What's in a Name (part III): Jacob to Israel
Today in our series we get to the story of Jacob wrestling with God. It’s good that we spend some time with this passage today specifically considering the conversation that takes place. You see, it’s not so much the wrestling that makes this text come alive, but it’s the conversation that takes place after the fight that brings this whole thing together.
What do I mean that the conversation brings the whole thing together? I mean something of Jacob’s entire life becomes an open book for us to see in these few verses. By the time we get to Genesis 32 we find out exactly what kind of man Jacob is. And it is right here in this story that God comes and confronts Jacob. God calls him out on the kind of man that he has become. God gives Jacob a new point of view for understanding what it is that his life has been about.
Background – Jacob the Deceiver
So let’s spend a few minutes reminding ourselves of the story of Jacob up to this point. We’ve been talking about names and meaning of names and the significance of names. Jacob is certainly no exception to this rule. His name means deceiver; and it’s a fitting name for Jacob. If we retrace some of Jacob’s previous events to this story we find example after example of Jacob being the deceiver.
It begins early on when Jacob tricks his brother Esau into trading his birthright for a bowl of soup. Maybe in today’s culture we don’t see the big deal—I mean, what significance is a birthright anymore today. We live in a country that was founded upon the principle that all men are created equal. Equality is the foundation of many of the basic human rights that we enjoy as American citizens. But we ought to remind ourselves this morning that such a standard of equality among people is a cultural value that was not widely accepted before the renaissance and enlightenment period of 300 years ago. So when we talk about the birthright of the Old Testament patriarch family systems, we need to understand that to be the oldest son was to be the king of the family. And everybody else in the family amounted to very little in comparison with the oldest son. So what Jacob tricks Esau out of in Genesis 25 is nothing less than his kingship over the family. It is as though Esau is selling himself into slavery to Jacob when the natural order of family structure would have placed Jacob as the servant of Esau.
But this is just the beginning. Because the story goes on to tell how Rebekah—together with Jacob—deceives Isaac into giving Esau’s blessing to Jacob. This too is incredibly significant, that the father would pass a blessing on to his children. And every blessing is unique for the specific place of each child. So the blessing that Isaac gives to Jacob—thinking that it is really Esau—is the blessing meant for the one who would carry on the covenant blessing of God himself.
We cannot stop there either because the story goes on to tell how Jacob travels to his uncle Laban and then gets tangled up in a series of deceits back and forth with his uncle. Laban pulls off a scam to get Jacob to work a total of 14 years for him. And Jacob retaliates with his own little scheme to take more sheep and goats from Laban’s flock for his own possessions.
And now we find Jacob in the middle of an ordeal where he will be reunited with his brother Esau. And once again Jacob is up to his old tricks. In our passage this morning Jacob is carrying out his schemes in order to appease the vengeance of his brother Esau. Jacob’s plan is to send all his enormous flocks and great possessions ahead of him and offer the very best from among them as a gift to Esau. He plans to send and do this in waves so that Esau will be pacified by all these gifts before he even sets eyes on Jacob.
But really what we see happening in the opening verses of Genesis 32 is Jacob’s attempt to undo the birthright. By offering all that he has to Esau, Jacob is effectively returning the birthright back to Esau. By sending his servants ahead of him with the message for Esau that, “Your servant Jacob is coming,” we also see Jacob’s attempt to return the birthright back to Esau.
But can Jacob really do this? Can he return to Esau the birthright once it has been set into place? Jacob has already received the blessing of his father Isaac to carry on the covenant promises of God through his descendants. Once that blessing has been passed from Isaac to Jacob, does Jacob have any right—or any power—to give up that covenant blessing? You see, the words Isaac spoke to pass the eternal covenant promise on through the family as descendants of Abraham are not words that Jacob can undo by his deceptive practices. Jacob takes one step too many when he thinks he can just undo all that God has done. This time, he cannot simply give it back. When God decides he is going to work through your life, then he’s going to work through your life; you can’t give it back.
Israel – Struggling with God
Now we get to our text for this morning. And do you see now what this encounter is all about? Are you starting to catch on to why God comes and wrestles with Jacob right here at this particular juncture of the story? You see now what Jacob is right in the middle of trying to do with God’s covenant blessing? And this episode that we read this morning is God’s way of coming and setting Jacob in his place.
But what kind of a place is that? What is this strange story really about? Well, as I’ve already mentioned, the key to this encounter lies in the conversation that takes place between Jacob and the “man” – who we understand from the story to be God. Jacob says to the man, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob understands even here that he is not fighting with just anyone. Jacob obviously understands that he is struggling against either an angel of God, or against God himself. And his request for a blessing sends a signal to God that now Jacob understands. Now Jacob gets the picture. Jacob realizes that blessing comes from God. Jacob understands here at this point of the story that blessings are God’s to give and God’s to control. By insisting on a blessing, Jacob is admitting that it is not his place to pass off or relinquish what God has charged him with.
