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Christian History Digging Deeper into the Word

What is in a Name? A Story of Faith

Author: Charles Hegwood

Names are important. I like to joke that I am a man of many names. Most of course are nicknames. My real name comes from a TV character. Throughout the Bible, though, names had deep meaning. This is especially true in the book of Genesis. Jacob for example, means trickster or heel grabber. And we see that as Jacob was born, he was grabbing his brother’s heel. Following Jacob’s story throughout Genesis, you will see that he is quite the trickster and usurper. Today we want to zoom in on Jacob and his story. We want to see the rambling, twisted, valley-filled path of faith he took. Of course, we also want to look at a name; not a nickname, but a new name. God gave Jacob a new name after meeting with him in Genesis 32. We see that this new name describes Jacob, His descendants, and every one of us as well. Who is Jacob? Who are we? I hope that today you will see the winding, often stumbling path of faith with the knowledge that God strives with you.

The Background

In the context of chapter 32, we find that Jacob is fearful of meeting his brother Esau. Wait, back up. Why would he be fearful? Well, the last time he saw his brother was when he had stolen the blessing from him. Jacob sought the blessing through scheming and tricking his brother and father. Jacob’s trick resulted in him running for his life.

Many years passed and Jacob learned to be humble after finding himself tricked by his uncle. Still, God blessed Jacob, just as he promised to do. Jacob had twelve sons and many possessions, knowing that he did not deserve God’s good favor. God also met with Jacob at Bethel, promising to be with and bless him. The reader must then ask, will Jacob trust in God? Then we arrive at chapter 32 where Jacob found out that Esau wanted to meet. With God’s promise in mind, how would Jacob respond?

The Scheming

The chapter started well, as Jacob recognized that God’s presence was with him. Faith! But by verse 7 we see the old scheming Jacob come out. He was fearful, seemingly forgetting the promise that God had just made to him. Yet, when I look at this story, I get it. I see my reflection in Jacob’s fear. My faith journey and I suspect yours as well, looks like a winding road. After soaring spiritual highs, life hits and it all comes crashing into a deep valley. Can you relate? Jacob could.

He heard his brother had 400 men. That is a lot of people. So, Jacob divided the camp into two camps so if Esau attacked, at least half of his people would survive. It was a good, strategic plan, but it showed a complete lack of faith that God would fulfill his promises. Jacob also sent in front of his camp a parade of goods and gifts to help buy the favor of his brother. What was Jacob doing? He was relying on his schemes and his cleverness to get past a potentially difficult situation.

He did not go to God in prayer first. He went instead to his ability and strength. There is nothing wrong with a good strategy, but do you first go to God or your understanding and strength? Do we beseech the wisdom of God over our own? And now the Scheming Jacob finds himself alone, yet not completely alone.

The Wrestling Match

Jacob suddenly found himself in an impromptu wrestling match with a stranger. The fight went on until morning. At some point in the fight, Jacob recognized that his opponent was an angel of God. Jacob thus held on, begging for a blessing. Finally, the angel reached out and dislocated Jacob’s hip with a mere touch. What is happening here?

This wrestling match acts as a parable for how Jacob interacts with God. Jacob wrestles. He struggles. He clings. However, it was not that the Lord was unable to defeat Jacob. After all, he only had to touch his hip to break it. He could have easily destroyed Jacob, but that was not the point or purpose of the fight.

The point was that as Jacob clung and wrestled with God, God wrestled with Jacob. See the beauty and grace of God here. God wrestled with a man until daybreak. A man He could have easily destroyed. A man who was unworthy of the attention God gave him. A man like you and me. God’s grace prevailed in this fight. This would be the picture of how God would interact with Israel, formally Jacob, for the rest of his life, and with Israel, the descendants of Jacob, for the rest of their lives. God would wrestle with obstinate people. He would wrestle them back to Himself. At times, God would have to inflict a curse, like that of Jacob’s hip to bring them limping back to Him. This is a picture of how God interacts with you and me too. He wrestles with us when we sin. Praise God that He does not give up. Sometimes it can be painful, but our limp, whether spiritual or physical, reminds us that God contends with us.

The Name

God blessed Jacob there and bestowed a new name, Israel. This new name had deep meaning. “One who strives or struggles with God.” This new name was a picture of Jacob’s faith journey, his descendant’s journey, and our journey. They would fight. They would stray from the path of God. Yet, God would wrestle them back. So too it is with us. We are a people who wrestle with God. Cling to Him. Limp back to Him when you veer away. Remember He is with you.

This is why I take comfort in the story of Jacob; a man who did not always live up to the blessing of God. Just read chapter 33. He immediately fell back into his scheming ways. We often do too. And just like Jacob receiving a new name, one day we too will receive a new name from God. On that day, however, all striving and struggling will cease as we see our Savior face to face. Our new name will be a new identity and a beginning of a new life, an eternal life. This promised new name answers the question, “Who are we?” We are God’s people.

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