that this episode occurred at night, like the dream at Bethel, and it would be easy to get sidetracked by that point. One of the more insightful interpretations give this meaning to the stranger’s request to “Let me go, for the day is breaking”: A new day is dawning, and it’s time to get on with your journey.
The stranger and his name remained a mystery. Was it Esau, an angel, God himself? We just don’t know. Because we assume God was in this stranger somehow, we can extrapolate that the mysteries of heaven and earth–the meaning of life itself–also stayed hidden from Jacob. Adam and Even tried to learn the same thing by eating forbidden fruit and were just as unsuccessful.
Something even more important happened to Jacob: first, he was crippled; then he was blessed and given a new name (in Hebrew, Israel means “May God rule”). Those two facts are tied together, and as such they lead us to a penetrating insight: wounding and blessing are two sides of the same coin. The truth that there is “power in weakness” and “weakness in power” leads directly, certainly for Christians, to the New Testament gospel of the cross. For Jacob there would be no victory or cheap reconciliation, and so he departed from this blessing event with a limp.
Frederick Buechner referred to this incident as the “Magnificent Defeat”: Jacob prevailed but also limped. To a far greater extent Jacob now realized the truth in his statement after waking from his dream at Bethel; “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book.The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.</