I’m a fighter. As a kid, my rebel spirit frequently collided with the older, wiser people in my life. Heated arguments with my big brother, disciplinary sessions at school, corrective lectures at home—all repeated the same clear message: I needed to learn to submit. My insubordinate attitude certainly warranted extra doses of correction, but with such a strong emphasis on submission and obedience, I began to assume that godliness meant being mild and compliant, relating to God and others in submissive surrender. But the story of Israel flies in the face of that assumption.
The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” …
After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.
Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. … Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.”
Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”
“The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied.
Genesis 25:22, 26; 27:19-20
Jacob had always been a fighter. His pre-natal wrestling matches with his twin brother were a cause for great alarm (and discomfort) for their mother. He came into the world grabbing onto Esau’s heel, stubbornly refusing to let go or be left behind. Throughout childhood Jacob tussled with his brother for first place in the family, conning him of his birthright and cheating him of his blessing. For years he grappled with his cunning uncle Laban over ladies and livestock, eventually emerging the victor with four wives, twelve sons, and a massive horde of wealth.
The spunky, tenacious spirit that God instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him.
But the one superior with whom Jacob had never wrestled was God. Rather, he had been content to maintain a reverent but distant relationship with the One whom he referred to as his father’s God. Jacob had spoken with Him at critical times in his life, but these encounters had usually been initiated by God. For the most part, Jacob’s own cunning and strength had seemed sufficient to overcome the challenges he faced. He appreciated God’s assistance along the way, but so far he had avoided entering into the kind of intense, life-defining relationship with God that his grandfather Abraham had modeled.
Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.” He spent the night there …
Genesis 32:9-11, 13
God was not content to leave it there. He had created Jacob with his fighting spirit, and He wanted Jacob to engage Him full-on. The night came when Jacob felt most vulnerable and helpless. His brother Esau was coming with a band of 400 men, and Jacob, with his many wives, children, and livestock, was a sitting duck. This was no time to get into a fight, and Jacob knew it. He was scared; his strong will was subdued. In desperation, Jacob initiated an encounter with God. This time he had nothing with which to leverage God’s favor; all he could do was humble himself before God and beg for help. If God had wanted Jacob to relate to Him as a mild, compliant vassal, then this would have been the posture in which He met him. But it wasn’t.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 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. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Dark night. Mysterious man. Hand-to-hand combat. Strange. For once, Jacob had not picked this fight, but he certainly had no intent of losing it. He knew this was no ordinary opponent; he had seen the angels camping nearby. So he did what came naturally: grab on and refuse to let go. Maybe he could manipulate this man into blessing him. God knew he needed it! Day began to break, and the man seemed to grow desperate. Wrenched hip. Staggering pain! But Jacob still refused to back off. The man pleaded for release. Finally, Jacob had him where he wanted him. Or was it the other way around?
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
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.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Finally. Jacob was wrestling with God, and God was delighted. He had wanted Jacob to engage Him, to come directly to Him for blessing rather than to sneak it in his brother’s name. But as a result of the new relationship they had formed this night, God had a new name for Jacob: Israel, “he struggles with God.” This name defined the kind of relationship that God was calling Jacob into. It would define the rest of Jacob’s life and the nation that God would raise up after him.
God loves fighters. Yes, He demands our whole-hearted respect and life-long submission, but He did not create us to grovel like slaves. The spunky, tenacious spirit that He instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him. For reasons beyond my understanding, He delights in our gutsy engagement. Like our predecessor Israel, we are called to wrestle with God.
After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
(which means ‘God, the God of Israel’)
Genesis 33:18, 20