“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.”
– Genesis 32:27-28
This week in my reading of Genesis, a mysterious event occurs where Jacob wrestles with a “man” who Scripture strongly suggests is God. It is a strange encounter. Rather than get too caught up in the mysteries of this passage, I thought about what I was meant to take away from it.
For one, what does it mean to “wrestle with God”? The passage seems to suggest that it’s a good thing. I guess that it means that we struggle with the issues we struggle with in light of God, in his presence, with him, even struggle with God himself over the issues that trouble our hearts. That might mean crying out to God in desperation, or even crying out at God in our anger and fear. As much as God deserves our respect and reverence, he is big enough to handle our anger. And I believe he’d prefer us struggling with him or even at him in those times than to us not coming to him at all. Just look at the Psalms. Many of them are King David’s cries of desperation, fear, confusion, anger, asking God where he is and why he doesn’t seem to be coming to the rescue. But somehow, through the act of pouring his heart out to God, David nearly always finds his way back to hope and trust in God by the end of the psalm.
Just before Jacob’s wrestling match, he was tempted to fall back on his old way of doing things- devising his own schemes to get himself out of trouble or get him what he wanted. He was about to face his brother, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years and whose murderous anger over Jacob’s deception he had fled from those 20 years ago, and Jacob was, of course, afraid to meet him again. But Jacob stopped his scheming and went to God instead. He confessed his unworthiness to God. He acknowledged God’s great provision for him and remembered God’s promises to him. And he confessed his fear to God, wrestled with his situation with God instead of apart from Him. I think the strange wrestling match that followed was symbolic of that.
God noticed the difference in Jacob, too. And he gave him a new name.
Jacob means “he grasps the heel”, “supplanter” or “he deceives”. And that’s what he had been doing most of his life. Devising his own ways of getting what he wanted, sometimes deceptively, rather than consulting God and waiting for God’s direction and timing. It was probably his biggest flaw and the thing God had been trying to rid him of the past 20 years.
Isreal means “he struggles with God.” It is a name of redemption. God was either recognizing the change in Jacob’s character or making a declaration that from here on out it would be different. Jacob would now be known not as someone who schemes apart from God, but someone who fights his battles, especially his inner ones, with God and finds victory in his life because of it. I don’t know if Jacob always lived up to his new name after that. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect. But the fact that he would struggle with God, not apart from him, even in his imperfection, would make all the difference. When your Father tells you who you are, you aspire to live up to that. And he has promised that he will ultimately fulfill those whispers of who you can become.
“…he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” -Philippians 1:6
My Genesis study questions had prompted me to consider what Jacob’s biggest flaw might be, and it got me thinking about my own, as well. I came up with a couple things that have been my downfall repeatedly through the years, but the one that stood out the most was giving too much weight to gaining the approval of others in a way that causes me to neglect what’s really important. It is not nearly as “holier-than-thou” of an answer as it sounds. There were plenty of other flaws to choose from, but something was telling me that this one was primary. It is a serious and dangerous thing to allow your insecurities to reign over your life, letting your image, rather than God, sit on the throne of your life. It’s even a struggle to beat back thoughts about what you’re thinking as you read this. I’ve spent an unfortunately large percentage of my life living inside the heads of others, intuiting and sometimes just plain inventing what they’re thinking. There are much better ways to spend my time, things much more worthy of my concern than myself and what people think of me. I could have done a lot more worthwhile things if I had put all that time and mental energy to better use.
But my own answer to the question is not really important for you. What I want to convey is God’s promise of redemption for each of us, the promise to transform those traits that have tripped us up all our lives. Did you know that God is going to give us each a new name, just like Jacob?
“The nations will see your vindication,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand,
a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” -Isaiah 62:2-3
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” -Revelation 2:17-18
I’m not a biblical scholar, and I can’t claim to know how to interpret these verses accurately, but I do know that God promises redemption to his children. He can fix all that is broken in us, even the secret things that may have plagued you for as long as you can remember. And he will, if you trust him and wrestle with him and press on with him until the end.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” -2 Corinthians 5:17-21