We begin with a birth story. The mother, Rebekah, is pregnant with twins and it’s time to deliver. The story gives us the indication that the twin boys were competitive with one another from the very beginning, as they fought to come into the world first, which I’m sure was an awesome experience for Rebekah. Esau won, but Jacob wasn’t far behind…coming out the womb while grasping his brother’s heel.
It’s from this experience that Jacob gets his name, ya aqueb, which means “grasp the heel.” This sounds strangely similar to ya aquab, which means “he deceives.” Jacob was a deceiver. He tricked his brother into giving him his birthright, for one. But his life was marked by weaseling his way through. In chapter 32 of Genesis Jacob is alone and vulnerable. And in what probably wins the “most random text” award in the Bible, we find that Jacob starts wrestling with a man. You know, because that sometimes just happens.
Abaq is the Hebrew word for “wrestle,” which if I had the perfect accent would sound notably similar to aqueb and aquab. Hmmmmm….
Growing up I played a lot of ping pong, mostly with my brother. He’s 5 years younger than me. I would win a lot…well, all the time really. Eventually he decided that it wasn’t worth it to him so he stopped playing. So my strategy shifted a little to give him the impression that he could win. I’d let the score get close and pretend to be nervous. I know, this is bad…but trust me I’ve had worse moments as the big brother. Then, I would deliver the blow. After the game was over I’d say something like, “Wow that was a good one…want to play again?” It worked for a while at least.
This “man,” who Jacob and us the readers will soon realize isn’t actually a man, seems to toy around with Jacob. He keeps it close; and as soon as he realizes that Jacob isn’t going to say “uncle,” he strikes Jacob’s hip, taking it out of joint. Except Jacob doesn’t say uncle…he doesn’t let go. He holds on for dear life until he gets a blessing from what appears to be God. About this…the man asks Jacob to let him go, “for it is daybreak.” In Exodus 33:20 a provision from God states, “No one shall see me and live.” The implication here is that if this WWE session drags on into the light of day, Jacob will see God…and Jacob will die. But, desperate for this blessing from God, Jacob holds on and risks his life.
What’s this blessing and why is it this important? For the Hebrews, blessings were not what we kind of make them today as well-wishes. These blessings had real-life, substantial shifts in life’s momentum. A blessing in the Bible is a relational act. It’s a divine experience to say that two are in harmony with one another. A patriarchal blessing, for example, is where the father bestows a definition of relationship to a son or heir…to declare that they’re aligned.
The same is true of a blessing from God.
What Jacob wants is to no longer be the second, or the last, but to be the first. He doesn’t want to be a deceiver, he wants to be favored. He’s tired. He’s tired of his relationship with God being so much work. He just wants to be aligned with God.
So the man asks Jacob his name. OK, this is God…he knows is name. Asking for Jacob’s name is setting the framework for the blessing. Naming in the Bible is power. The one who names in the Bible gains power over the one being named. This is simple enough to understand with a parent naming a child. It’s a declaration of the relationship.
o Jacob tells him his name, but God in that place renames him Israel, which means “God fights.” The understanding is that Jacob will no longer fight through everything, but because he fought with God and survived, God will fight for him.
The power of the moment is lost on Jacob at first, because the Deceiver in him came out when he then turns around and asks for God’s name. The response? “Why would you do that?” Or in the modern context: “Really, Jacob…really?” Despite the lapse in judgment, God blesses him.
Exercise: [If you had a change to change your first name, what would you change it to? Talk to the person next to you.]
Throughout Scripture, we find that because of circumstances or momentous events or extreme encounters with God people end up changing their name. Saul was a terrorist that led a group of terrorists to kill and injure Christians. Why he was such an angry person, I have no idea. But on his way to a town called Damascus a fierce light blinded him and his gang. Saul heard Jesus’ voice that said, “Why do you persecute me?” After the third day a Christian came and healed his sight, and he was forever changed, marking the transformation with a name change to Paul.
Not everyone changed their names, but make no mistake, transformation has a huge role to play in faith. To be in relationship with God is to transform. Jesus talked to a guy named Nicodemus once in secret because Nicodemus was afraid of being seen with him. Jesus tells him there they in order to be with God he has to be born again. He took Jesus literally…which is gross by the way. What he was referring to was what we call conversion, which literally means to turn. There’s a distinction between a life in Jesus Christ and a life not in Jesus Christ.
I’ve told you all many times that while I’ve experience a lot of mini transformations in my life, there was a big conversion that took place when I finally allowed my life to be taken over by Jesus in High School. There was definitely a turning that took place.
But, a key truth we get from the story of Jacob is this: You can’t have transformation without struggle. The saying is true: “no pain; no gain.” In 2001 I was struggling big time. I was confused, disillusioned, full of doubt…in fact I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore. I almost left the church, left the faith, and left my career path which was heading towards ministry. Instead I chose to duke it out with God. I began asking the tough questions that I had. Some people felt threatened by that and wondered if I was being a bad influence. Honestly, this is why I wound up back in the United Methodist Church. It was the only church I could think of at the time that would allow me to ask questions and wrestle with my faith. At that time I decided to start a blog called It’s the Question that Drives us.
There is blessedness in your struggle. In your doubt. In your relationship issues. In your physical limitations. In your self-esteem issues. There is blessedness in that. “Inside of every problem lies an opportunity.” -Robert Kiyosaki
Some guy named Jesus once put it this way: “In this world you will have trouble; but take heart! I have overcome the world.” Let’s not assume that when God shows up to the party all of a sudden our troubles will pass. Some of the most valuable lessons of life and faith have been learned in the midst of struggle. And yeah, some of it left me with a limp afterwards, but I’m better because of it.
Don’t fear the limp! The limp for Jacob was a sign of victory, not failure. There is blessedness in your struggle for you to learn and to grow and to be blessed by God. Don’t deprive yourself from that. The worst thing that could happen to us and our relationship with God is if God gave us everything we wanted.