Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through. (Genesis 32.28; The Message)
Christian tradition cites God’s promise to raise a chosen people from Abraham’s heirs as the birth of God’s redemptive plan. So crucial is this idea that both Matthew and Luke make a point of tracing Jesus’s lineage back to Abraham. Yet for two generations the nation born of this promise has no name. The first time we hear the word “Israel” occurs in Genesis 32, after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, wrestles with a mysterious Figure that turns out to be none other than God. And it’s vital that we recognize when this name-changing struggle occurs. Up to this point, Jacob’s spent his life devising various schemes to get ahead. Indeed, he’s the Bible’s great wheeler-dealer. He tricks his older brother into surrendering his birthright. When his plans go awry and he ends up married to a less desirable woman, he makes a deal with her father so he can marry her more attractive sister as well. Then he cons his father-in-law out of a fortune in prime livestock. By the time Jacob meets God, all of the trouble he’s caused is coming home to roost.
God doesn’t offer to help Jacob fix things. God doesn’t command Jacob to repent and mend his ways. God asks for no sacrificial offering. God shows up and wants to wrestle. As far as we can tell, the match ends in a draw. Genesis says the struggle lasts all night and when the Figure sees Jacob won’t be bested, he throws his hip out of joint. Still, Jacob won’t let go until the Figure blesses him. At dawn, the two sit side-by-side, panting and sweaty. God asks Jacob his name. Jacob tells him. God says, “From now on you’ll be called Israel”—which means, “he wrestles with God.” In so doing, God not only changes Jacob’s name and names the nation. God gives us a name. We too are God-Wrestlers. We too struggle with God through long nights of grappling with faith’s imponderable questions. We too wind up with parts of us out of joint. And as a rule, our bouts with God end in a draw. From Jacob we learn two things we should never forget: God is unafraid of our questions, and our faith is made real in struggle, not outcome. Before we get to the “holy” stuff—the repentance, reform, and rituals—we must own the name God gives us. We must accept that wrestling with God is who we are, that struggling with faith is our way of life. We are hardly passive players in redemption’s drama. We are wrestlers. That is God’s blessing to us.