Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 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 men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Genesis 32.26-30.
The story of Jacob’s encounter with “a man” who “wrestled with him until daybreak” at the ford of the River Jabbok is well-known, as is the fact that the “man” turned out to be God himself in human or angelic form. (In Hosea 12.4-5 we are told that Jacob “struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favour. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there — the LORD God Almighty, the LORD is his name of renown!”)
But why does God himself wrestle with Jacob, there in the darkness, once he is on his own? It does not tell us in the text but the foregoing chapters have painted for us a picture of a Jacob who, though he knows something of God and worships him, goes his own way and gets his own way by planning and plotting and scheming and manipulation. But now the time has come for Jacob to submit to God and to recognise him as Lord. That’s what this wrestling is all about.
I find myself identifying with Jacob a lot as I think about him this morning. I’ve done my share of running away, insisting on my own way, scheming, planning, plotting my future … and then struggling with God as he wrestles with me in the dark. But for me too (though gradually, in my case, rather than all in a moment) Jesus has become Lord and blessed me as I have learned to trust him and to go where he wants me to, and to do things his way. And, if I’m honest, I have to say that that process is ongoing and far from complete.
Jacob’s name meant “grasper” — he grasped his brother Esau’s heel as they emerged from Rebekah’s womb and the Hebrew for heel is akob — and over his lifetime he had grasped at many things, but finally he learned to grasp at God himself and not to let go until God blessed him. So he received a new name — Israel. This can, and probably should, bear two translations. It is from one word (sarah) meaning “to rule or have power with” and another (el) meaning “God”, so it can mean both “one who has power with God” and “God rules” … and I want to pray this morning that that might be my new name too.
Father, let my life be so submitted to you that my name can truly be “God rules”, and let me so be in your will, doing things your way, that my name can also truly be “one who has power with God”. And please bless me this day, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
PS. Apologies to any of you who came looking for new posts in the last few days. Although I found a wi-fi access point in Skiathos, I discovered that this site address I usually use will not permit uploads from a PDA! Since returning I have discovered how to do it using a special mobile site address!