DIG: What was the significance of Jacob’s new name, Israel? Why did God slightly dislocate Jacob’s hip? What happened to give Jacob greater assurance in facing Esau?
REFLECT: How long does God have to wrestle with you before you yield every area of your life to Him? What does God have to dislocate in your life before you come to the end of yourself? Do you need God to rename you to receive your blessing?
Jacob was paralyzed at the thought of meeting Esau. He had expended his energy in elaborate preparations for the coming encounter with his brother. But instead, he had this encounter with God, for which he was completely unprepared.505
So Jacob was left alone, and suddenly he is conscious of an assailant. A man wrestled with him until daybreak (32:24). It is significant that the name Jabbok means wrestler. There is a play on words here with wrestled and Jabbok. In Hebrew, the word Jabbok is Yabok, and the word wrestled is Yaaveik. The Hebrew word for wrestling is found only here and the next verse, and nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It comes from the root avak that means dust. So the basic meaning of this word is to get dusty while wrestling. The name Jabbok was evidently given to the river at a later date to remember Jacob’s amazing experience that night.
Who was it that Jacob wrestled that night? Was it a man or an angel? His identity emerges gradually, and Jacob is quick to pick up on every clue. There seems to be no question that the writer of this passage (originally probably Jacob) intended it to be taken literally. As far as the mysterious wrestler was concerned, he was in the form of a man, but was actually an angel. Angels had eaten a meal with Abraham, and two of them had been the objects of the sexual desires of the Sodomites, so there is no doubt that angels can take on the physical characteristics of men if they need to do so. The Holy Spirit indicates that this was an angel as He inspired Hosea to write: In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with The Angel and overcame Him; he wept and begged for His favor. He found him at Bethel and talked with Him there. The Lord God Almighty, the Lord is His name of renown (Hosea 12:3-5)! In addition, in Jacob’s evaluation, his wrestling partner was more than even an angel. It was none other than The Angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ, and the visible manifestation of the invisible God. The Rabbis teach that this man was the guardian angel of Esau.
As Jacob began to pray that night, little did he know that as he cried out to God for strength and deliverance that he would end up wrestling with God Himself. As he wrestled in prayer, it was as though he sensed that God was really present with him. As he cried out more and more in prayer, God’s presence became more and more real to him until, suddenly, He was real! His uplifted arms were actually clinging to God Himself, God in human form. Jacob felt that, if he ever let go, it would mean that God had left him with his prayer unanswered; and so he clung desperately, pleading all the while for His blessing. God in His grace allowed him to hang on, seeing that Jacob’s faith and understanding were growing as he clung.506
At some point, when God saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he finally gave him the blessing he sought. It wasn’t that He couldn’t overpower him, but He allowed Jacob to hold on. Then, to remind Jacob of the experience forever, He touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched and slightly dislocated as he wrestled with him (32:25). This would be a continual reminder of this unique encounter. But Jacob continued to struggle for the blessing, despite having a dislocated hip. The Rabbis teach that the laming of Jacob was his punishment for wanting to flee and not relying on God.
Then the Lord said: Let Me go, for it is daybreak. The fact that the wrestling lasted until daybreak is significant. For the darkness symbolized Jacob’s situation. Fear and uncertainty had seized him.507 It was a long indecisive struggle. But once it dawned on Jacob who his assailant was, he pleaded: I will not let you go unless you bless me (32:26). Jacob wasn’t wrestling any more, he was just holding on. He found out that you do not get anywhere with God by struggling and resisting; the only way that you get anywhere with Him is by yielding and just holding on to Him. Abraham had learned that, and that is why he believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness (15:6). When you are willing to hold on, the Lord is there ready to help you.508
The Lord desires men and women to persist in prayer and align themselves to His will. He delights in yielding to such prayers. Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He concluded: Will not God bring justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will he keep putting them off (Luke 18:1 and 8)?
But to show the transition between Jacob’s time of preparation and his time of fulfillment, the Angel of the Lord called attention to his name. Then the Lord asked him: What is your name? The Rabbis teach that angels have no set names, but their names change according to the mission given to them. Jacob, he answered (32:27). Then the man said: Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel. He would no longer be called the supplanter, but the prevailer. In Hebrew, Yisrael, is a combination of two Hebrew words, sarah and el. Literally it means, he who prevails victoriously with God. Other interpretations are such names as God strives, God fights, or may God contend. The reason for the name change is because you have struggled with God, to gain the blessing, and with men, such as Esau and Laban, and have prevailed or overcome (32:28).
The significance of Jacob’s new name was ownership. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah when they believed in the Lord and became His own (15:6). In the future, the Lord would also change Simon’s name to Peter (Mark 3:16), and Saul’s name to Paul (Acts 13:9) because they also believed in Him. Therefore, Jacob had a new name and a new limp. The new name would forever remind him of his new destiny, and the new limp would forever remind him to live in the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10).509
Now convinced that he was wrestling with no mere human, Jacob pleaded: Please tell me your name. But He answered the question, with a question: Why do you ask My name (32:29a)? The implication was this: think about it and you can figure it out yourself. This would be very similar to Manoah’s question, who was the father of Samson. Manoah asked the same question that Jacob did: What is your name? The Lord also replied: Why do you ask My name? But in the Judges passage, The Angel didn’t stop there; He answered the question and said: It is beyond understanding (Judges 13:17-18). The Hebrew word for beyond understanding (NIV) or wonderful (KJV), pele, is one of those words in the Hebrew text that is used only of God, and never used of a man. So in this way The Angel answered the question. When we combine the verses of Genesis and Judges, we can see that this is clearly God Himself.
Then God blessed him there (32:29b). So Jacob received his blessing. Without realizing it completely, this was what Jacob wanted and needed. He had tricked his father into blessing him. Now wracked with fear at Esau’s revenge, his wrestling turned to desperate determination. This time the blessing was rightfully obtained.510
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip (32:31). This was the source of a Jewish eating tradition four hundred years later when Moses, being a compiler of the book of Genesis, makes a comment in his day looking back on this event. 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 (32:32). This practice was not incorporated into Jewish law, and is not considered a part of kosher law today. But evidently this was the practice during the time of Moses. So Jacob called the place Peniel, meaning the Face of God (Judges 8:8 and 17; First Kings 12: 25). He did think about it and recognized that God met him in the form of a man, (which was the only way he could have survived). He said: Because I saw Elohim, the God of creation and destruction face to face, my life was spared (32:30). Having come to this realization, Jacob had the assurance that Esau could not destroy him, and his earlier prayer for deliverance had been answered.
Before returning to the Promised Land, Jacob was met by God. This event was a turning point in Jacob’s life. As a sign of this, he received a new name that indicated the nature of his new relation to God.511 He finally learned that in God’s way of doing things, strength comes through weakness, which prepared him to meet Esau.512