The man said, “From now on, your name will no longer be Jacob. You will be called Israel, because you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have won.” Genesis 32:28 (Read Genesis 32:22-32)
In many Bible translations, the heading of this particular tale in Genesis reads somewhat mystifyingly: “Jacob Wrestles With God.” The text itself sheds little light on such a stunning proposition. A ‘man’, we are told, wrestles with Jacob overnight. Who this man is, and where he comes from, we are not told.
We read that this man is on the verge of losing his wrestling match with Jacob. But incredibly, on realising his impending loss, he is able to simply reach out, touch Jacob’s hip, and dislocate it! It’s clear right away, then, that this mysterious wrestler is not just any normal man.
So, on realising the immense power wielded by this peculiar being, our friend Jacob — always the opportunist! — demands a blessing from him.
In response, he gives Jacob a new name: Israel. His reasoning: “Because you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.”
Jacob’s blessing: a new identity
Names have great significance in ancient Hebrew culture. Do you remember the story of how Jacob initially received his name? Fighting with his twin brother in his mother’s womb, he was born grasping onto Esau’s heel. It seems that even in birth, he was desperately trying to assert himself. And so he was christened Jacob, which in Hebrew literally translates as “he grasps the heel”.
Figuratively, though, we can translate the word Jacob to mean “the deceiver”. And indeed, Jacob comes to live up to this title. He conspires with his mother, firstly to deceive his elder brother, then his father Isaac, fraudulently obtaining the birthright and the blessing that rightfully should belong to Esau.
So it seems Jacob’s character is almost predetermined, by way of his mother Rebekah’s influence. Named a deceiver, raised to be a deceiver — this is his role in the family. This is how his brother, his mother, and his father all view him. This is his very identity, set in stone via prophecy from the time of his birth. Why should he ever change?
But then! Enter this strange man, and this strange wrestling match. As Jon Bloom notes over at Desiring God, wrestling with God alters more than just Jacob’s name. It alters his very identity. No longer a man who grasps for blessings through trickery and lies — the version of faith he inherited from his mother — Jacob has now wrestled honestly for a faith and a relationship with God that belongs to him and him alone.
When God gives us a season of wrestling
Although it is Jacob who asks for the blessing in this story, there is something else that we should notice here. It is God, not Jacob, who initiates the wrestling match. It is God who establishes this encounter.
We might also encounter times when it seems that God has initiated some kind of wrestling match with us. We might rack our brains for what we’ve done to cause the conflict, when there seems to be no obvious reason.
Perhaps you find yourself in a season right now when faith just doesn’t seem to come easily. When the words of Scripture don’t make sense, and your prayers feel like they’re going no higher than the ceiling, and everything seems to contradict what you thought you knew about God.
This can be a hard thing, and often we respond in one of two ways. We might abandon our faith completely, or we might continue on in denial as if nothing has changed.
Neither of these options involve actually engaging with the wrestling match that God has initiated.
Trust the process: hopeful wrestling
Sometimes, we need to fight to figure out what we believe.
We need to spend some time “working out our faith with fear and trembling,” as Paul puts it.
This might involve facing some uncomfortable or challenging truths. It might mean abandoning beliefs about God that we’ve inherited, and never really questioned before. Often, it means taking part in a thorough examination of who we really are. It means sorting out what’s really important to us, and what influences we’re going to let shape us going forward.
That, in turn, might mean we end up hurting some people along the way — people who assumed we’d always agree with them. Or people who just assumed they would always hold a place of influence in our lives. Making those kinds of changes can be incredibly difficult, and may leave us feeling like we’ve received a metaphorical hip-dislocation. But the fact is, while other people can tell us what to believe, until we do the hard wrestling with God ourselves, we won’t find a faith that really rings true.
So go ahead and wrestle with God. Don’t be afraid of the encounter. Yes, it’s true, you might come out with a limp. But wrestle in hope nonetheless. God may well rearrange your bones, but He will not abandon you. Trust that there will be a blessing at the end of the struggle, a blessing that sees you taking on a new purpose, and a new identity. A new understanding of who God is, and a new understanding of who you are.
What are you wrestling with in your faith right now? Where do you think the wrestling process might be taking you?