In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestled the angel of the Lord all night. Jacob held his own until the angel dislocated Jacob’s thigh with a touch. Still, Jacob refused release his grip. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The angel asked, “What is your name?”
Do we suspect that God didn’t know who He was wrestling? He knew Jacob perfectly well! Why ask this obvious question?
Names often provide more than a label. Names can stand for one’s character and values. God made Jacob say his name, so that He could make Jacob confront the meaning of his life, and provide him a new name with greater significance.
What had defined Jacob up to this watershed moment? Years earlier, in Genesis 25, Isaac’s wife Rebekah was pregnant with rowdy twins. God revealed that the boys would be the heads of two nations, and surprisingly, the older would serve the younger. When the younger was born grasping the heel of his older brother Esau, he was named Jacob, or “supplanter.”
True to his name, Jacob took advantage of Esau’s hunger and convinced him to sell his birthright for a meal. Then, Jacob deceitfully stole Esau’s blessing.
Esau plotted to kill Jacob. Rebekah hurried Jacob away to her brother Laban’s house. As Jacob left, God promised to give him the three-fold promise of Abraham, and to bring him safely home (Genesis 28:13-15).
Laban was Jacob’s equal in deception; thus, much of what Jacob experienced was bitter. Nevertheless, in twenty years, Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter, and many servants and livestock. When Jacob packed up and headed for home, he barely escaped Laban’s jealous rage. But he had a bigger problem in front of him—Esau! Jacob believed Esau would attack him on sight. And he was no longer a young single man on foot; now, he was a large slow-moving wealthy family.
While still in the wilderness, Jacob heard that Esau approached with an army. He became very frightened. He divided his household into two companies, so that if one was massacred, the other might survive. He sent servants to intercept Esau with gifts. He prayed to God to remember His promises (32:9-12). But there was still no confidence in his heart (32:20). Finally he made his wives and children cross the Jabbok; “then Jacob was left alone” and frightened (32:23).
So now, at this pivotal and desperate moment, God confronted Jacob with the question. Jacob had striven with everyone else—Isaac, Esau, Laban—but he still needed to deal with God. God was asking him, in effect, “Who are you? … What do you stand for?” Jacob was the striver and the deceiver. His life was measured in schemes.
Jacob answered “Jacob,” bearing the full weight of that name. God replied, “your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (32:28). This new name comes from a verb which still means “to strive,” but with the -El affix; it means “Striving for God” or “May God strive for him.”
Jacob was by no means perfect from this moment on. But he believed God, he learned to rely on God, he received the blessing on God’s terms (Hosea 12:3-4). Not only did God help him reconcile with Esau, but eventually, he worshiped God in Bethel and was able to pass on the Messianic promise through his son Judah and the twelve tribes of Israel.
“What is your name?”
So, what is your name? Who are you? What do you stand for? What is your reputation?
Are you striving only with the everyday–school, jobs, money, people? If you haven’t dealt with God yet, nothing else will make sense.
Perhaps God will bring you to a difficult moment, doubtful and vulnerable, in which you can finally take time to confront who you are, whom you will serve, and what you need to become. Maybe your moment on the Jabbok will be in a hospital waiting room, facing a dilemma, or alone on a bus headed cross-country for your first day of college. You are scared. You struggle to choose a path. God disturbs your rest.
Wrestling with God in such a moment does not indicate rebellion—it is an act of faith. Consider: did Jacob ever have a hope of beating God at wrestling? No! The contest simply demonstrated his willingness to strive with God. Jacob would have lost only had he turned away from God.
We must recognize God as the source of real blessing, and desire those blessings to the utmost. Cling to God and do not let go until you have salvation! Open His word and keep at it until you know what God wants of you, and what you should do next. Strive with God, and all your other strivings will be assigned their proper place; many of them will disappear and be replaced by peace.
Cling to God, and He will bless you with a new name (Isaiah 62:2), exchanging the insignificance of the old for the privileges of the new. It is the name “Christian” (1 Peter 4:16), the name given by association with His own Son. In that name we glory (1 Cor. 1:31; John 12:28) as we replace worldly worries with spiritual promises. –John Guzzetta