And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).
Many stories in Scripture serve as representative concrete examples encapsulating greater truths or development. And so it is with Jacob and the angel.
“Jacob” meant “he cheats”; the name is an apt description for Jacob in his early years. He was quiet, dwelling in tents, not the outdoors type like his older brother Esau (Genesis 25:26-27). He had his mother’s affections, and probably not a little of her personality as well (Genesis 25:28). Esau was willing to give up his birthright for some stew, and was foolish to agree to it, but Jacob was the one who set such an extravagant price (Genesis 25:29-34). When his mother suggests the plot to deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, Jacob’s concern is not about ethics or morality but about logistics and challenges (Genesis 27:1-13). He thus cheats his brother out of his birthright and his blessing (Genesis 27:36). Esau, predictably, is not a fan of this turn of events, and conspired to take out his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41); Rebekah hears of it and makes sure Jacob is sent far away to her brother Laban in Paddan-Aram (Genesis 27:42-28:2). God grants Jacob a vision of the ladder with angels upon it and promises the blessings of the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:10-19). He promised that if God would keep him and preserve him back to his father’s house, he would build a house for God at Bethel and give a tenth of what he had (Genesis 28:20-22). A cheater who makes demands of God; this is certainly not the story of a mature patriarch!
The cheater is then cheated: he works seven years for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel but is given the older daughter Leah instead; he then must work another seven years for Rachel (Genesis 29:1-30). Jacob had to deal with the contentions among his wives (Genesis 29:31-30:25). Laban continually attempted to cheat Jacob, but the “God of [Jacob’s] father Isaac” preserved him and made him prosper (Genesis 30:26-31:55).
Jacob thus heads toward his father’s land after around twenty years of striving with Laban and others; he sends word to Esau and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men with him (Genesis 32:1-6). Jacob has overcome the challenges surrounding Laban but does not know how things will work out with Esau. In the middle of all this an angel of YHWH visits Jacob, and of all things, wrestles with him (Genesis 32:24). Jacob did not give up; neither did the angel. The end came when the angel displaced the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and day had come (Genesis 32:25). Jacob demanded a blessing; his name is changed to Israel, “wrestles with God,” because he strove with men and with God and had prevailed. Only then did Jacob realize he had wrestled with an angel and named the place Peniel (Genesis 32:29-30).
Jacob and Esau would then meet and things went well; Jacob return to the land of his father (Genesis 33:1-20); he fulfilled the vow he made to God (Genesis 35:1-7). But it is quite telling, and appropriate, that “Jacob” left the land of his father, never to return; “Israel” is the man who comes back to the land which will bear that name, with a full household who would become the tribes of the land.
Of all the characters we meet in Scripture, Jacob’s is one of the best developed. The Genesis author does so for good reason: Jacob becomes Israel and provides a paradigm for Israel. “Jacob,” as “he cheats,” was in no position to be a patriarch; he had to learn humility, and learned it by receiving plenty of his own medicine. And yet he prevailed. He wrestled with an angel, and yet he prevailed.
There is a little detail that can often be missed but is quite telling within this story of Jacob. Before Jacob becomes Israel by wrestling with the angel, God is never “his” God; YHWH could only be his God if He provided for him (Genesis 28:21). God, to Jacob, was “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42). But when Jacob/Israel has returned to the land of his father, and he builds an altar near Shechem, he names it El-Elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20). God is not merely the God of his ancestors. God is his God as well.
Such is the lesson of Jacob/Israel. Israel the nation embodied Israel the patriarch constantly throughout its history, striving with God, often falling short of His glory and holiness, and wondering where His promises had gone despite their perceived faithfulness (e.g. Psalms 44, 88-89). We can read the story of many of the men of faith who had to grow into their role, strove with God, and ultimately grew in character, faith, holiness, and in their relationship with Him. Each new Israelite and generation of Israelites had to wrestle with their situation, wrestle with their faith, and in some way wrestle with God so that He would not just be the God of their fathers but their God as well.
And so it is to this day. We are the spiritual descendants of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Galatians 3:29, Hebrews 11:1-12:2). Those born to godly parents do well to consider that “Jacob” was born to godly parents as well; “Jacob” as such needed to grow into “Israel” to be the patriarch God intended for him to be, because only “Israel” considered God to be his God. We cannot expect to short-circuit the process, either: we must strive with God and men, wrestle with our faith and our situation, and through the experiences of life, some for good, many perhaps seeming to be to our detriment, we are to come to the recognition that God is not just the God of our fathers but our God as well. May we honor God as our Creator and our God, and serve Him through His Son!
Ethan R. Longhenry