The man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob. You have struggled with God and with men, and you have won; so your name will be Israel.” (Genesis 32:28)
Every time I read about Jacob’s wrestling with God in the river gorge, I can’t help thinking of a dimly-lit inn in the small town of Saltillo, Mexico, and an elderly but sturdy, broad-shouldered man who was sitting across the table from me. I was a high school teacher then, studying Spanish for the summer.
Manuel, he said his name was, and he added that he’d been a boxer — just for a short while, years ago, when he’d been about my age. I nodded pleasantly, and as I began to try out my latest Spanish lesson on him, suddenly he leaned forward, planted his elbow squarely in the middle of our small wooden table, looked me in the eye and opened a thick, muscular hand — a clear invitation to an arm-wrestling match.
Surprised — and a little scared, too — I was going to explain that we never did study arm-wrestling at the university where I’d gone. But when I leaned forward and tried to help my faltering Spanish along with a gesture, before I knew it he had my hand enfolded in his large grip, and was nudging me on.
Giving up on my Spanish, I took a deep breath and leaned into it, straining. Bottles wavered, glasses trembled, and in no time at all, my hand fell back.
I sat there out of breath and he let go. “I stop boxing very soon,” Manuel declared, holding his hands out in front of him and spreading his fingers wide. “I became a wrestler.”
He curled his fingers as if grasping, and said, “I don’t like to stand so far away, like the boxer. I like to get my fingers on the flesh and touch to the bone.”
And so, in our story of Jacob at the river gorge, we’ve got another unlikely match-up, with a God who also likes to get His fingers on the flesh and touch to the bone. It’s an unlikely match, simply because Jacob isn’t the wrestling type. We find this out by the stark contrast which the biblical storyteller draws between Jacob and his rough-and-tough brother Esau.
“When Rebecca’s time had come,” the scripture notes, “there were indeed twins in the womb. The first came out red, hairy all over, like a hair-cloak, and they named him Esau. Immediately afterwards, his brother was born with his hand grasping Esau’s heel, and they called him Jacob” (Genesis 25:24-26).
In the ancient Hebrew culture, a person’s name carried with it the very essence and identity of the person. No Hebrew parents chose a name for their baby just because it sounded nice, but only because the name fit that child.
The name “Esau” means “covering,” to go along with the baby’s hairy body. The name “Jacob,” however, means “the one who grabs from behind” — that is, “the cheater,” “the one who’ll do anything to keep someone else from getting ahead of him.”
Jacob wanted to be the first-born himself, to get his father’s blessing and inheritance, so he was grabbing Esau to pull him back so Jacob could come out of the womb first. In football parlance, Jacob would be “called for clipping,” since fair play requires that you look your man in the eye before blocking him out.
So from the very first day of his life, just as he’s coming out of the womb, we see Jacob acting like a scoundrel. His Hebrew name brands him — apparently forever — as the kind of person who “grabs you from behind.”
“The boys grew up,” we read, “and Esau became skillful in hunting, a man of the open plains. But Jacob led a settled life and stayed among the tents” (Genesis 25:27).
No, Jacob wasn’t out there in the open plains with muscles and rawhide and wild animals and the other men, growing strong and self-reliant. Jacob preferred the safer, more comfortable life at home. Clearly, this made him his mother’s favorite, for we see her later scheming to steal his father’s blessing for Jacob. Today, we would call Jacob a “mama’s boy.”
At least most of his life was that way. That strange and compelling night in the river gorge sets Jacob’s life in a whole new perspective for us. On that night, he is being chased from behind by his angry uncle Laban, whom he has cheated out of an entire sheep herd, and faces ahead his angry brother Esau, whom he cheated out of the family birthright.
On that night, the cheating, lying, conniving “one who grabs from behind” sends his family ahead to camp and goes himself down into the river gorge. There a man — whom Jacob later identifies as God — comes forth to challenge Jacob.
At this point, we might want to reason that a kind, caring, understanding God would want to meet Jacob in a way that would help him feel comfortable. Perhaps God might suddenly create a few tents around Jacob, with some lounge chairs and amenities, to make him feel more at home.
But no. That’s not the kind of God we’re listening to here.
“So Jacob,” we read, “was left alone, and a man wrestled with him there til daybreak” (Genesis 32:24).
A wrestling match! One-on-one, fingers on the flesh, touched to the bone! What a strange, apparently dirty trick for God to play on this poor fellow. A wrestling match between the all-powerful God who can move mountains and destroy armies, and the boy who hid out in the tents with his mother while his brother was hunting the dinner meat.
“The one who grabs from behind” wrestling face-to-face with God! The one who stayed among the tents now wrestling out in the open, alone, with God!
Stranger still, we read on and discover that Jacob manages to get a hold on God — an armlock, maybe? — and he hangs on for dear life. God punches Jacob in the thigh, throwing his leg out of joint. Straining, aching, Jacob cries out at last, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me!”
And of course, the blessing comes. But such a blessing!
“What is your name?” God asks. And remembering here the Hebrew custom regarding names, we might as well read this, “Who are you?”
When he hung on for dear life and answered, “I’m Jacob, the one who grabs from behind, the trickster, the con-man, the liar, the scared mama’s boy” — then God said, “This is who you were; from now on, you will be Israel, the one who tries hard, and succeeds.”
Jacob gets a new name! Not just a new label on the jar, but a whole new shape to the jar itself, a whole new person, a transformation. Jacob — the cheater, the loser — becomes Israel — the struggler, the winner. God has touched Jacob to the bone, at the very core of his identity.
And so, the biblical story-teller is saying to us even today, so does the God of love reach out and seize and shake you at the very core of who you are, before the blessing of new life can come to you. If indeed God is love — the love that we human beings are created out of, the love that we feel for others and long for from others — then all of us who have ever loved someone else know that love always means a struggle. And the struggle toward love in our lives is almost always against the Jacob in us.
The story of Jacob tells us that before you can love someone else, or be loved by someone else, you’ve got to wrestle with that part in us all that gets scared when love starts breaking down your defenses, that would sooner put an armlock on love and get about making other folks the way we want them to be, to get what we want from them. It’s that part in all of us that’s determined to save face and stay on top no matter how badly we hurt others, the part that sooner or later gets to cheating or manipulating the persons we care about most.
In this story of Jacob, we see that the Spirit of the loving God is no magic wand whisking you off to a new world of honeymoons and overnight success. No, the Spirit of the loving God confronts you in the deep river gorge of your inner darkness, somewhere between all your selfish dishonesties and the truth. And when He has finished with you, He leaves you aching and limping alone after that truth, which alone can restore you to your full and intended self.
The Good News we await today — in all our loneliness and longing for one another — comes only in terrifying, painful struggle in which someone dies for love’s sake, and that same person rises anew for our sake.
The Good News is to feel God’s grip on your flesh, to cry out your name in all its unworthiness, to feel the pain unto your very bones, to receive the blessing of newness as you let go, and at last, to follow.
May we be so blessed.

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