22The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives Leah and Rachel, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking."
But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 27So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 28Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." 29Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?"
And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
For today's first reading we're in Genesis, the first book of the bible that means origins or beginnings. As the commentaries warned – and as I cautioned – this story contains a lot of ambiguity and it definitely lacks clarity; despite its wide openness to interpretation, don't try to wrap it up too tightly. This Jacob account is about identity, theophany, and incarnation.
When we study the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, we often consider the main identity-formation events for God's people as:
• the liberation account of the 40 years God's people spent in the exodus desert on their way to the promised land as they radically trusted God's provision and
• the freedom in obedience God's gift of the Ten Commandments or Words from Mount Sinai.
Theo refers to God, phan is showing, manifesting, revealing, so a theophany is a revelation of God. Earlier this year we had theophanies at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration. Those specifically revealed God as triune, a three-in-one trinity = tri-unity.
This passage includes Hebrew words ending with "el" that indicate a god or divinity.
Christianity is about God's incarnation (embodiment, enfleshment) in Jesus of Nazareth. In this Genesis scripture, the Hebrew word for the person Jacob wrestles with is "man" — a human.
Context: in high anxiety, literal fear and trembling, Jacob is on the way to meet up with Esau, maybe even reconcile with him. Jacob is not traveling light! His entourage includes his spouses and kids; he is bringing dozens of animals as gifts for Esau. This happens after his famous "Jacob's ladder dream" that leads to his naming a place or location—Bethel, or house (beth) of God (el).
Jacob has crept away from his retinue off to a quiet place by himself, beside the Jabbok (note how j-b-k echo the letters in Jacob's name), a stream or tributary of the Jordan River. Night falls (the sky gets dark), and somehow Jacob and a stranger encounter each other in an actual physical and verbal battle.
In the cultures of the bible, names described people and places to a far greater extent than they do for us today. Barbara reminded us how (among other devious events) Jacob stole his older fraternal twin Esau's birthright. The ongoing Genesis narrative reveals(!) a lot about Jacob, whose name can mean trickster, conniver, supplanter.
32:27 the stranger asks Jacob's name ... 32:28 and then renames him. First part of "Isra" has several possible meanings that include strive, contend, fight; the "el" ending is about God. Not only the NT with Jesus but also places in the OT bring us God incarnate, enfleshed, embodied. Jacob recognized the stranger as God, and named that place with the "el" suffix.
Here we have a type of death and resurrection with Jacob shedding his old name, assuming a new one.
Until the homecoming from Babylonian exile when they became Jews, God's people claimed the name Israel as those who trusted God so, who lived so intimately intertwined with the God of heaven and earth, they fully lived into the name as they dared battle, contend with, challenge, fight with God.
As Pastor Peg pointed out, Jacob didn't suddenly become the ultimate good guy! From the start, his entire story was vital in God's dealings with the nation of Israel, and shows how God *even* uses us with our imperfections and our frequent three steps forward, two steps backward attitudes and behaviors.
Read ahead to Genesis 33 and find out what happens what Jacob/Israel and Esau meet each other again! It's a really good one!