Jacob is the Bible’s great trickster, a thief and a hustler who manages to cheat his twin brother out of his entire inheritance. He’s not the nicest person in Genesis but he remains somehow likeable, a loveable rogue, the Bible’s equivalent of Han Solo. And yet, for all his dodgy ways, it’s evident that God has a plan for him.
He’s also the only person to have got into a fight with God. And I mean an actual fight, not an argument.
The story is told in Genesis 32:22-32. God has told Jacob to return home after years on the run. This isn’t the best news for Jacob, as he’s convinced his brother Esau will take violent revenge the second he sees him. Nevertheless, Jacob rounds up his household and prepares to head back into his brother’s territory. And so, one night, Jacob sends his family ahead of him over the brook of Jabbok, leaving him alone.
Then all of a sudden he’s fighting with a mysterious stranger. There’s no lead-up to this, no preamble, the guy’s suddenly fighting an unbeatable opponent all night.
There’s a reason the stranger is unbeatable – we realise throughout the passage that Jacob is, in fact, wrestling with God himself, in the form of an angel. So with that in mind, here’s the interesting line:
“When the man saw that he could not overpower him…”
Wait, God couldn’t win a wrestling match with Jacob? Bit unlikely isn’t it? Effectively God is throwing the fight; after all, he could win whenever he wanted to, and yet he keeps the fight going.
Meanwhile, Jacob just keeps on fighting. He doesn’t quit, doesn’t surrender. This particular rumble lasted most of the night because Jacob wouldn’t give up. And maybe that’s because he knows he’s fighting someone of real power who can ultimately bless him.
It’s this determination that God sees when he decides to end the fight – he reaches out and wrenches Jacob’s hip with just a touch. And though this must have hurt, though God tells him to let go, Jacob continues to struggle: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He’s still the opportunist, still the guy who stole his brother’s birthright, still out to get something. However, something’s about to change.
“What’s your name?” God asks. It’s a loaded question, given his omniscience, and considering the words ‘Jacob’, ‘Jabbok’ and ‘wrestle’ all sound very similar in Hebrew, it seems something interesting is going on here. This is where God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. In one sense it’s another example of people receiving a change of name from God – Abraham, Paul and Peter being other notable examples – but this is also bigger than those. If God renaming someone gives them new purpose, then this is also the naming of a nation with a mission. Okay, it’s not the most immediately auspicious name – after all, ‘Israel’ means ‘Struggles with God’ – but it lays out constant themes of Jacob’s life and the nation that would eventually take his name.
It’s a huge moment, and Jacob really should have twigged what was going on. Maybe he does, but he’s a cheeky so-and-so and he asks God his name. Now it’s not like the Bible isn’t full of names for God, but it’s bad form to ask directly – maybe it shows a lack of trust (check out Judges 13:17-18 for another example). Anyway, impudent or not, Jacob gets blessed, and this is when he seems to understand the magnitude of what’s happened. Here, in one last bit of language trickery, he renames the area ‘Peniel’, meaning ‘Face of God’. It’s a way of memorialising an encounter that, under normal circumstances, should have resulted in Jacob being consumed by the power and holiness of God. It’s a concept that runs throughout the Old Testament and pop culture – look what happens to the nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
(And so this appearance of God as a man, who can interact with the world despite its brokenness, foreshadows the coming of Christ as God incarnate.)
(Also, on an unrelated note, it’s interesting that a passage dealing with a key moment in the life of the Bible’s archetypal trickster involves so much wordplay and questioning of identity…)
And do, at daybreak, Jacob goes to meet his destiny. Despite his fears he reconciles with Esau and his story winds down, the focus shifting to his son Joseph in just a few chapters. After all, how could anything that happened later top this encounter with God?
It’s an interesting story, and one that seems to be about identity. Jacob is a conman who receives a new name and role – father of a nation. He’s struggled with God, sure, but he also refuses to let go, and God acknowledges that, bestowing blessings and laying a foundation for his plan of salvation. Because that’s what the Bible’s all about, God’s plan to bring humanity back to him. And in a passage where people and places get new names, God doesn’t change, doesn’t even suggest it’s possible.
Because he doesn’t need to.