I grew up with a guy named Gene. Now, Gene was always just a little tougher than anyone else, a little rougher. He was a nice guy – he was no bully – but you wouldn’t want to mess with him. He was the first of my contemporaries to get a tattoo, a huge dragon on his calf, and this was before everybody seemed to have tattoos.
So Gene ended up being one of the best wrestlers in the state. He was state champion at 171 pounds at least a couple times, but there was a problem: there wasn’t anyone on our wrestling team he could legitimately practice against. He usually practiced with the coach, but the coach would get tired of that, and so the coach (who was also my track coach) would ask me to come in and wrestle Gene. In theory, at around 200 pounds, I would be hard to move around. In practice, I was really just there to get my butt kicked from one end of the mat to the other. It was all I could do to just hold on and pray Gene didn’t accidentally rip my arms off.
That experience makes me feel for poor Jacob in our story today from Genesis. Jacob wrestles with a “man”, but this man is really either the Angel of the Lord or the Lord Himself, an opponent, like some others, against whom Jacob cannot possibly win.
The problem, though, is that we can never really feel sorry for Jacob. Jacob was not a good man. He swindled his way through life: he cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and their father’s blessing; he manipulated livestock futures, he lied to his uncle over and over. You wouldn’t want to play cards with Jacob. Even the name Jacob means cheater, manipulator. Sorry.
So our story picks up with Jacob on his way to see his brother Esau, whom he hasn’t seen in a couple decades. Jacob is not looking forward to this – he figures that Esau is going to kill him at first sight – but the meeting is inevitable, so on he goes. Jacob sends men out in front of him to meet Esau’s men, to get a lay of the land, so to speak, and sends messengers with gifts every hour to his brother. The day passes and Jacob decides to spend the night in a safe place, on the other side of a swift river from his brother, and that’s when things get exciting.
A man appears. We’re not told if the man was looking for a fight or if Jacob just decided to fight him, but fighting was in Jacob’s nature. This man – my guess is that it was the Angel of the Lord, maybe Michael – could have ripped Jacob’s arms off at any time, but surely winning wasn’t the point of the fight. When the angel saw that he “would not prevail” against Jacob, meaning that Jacob was never going to give up, he “touched the hollow of his thigh”, meaning that he really did sort of rip his leg off, or at least out of joint, like Bo Jackson did to himself.
But still Jacob would not let go. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” were his exact words. “What’s your name,” the angel asked him, knowing full well the answer. “Jacob.” The cheater, the manipulator, that’s my name.
But not for long. “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
We’ve talked before about how names work – the Confirmation Class spent several minutes with the meanings of names in the Bible a few weeks ago. When a name ends in -el – most of the time, at least – -el is a suffix which means ‘of the Lord’. So if your name is Michael, that’s a mash of the name Micha and el: Micha of the Lord. Dani-el, Rapha-el, and so on. Isra—el is not very different. Isra is the same Hebrew root word as Sara; Sara means to fight, to contend, to strive with, to wrestle with. So the name Israel means ‘to strive with God’, to wrestle with God.
That might sound bad right on the face of it, to wrestle with God, so why did an entire people take Jacob’s new name? Because to contend with God, to wrestle the Lord, is to be in intimate, even physical relationship with Him. To take the name Israel is to acknowledge that you are nothing outside of that relationship; your very being is rooted in and worthless without your striving with God.
Being imperfect creatures with imperfect wills and desires means that we will inevitably bump up against the perfect will of God. We will offend Him, and we will sometimes feel as if His will stands in the way of where we want to go. If we are to be God’s people, then what comes next has to be a wrestling match: fighting to discern the will of God, grappling with our own wills, holding on to the Lord for dear life all the while. If we do that, when the light dawns, God will call us by our names, and bless us.