The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Pentecost XXII: a blessing, a limp, and a new name

© 2013 Frank B Crumbaugh III

The Holy Bible is a library of books about our relationship with God. Each of the extraordinary books in the library contains stories about God, and ourselves in relationship with God- there are dozens of them that are important, and given the size of the library it is almost impossible to rank their importance. Some amuse, some chasten, others invite contemplation and still others repel us. Among all of these remarkable stories, however, I believe the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is one of the five most important stories[1] of our Faith. I say so because this story encapsulates divine redemption and the salvation of human beings; it does so wholly, and with amazing beauty and depth

​The importance of Jacob wrestling finds roots before the event- in Jacob’s personal history- right in the very earliest moments of his life when he was given his name.[1]  We see how important names are in the present story when we understand that יַעֲקֹב Jacob can translate as “supplanter,” “thief” or “usurper.”[2] 

Jacob is a scheming thieving usurper. At birth he steals a ride into life itself by grasping the heel of his older twin. He dupes his brother Esau out of the older brother’s birthright.  Jacob conspires with his mother Rebekah to have the aged, blind Isaac give the blessing of the eldest son- Esau’s blessing- to Jacob instead. 

Jacob is attractive and smart. That makes us blink. But his attractive intelligence is slick, and sketchy, and utterly self interested. Jacob’s just not right. He’s shady. He’s the person your gut tells you to be careful around, and your gut tells you that about five seconds after you’ve met him. You leave a conversation with Jacob reflexively feeling your wrist to make sure you still have your watch. It was undoubtedly a heavy burden for a young boy growing up to understand the meaning of his name. Perhaps it felt like something of a curse from his parents, and one wonders how much it became a self-fulfilling prophecy in his subsequent devious behavior. 

So here we have a grandson of Abraham, bearing the name “thief.” He’s a not-nice person, pretty much living up to his name. He’s been away, and now, at God’s order, he’s going home to see his brother Esau. He is, quite rightly, scared to death. His prior bad acts are what Esau knows and remembers. Fraternal memory is long. On the way home Jacob divides his household, so that if Esau falls upon one company of Jacob’s household and destroys it, the other company might escape, or at least live.[3]  It’s nighttime, and he’s just sent the last of the company he’s leading across the River Jabbok. He’s alone.[4] 

In the gloom of that night, “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”[5]  Jacob is already stressed, and my guess is that the longer the wrestling match goes on, the more his fear grows. His opponent doesn’t stop, and Jacob undoubtedly believes that stopping could mean his death. So he persists. Jacob can’t see the man with whom he’s wrestling very well, and his principle engagement with that other person is through direct physical contact, and the strain of strength against strength. They are wrestling to what appears to be a draw- no decisive, dominant conclusion. Jacob’s opponent seizes a moment in the wrestling match, and dislocates Jacob’s hip.[6] This is enough to re-balance the match. 

As the sun starts to lighten the east, Jacob’s opponent calls a halt- “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”[7] Jacob sets a condition- he won’t let his opponent go until he blesses him. Jacob already has pretty good idea of what’s going on, and at the end of this night-long fight, he asks for a blessing from his opponent. That blessing comes in the form of a new identity: 

“So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[8] for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”[9] 

Quite a blessing. A new identity, and a re-framed reality in the World. 

Jacob understands that the site of this confrontation is holy ground, or at least he’s pretty sure it is. He asks his opponent’s name. The opponent never says His name,[10] but the opponent does confer the asked-for blessing. Jacob realizes that this has not been some sordid mugging attempt, but something else- something much, much more dangerous. “So Jacob called the place Peniel,[11] saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."[12] 

And as the Sun rises, Israel goes on his way, limping. 

Jacob/Israel wrestling pretty much tells the whole story doesn’t it. We struggle with God in life’s gloomy darkness. We struggle and get hurt, not because God desires to hurt us, but because we struggle against a strength that can fatally overwhelm us. We come away from a sincere confrontation with God blessed, bearing a new identity, and walking differently- with an unmistakable gait that the World can see.

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 16 October 2016, being The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

[1] ...entirely subjective list...any other five could be called the most important I suppose, but these are my top five: The Passover (deliverance), The Binding of Isaac (sacrifice), Jacob Wrestling (conversion), The Resurrection of Jesus (salvation), and The Parable of the Waiting Father (restoration).
[1] Names do not simply derive from a series of sounds that human beings find pleasant to enunciate- names derive from meanings. For example, the Hebrew word יוֹחָנָן yuchanan translates as “God is gracious;” it comes into Greek as  Ἰωάννης, into German as Johann, into Russian as Иван Ivan, into Spanish as Juan, and into English as John. Though less used recently than in previous times, it is, over the centuries, the name perhaps most commonly given to male children among western Christians. Its meaning is a clue to why, and the meaning is amplified when we recall that Jesus’ cousin the Baptist carried the name, and so did His beloved disciple.  Or another example: Βαρναβᾶς Barnabas is a Greek name Luke brings forward as “son of encouragement”- an apt name for one of Paul’s faithful friends who also was among the most munificent benefactors of the early Church. You get the idea- names matter greatly and are not to be given lightly.

[2] This feature of the story is obscured from the understanding of most readers because we approach the text through an English translation that simply transliterates the Hebrew word יַעֲקֹב ya’akov, rendering it in English as the proper noun Jacob, end of story.

[3] Uncharacteristically selfless behavior for Jacob

[4] Genesis 32:24a

[5] Genesis 32:24b

[6] Dislocated joints are exquisitely painful injuries the effects of which never complete disappear; they are felt for the rest of one’s life.

[7] Genesis 32:26a

[8] Heb compound Isra-el- literally, “strive with God”

[9] Genesis 32:27-28; prevailed in this usage has the connotation of having survived rather than having won

[10] ...since the Name of God is never uttered aloud, apparently, even by God Himself...

[11] Heb compound peni-el-  literally,  “the face of God”

[12] Genesis 32:30