The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
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: 22-31
Reflection – Jacob is the most human of the patriarchs, isn’t he? At this point of the story, this guy has been lying and cheating and maneuvering his way through about ten chapters of Genesis. His very name Jacob means either ‘heel’ or ‘supplanter.’
At this juncture of the story, he is returning to Canaan the promised land, to his brother Esau who he cheated, after fleeing his uncle Laban who he despoiled, with his two wives, two concubines and twelve sons. He suspects Esau will want to kills him, and so has sent his wives and children across the river to safety, and is preparing to encounter Esau alone.
So at this point in the story Jacob has grown, then. No longer is he just a sharp operator out for his own benefit, but now he is a genuine father, provider and protector, of his family. But the night before he has an encounter with a mysterious being. A man… or is it? An angel? A demon? God? Esau?
The text is deliberately vague. “Why do you ask my name?” Jacob is returning to the land and to his brother – but he has to get past this figure first. Is it God? If it’s God, it’s a very different aspect of God. The God we met yesterday, Abraham’s God, was of a promiser, a provider, a tester of faith. Jacob’s God is an opponent, a combatant.
It is dark, enigmatic manifestation of God in the midst of his struggle and labor. And they wrestle all night – an encounter in struggle and sinew that is very mysterious, very close, very intimate. Who is this Jacob is wrestling with, and why? And the match is inconclusive. So is this really God? Is Jacob as strong as God? But if it’s not God, who is it…
In this story, nothing of this is answered, nothing made clear. We are left in enigma and mystery. God is revealing himself to Jacob, but the revelation makes God that much more mysterious. In the midst of this very human story, the old standby arc of a guy going from rags to riches and trampling down his competitors, suddenly there is this mysterious encounter, this wrestling match.
And then this strange dialogue, which sheds little light, even as it is a pivotal moment in the history of God’s people. I will not let you go unless you bless me. What is your name – Jacob – Not Jacob, but Israel.
Israel – the people of God - emerge from this encounter. To face God, to struggle against God, to cling to God, to refuse to let go of God – out of this something new emerges. A name, a people. And a blessing. But still shrounded in deep mystery – why do you want to know my name?
Walter Brueggemann is one of my favorite Scripture scholars, and he writes about this: “God remains God, his hiddenness intact. But Jacob is no longer Jacob. Now he is Israel. That is how Israel comes on the horizon. Israel is not formed by success or shrewdness or land, but by an assault from God. Perhaps it is grace, but not the kind usually imagined. Jacob is not consulted about his new identity. It is given, even imposed. When daylight comes, the stranger is gone. And so is Jacob. There remains only Israel, who had not had a good sleep that night.”
A new name, a new blessing, and another new thing. A new limp. A new crippling. We encounter God and from this receive the deepest truth of our life, but we are not left unmarked by the encounter. Jacob struggles with God and man and prevails, but he bears the scars of this. God enters the fray with us, and our lives and God’s life in us are entwined in ways that baffle us. But God remains God. We… well, we limp along. “Paul, my grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness… When I am weak, I am strong.”
Jacob in this story sees the face of God, but he is both strengthened and weakened by the encounter. Humanity comes in contact with God, and it is indeed a mysterious struggle – there is wounding, and blessing, a crippling and a mission given, a nation created.
Jesus is crucified for us, and his wounds remain, but from comes the new name, Christian, the new blessing, eternal life in Christ, the new Israel, the new people of God, limping along on the path to the new Jerusalem and the heavenly kingdom.