So the man blesses Jacob. And he begins by asking, “What is your name?” Now, if you have been listening at all to what I’ve been saying over the past three weeks as we have been working through this “What’s in a Name?” series, then hopefully you catch here what a completely loaded question this is. The man is not simply asking Jacob what his name is; he is asking, “What is your identity?” “What kind of person are you?” Because—remember—a person’s name would tell you that. So when Jacob is confronted with the question of what his name is, he is forced to further admit out loud that he has always been a deceiver. Admitting his name to the man completes his confession. It’s as though he is saying to God. “I get it now. Now I understand.” The blessing of God can be shared with others. Jacob can continue to give gifts to his brother as a sharing of what God has given him out of love. But he cannot deceptively give up the covenant.
Then the man blesses Jacob by giving him a new name. No longer will he be the deceiver, but now his name is Israel. The name Israel means “struggle with God.” And now Jacob understands that his many years of struggle and tension had a purpose to them.
Peniel – Face of God
But notice also that Jacob wants to know the name of the man. Here again, don’t pass over this too quickly. What is Jacob really asking? He doesn’t want to just know the name of the man; he wants to know the identity of who he was fighting. But the man’s refusal to share his name confirms for Jacob the truth of his new name—Israel—struggle with God. He understands that he was wrestling with God himself. So even though we never hear the name of the man, we get a hint of what happened here by the other name that takes place in this text. Since Jacob does not know the name of the man, he renames the place where they are as a way of marking its significance. He calls the place Peniel because he says that he has seen the face of God.
Throughout Jacob’s entire life he has been through one struggle after another. We have already covered the struggles up to this passage for today. But Jacob’s struggles do not end here. If we were to read on through the story of Jacob we discover that the deceptive practices that caused so much tension for Jacob are now being carried on by his sons. So following Jacob’s reunion with Esau we find stories of Jacob’s sons stirring up tension with the surrounding people. And later on Jacob’s sons deceive Jacob himself when they soak Joseph’s coat in blood and convince Jacob that his favorite son had been killed. Jacob’s life is marked by one struggle after another. But here in Genesis 32 Jacob sees something in his struggles that he never saw before. He sees Peniel—the face of God.
Our Struggles – the Face of God
We should not overlook the significance of the names. They hold the key to understanding this passage. You and I can take from this story something that is a timeless truth for us to understand this morning. And it’s right there in the relationship between the names. Israel…Peniel; Israel…Peniel. Struggle with God…face of God; struggle with God…face of God. God says to Jacob, “You have struggles with God.” Jacob says, “I have seen the face of God.”
To struggle with God is to see the face of God. Sometimes we deceive ourselves when we begin to think that a close relationship with God means that we experience this sustained bliss of happiness all the time. We deceive ourselves when we begin to think that a close relationship with God means we will never face another struggle again in this earthly life. No. There is something profoundly close to God in the struggle. And how often doesn’t it seem that the struggle itself is what beckons us closer to God.
Many of you here today can preach that sermon much better than I can. Many of you know what it means to face struggles. You know what it means to tragically lose loved ones. You know what it means to sit in a hospital room and get bad news from the doctor. You know what it means to see children and other loved ones make destructive and harmful choices that alienate them from others. But I’ll tell you what. I hear more profound testimonies at funerals than I ever do at weddings. I hear more authentic and meaningful stories of closeness to God in hospital rooms than I ever do in banquet rooms.
There’s something about working through the struggles of life that display for us our deep dependence on God. There’s something about the tough times that brings us right to the throne of God in ways we may never otherwise experience. Scripture teaches me that; but many of you teach me that as well.
I don’t want this message to leave you all gloomy here this morning though. I don’t want you to walk out today thinking that the only way to really know a close relationship with God is to have something bad happen. We should not be people who sit stuck in misery. That’s not the story of what scripture is telling us. So let me be clear. There is much joy in celebrating and rejoicing in God’s goodness in good times as well as bad times. But please do not be fooled into pushing away from God when the going gets rough from time-to-time. Please do not turn your back away from God when things do not go the way you think they should go. Do not dismiss or reject what God may be trying to show you when the circumstances of our lives are less than comfortable or agreeable.
Let me leave you with one last observation before we close. Did you notice from the text that there are physical reminders of these struggles to help us remember how God works through them? In this story we see it in Jacob’s hip. Jacob is left with a limp as a constant reminder to him of this lesson learned. It is a truth that becomes so real to Jacob that it is literally a part of who he is from that time on. His identity as Israel—as one who struggles with God—is forever evident in the way he walks. But the last verse of the chapter takes us even a step further. All generations of Jacob’s descendants follow a reminder of this truth as well. It is something that they incorporate into their dietary habits. The point is that the people make for themselves intentional reminders of how God is close in times of struggle. And they make those reminders so that every time they face struggles they will not forget to look up and see the face of God.
Israel…Peniel; to struggle with God is to see the face of God. I pray that God gives each of us the awareness and attentiveness to sit up and pay attention to the many ways that God call us, his children, close to himself—in the good times, and in the struggles as well.