Fighting with God over a name? The actual outcome of the struggle between Jacob and God was a name change, from Jacob to Israel. Is this the expected outcome when we commit to struggle with God? A name, your name, particularly in Hebrew, ancient near eastern ways was a key thing (that is, it defined your history, your character). Jacob meant liar, cheater, usurper, the one who deceived his brother and father.
Not a good name brother Jacob had! And all was his own doing, no one to blame but himself! I wonder how my name compares to Jacob’s; would I get a new name if I were to struggle with God? The Bible seems to imply that we will all get new names based on our personal struggles with God! Revelation 2:17: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”
The one who overcomes will get a new name. Just like Jacob overcame God, we will also have a chance to overcome God, and this will assure us a new name, a new character, a new history, a new fame. I am looking forward to my new name. I have a name now, and I have created a history around this name of mine. A history that only I can claim as mine. I have done it all, step by step. Like it or dislike it, I have built my own name.
My name is Johnny, simply Johnny. This name of course comes along with a last name (Ramirez-Johnson). Some associate my name with the “conservative” label; for others it is associated with the “liberal” label. Still other have called me worse, and better of course. In my case, my name and that of my son, Johnny Alexander, are easily confused. I know my son is a better version of me (he is 50 percent his mother; I am 100 percent me), so the confusion is his loss and my gain!
The point of the story is that we carry a history behind our names. We are who we have built our names to be (innocently or not). People can interpret what we do as they wish, we are still 100 percent associated with our past. For Jacob, that past was not good, he had a bad name. He was a deceiver, a cheater, and a liar. But he knew what to do; he got a chance and he did it. The Bible says:”But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’“
The key issue here is that Jacob asked for a blessing. Asking for a blessing is a hard thing to do. It assumes that you can get a blessing if you ask for it. Most people have a hard time assuming they deserve a blessing; therefore, they have a hard time asking for it. Jacob, however, was sure he deserved a blessing. God seem not to be so sure. He tried to escape, but could not leave because Jacob was holding onto him.
We assume Jacob was holding onto and struggling with Christ himself, the second person of the Trinity. Why did God have a hard time getting away from Jacob’s grasp? Was it a physical grasp that held God back? I doubt it. It seems that Jacob was holding onto God with a passion and conviction that God was attracted to, compelled to hang on, allowing Jacob to hang on onto him.
I believe God was enjoying the grasp of Jacob. I believe this based on God’s motivations for creating and forgiving humans, as presented in Isaiah 43:7, 25 (NIV).
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made....
25 I, even I, am he who blots out
your transgressions, for my own sake,
and remembers your sins no more.
According to these two passages, the motivation of God was “for my own glory,” and “for my own sake.” This means God gets something from relating with us. This seems to be a revolutionary idea-I have something God wants; God gains something from a relationship with me? Apparently Jacob knew this firsthand.
Let us reread the story of Genesis 32:22-32 (NIV)
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”...
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.
32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
As I read this story three ideas strike me as singular and unique.
God has to resort to striking Jacob’s hip, and still fails to free himself from theg rasp of Jacob-what kind of grasp is this?
The God of Genesis is often a neighbor in the story (there are many examples of this with Abram and all the patriarchs). This notion of a neighbor God is generally foreign to Westerners; we see God as distant and with no needs we can satisfy. The Bible’s God is more down-to-earth and reachable. He is a God you can hold unto in a physical way.
Jacob’s gift to us is the notion that God is a reachable God who can inhabit—and does inhabit-the same plane and realm as us. Therefore, we can grasp God. Grasping God is not bound to a physical grasp. Jacob shows us the way to grasp God-asking for his name! In asking for a name, an identity, Jacob was demanding equality, expecting equality, and acting upon such equality with God! We, in contrast, see ourselves as unequal with God.
Jacob’s gift to us is a mindset that says, “God wants me, and I have something God wants-a relationship, a name.” God wants to give us a name as a response to our asking him for his name. This answer implies God’s admission that we are on the same plane. God responded by giving Jacob a blessing and a new name. He was renamed Israel, and he received a blessing. But what did God receive, if anything?
The Bible records: “a man [Jesus] wrestled with him [Jacob] till daybreak.” This wrestling is what God got out of the encounter. Wrestling with God is what God wants from each of us. God wants from us a relationship-a personal, intense, down-to-earth, full-of-wrestling, relationship. This is what Jacob was ready to give God at his time of need. What a pity we have to wait for a time of need to give God what God wants!
The search for glory and attention that God has with humanity is best understood in the coming of Jesus to earth. Jacob had a foretelling of the incarnation story. It was a man who struggle with Jacob, a God-man. That is perhaps why the name could not be given-Jesus. The name Jesus was not yet reveled and could not be given to Jacob. Instead, Jacob received a new name-Israel.
Our struggling with Jesus Christ can have similar outcomes-a new name and a blessing. Only if we struggle with God can we received it. We just need to believe! Like Jacob, we must become personal with God; asking God for his name, holding unto him, demanding a blessing, not letting go. This is the “theology” of Jacob. But the single most important and salient idea is the idea that we can do all this in the first place-that is the real gift Jacob left behind for us.
Can you believe the idea that you can actually hold onto God and demand his name? Receiving a blessing and a new name depends on such a mindset!
Johnny Ramírez-Johnson is professor of religion, psychology, and culture in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.