The have two wives. They’re sisters. One is a beauty and one is plain. You love the beautiful one, but it’s Leah who gave you Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Rachel gave you Joseph. The others came from handmaidens. You have eleven children, all told. Eleven children, two wives, two handmaidens, and more cattle and wealth then you rightly know what to do with.
Or rather, you had all that. You’ve just ferried it across the river, and now you’re alone in the desert, waiting for your twin brother to come and kill you, as he promised to years ago. It is night. There will be no fibbing your way out of this one. No sleeves of goat hair or stew of lamb’s meat to cover your ass or stave off judgement.
You were born grabbing your brother by the heel. It seems he’s finally learned how to kick back.
All you ever wanted was the blessing that had been denied to you by mere seconds. Esau was the elder. The hunter. The favorite. The firstborn. Had there been just the smallest flinch in the womb—a mere hiccup—you would have been born first. Then there would have been no need for games.
But no. It had happened just so. And the blessing was no longer something given, but earned. No, won.
And you had won it. Hoodwinked your father out of the blessing. Gotten all this.
So why don’t you feel very blessed?
In the night, a man attacks you. At first, you think it is Esau, but it isn’t.
He is bigger than Esau. He is bigger than anyone you’ve ever seen. He grapples you by the arms, and you take to wrestling.
You know who He is. You’ve known Him all your life. And now, finally, you get the chance you’ve always wanted. The chance everyone really wants. To take His face between your hands and ask Him just what the sam hill is going on.
Does it feel odd, Jacob?
To shove His face into the sand?
To feel His knees against your spine?
When he twists your hip out of its socket, your bones grinding out of place, do you scream His name?
You tumble through the desert throughout the night, and the stars bear witness to your hopeless case. You have tried to outsmart Him. Failing that, you have tried to outrun Him. And now, you know, you cannot outlast Him.
But there is one thing He has not taken from you yet. One thing God seems to never quite remove.
If you cannot win, then you at the very least will not lose. And so, wrestling Him in the night, you rise each time. Battered hip and all. When He throws you to the ground, you jump on His back. When you can no longer jump, you grab His shoulders. When you can no longer stand, you cling to His legs. As he walks away, you anchor Him to earth.
You are Jacob. Are you tired?
“Let me go,” He commands. “For it is daybreak.”
“I will not go,” you wheeze. “Until you bless me.”
“What is your name,” he asks.
Here, you grimace. Your name, as you recall, is Jacob. It means leg-puller. To you, it means second place. It means, unblessed. Your name is what you’ve never been able to escape.
“Jacob,” you spit.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob,” He says. “But Israel.”
Israel means “he struggles with God.”
You had not expected that.
“What is your name?” you ask.
“Why do you ask me my name?”
He’s right. You’ve asked a question to which you well know the answer.
The next day, you limp across the desert alone, to meet with a brother who does not kill you, as it turns out. But you aren’t Jacob anymore. You’re Israel—and your name will become a tribe and then a family. And they will be enslaved and freed and form a country of their own. They’ll rise and fall, and they’ll cling to God’s foot the whole time. And when the Messiah comes, He’ll graft in another family—descendants beyond measure. And they’ll be foolish and cruel and beautiful and sad. And they’ll dance and drink. They’ll kill in your name. They’ll heal in your name. They’ll invent things and name cities and make love and discover truths you never guessed. They’ll name themselves after you. They’ll be very peculiar, but they’ll be yours, the whole lot of them.
And though they’ll hear an awful lot about surrendering to God, it would do them well now and again to remember that their namesake means to contend with Him.
That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 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.”
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 humans 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.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 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.