This Post Originally Appeared in 2017
I don't know many people who have ever admitted to being a fan of Jacob. Truth be told, I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who has admitted that. It makes sense. He was an opportunistic deceiver. He was a liar and a cheat. There is very little about Jacob that would make him someone to emulate. I have no desire to be around a person who displays so many of Jacob's well known qualities. Yet, for years now, I've been drawn to his story. My curiosity is always sparked when I hear or read about Jacob. It's not a morbid fascination by any means. It's not as if I seek to adopt his underhanded methods. It's his story. It's how God reveals His sovereignty and His very nature through Jacob’s story. It's how Jacob reveals the world. It's how Jacob reveals me. In this regard, I guess you could say, I’m a big fan.
Let’s zoom in on one of the highlights from Jacob’s story. Then we’ll look at a lesser known part of his story. We’ll start with the wrestling match. It is a well known moment, and it can be found in Genesis 32, beginning in verse 24.
Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.(NASB)
It’s fun to read commentaries about the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled. Some say an angel. Some say God Himself. Some say it was a pre-incarnation of Jesus, aka, the Son of God. Getting beyond those who need to validate themselves with their own lengthy explanations and interpretations, we know who Jacob knew the “man” to be, “So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face”. . . “ Jacob knew this man as God. So it is with this understanding that I’ll move forward.
From this, let’s dissect a few moments. The first one that sticks out to me is the fact that God touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh and dislocated it. When I think of a socket, I think of a ball and socket joint. A joint is a point of mobility within the skeletal structure. Furthermore, it was the socket of the thigh, which is a part of the leg, indicating once again, mobility. The other word that sticks out in this phrase is “dislocated.” Dislocated means that something is out of place. So to put things plainly, Jacob spends the night wrestling with God and seems to have a will which allows him to hold his own. Then as time is running out (or maybe God’s patience is running out), God makes it painfully clear to Jacob, he’s out of place and he has a very real mobility issue. Can you look back in your life and see that you have seasons where your will was so strong, that you thought you could manage to hold your own in the battle of wills with the Almighty? Do you remember the moments when you were immobilized, taken out of your place of comfort and broken just enough to know you can’t move forward without His blessing? I don’t know how deeply everyone experiences these moments, but I suspect Christians can all relate on some level.
The next moment is especially fascinating through the lens of covenant. God asks Jacob, “What is your name?” Through covenant we receive a new identity. But before God establishes a new identity for Jacob, He asks Jacob to profess his current identity. I have to wonder, as God asked Jacob, “what is your name,” how did Jacob view the name which he had built for himself? Did he view is name with pride? Or was the stating of his name an admission, a confession of guilt from a lifetime of wrestling and sin and deception? What did Jacob’s identity mean to Jacob? I can’t really answer that. But it begs the question, what does your name mean to you? (and what does my name mean to me?)
Regardless of Jacob’s view of his own name, God had a clarifying statement about Jacob’s name. He tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Now this is a neat moment for a nerd like me. It seems odd that Jacob asks for a blessing, and then God just renames him. There is a token mention that God blessed him after Israel requests “Please tell me your name.” But we don’t really know the depth of what that blessing is with the English translation. But if we dig into God renaming Jacob to Israel, we can see it more clearly.
Three words are important here: "Israel," "striven," and "prevailed."
A funny thing happens after all this. In three of the next four verses, the Bible continues to call him Jacob. Furthermore, throughout chapters 33, 34, and half of 35, the Bible completely disregards the name Israel and instead, calls him Jacob. Jacob insisted on this blessing as he held God in his grasp. It was a blessing he had chased all of his days, to the point of deception in the presence of his father Isaac. He had to leave his home because he had so damaged the relationship with his brother, Esau, in pursuit of this blessing. But, the Bible continues to call him Jacob and not Israel. I hope I’m not the only one who finds that interesting. I have to wonder, was Jacob in a place with his faith, where he sought the relational identity he could have with God, but he just couldn’t receive it?
How many of us have been buried in baptism with Christ, been forgiven, yet we do not walk in the freedom of forgiveness? How many of us don’t submit to His Lordship and therefore we don’t receive the identity of being a son or daughter of the King? A common phrase with people in this type of suspended faith is “I know God forgives me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” The reality of this situation is that you’re never in a position to forgive yourself. You can’t go before a judge and say, “I know I was speeding, but I’ve forgiven myself, so we’re good here.” It’s not a matter of forgiving yourself but is, instead, a matter of receiving forgiveness. I suspect the Bible calls Israel, Jacob, because he continued to live his life as Jacob, moving forward without receiving his new identity. Then in verse 10 of chapter 35 God speaks to Jacob again:
God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him, “I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you. “The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendants after you.” (NASB)
Look at the first phrase God speaks to Jacob. He calls him Jacob! It was as though God knew that Israel had completely forgotten who he was. Then God reminds him of what He told him by the river Jabbok after they wrestled. But unlike the moment concluding the wrestling match, when God asks Jacob, “Why is it that you ask me my name,” this time, God removes the veil, revealing Himself more fully to allow Israel a greater depth of understanding and inviting him to greater intimacy. God reveals Himself with the same words He used with Abraham, “I am God Almighty;” and He follows it up with the unchanging command He had been using since the beginning, “Be fruitful and multiply;” God reveals to Israel His faithfulness to the covenant He established with Abraham and that Israel was to be the recipient of that covenant.
But, once again, as you continue to read forward, you’ll see in verses 14, 15, and 20, the Bible still continues to call him, Jacob. Then in verse 21 he finally receives his name, Israel. What happened? There is a pretty big life change here. In verses 19 and 20, we learn that Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, dies and that “Jacob set up a pillar over her grave.” Then as he left her there, the Bible says, “Israel journeyed on…” in verse 21. I’ll let that speak to you as the Holy Spirit sees fit.
From this point on in his story, he is called Jacob or Israel interchangeably. The ups and downs in the story seem to show a little bit of a relationship as to whether he was going by Jacob or Israel. In Chapter 46, just to get Israel’s attention, God calls out to him in a vision, “Jacob, Jacob.” It seems God has a tendency to know where we are and is ready and willing to meet us there. He’ll even reintroduce Himself in our darkest moments.
So easily, I can look at the story of Jacob and how he wrestled and I can see my own willfulness. I can look at his story and how he chased his blessing with so much fervor that he didn’t even know what to do with it once he got it and I see my own stubborn ambition. I can look at his story and see his struggle to hold on to Jacob simultaneously desiring to live as Israel and I see the turmoil of spirit and flesh in my own life. His story is my story. His story is everyone’s story in some way. Yep, I guess you could say I’m a pretty big fan.
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