Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, began his life living up to his name: heel grabber. Even in the process of being born, Jacob grabbed the foot of his twin brother Esau, and so began a life filled with deception and trickery. Yet, as the story of his life progresses, we see that not only did he come to grips with a new name, but a new calling for his life.
I think we are all intrigued by names, our own, those of others, and particularly names in the Bible. So many of them are filled with meanings that give us deeper insights into the biblical story. Jacob is one of those biblical characters who actually receives a new name, and that name, Israel, tells us about his calling in life.
The pivotal scene in Jacob’s life is his strange encounter at the Jabbok River where he wrestles with “a man.” We read about this wrestling match in Genesis 32, and when we reflect on it in light of his life prior to this incident, we see a man grasping for control and power. Over a pot of soup Jacob grasped from his older brother Esau the birthright that according to Hebraic law belonged to the older son. Later, he deceives his father Isaac by receiving the blessing of the firstborn meant for his brother. He outwitted Esau twice in his grasping for control and power. He truly lives up to his birth name.
However, Jacob is also on the receiving end of a person attempting to maintain control and power. The great patriarch falls in love with Rachel, but his father-in-law, Laban, tricks him by substituting his oldest daughter, Leah, as the new bride. Jacob makes a deal with Laban to work off a debt in order to marry his true love, Rachel.
There is plenty of deceit, dishonesty, and wrestling with the truth in Jacob’s life. Although he hasn’t seen his brother in nearly 20 years, Jacob prepares to meet and hopefully mollify Esau by sending him extravagant gifts before he personally meets him. But before that meeting we find Jacob all alone, in the dark, on the banks of the Jabbok River. This is where he encounters “a man” who wrestles with him until daybreak.
Often, it’s in our grappling with major issues in our lives, that we have our greatest breakthroughs. As we look back, hopefully we can see some of those discoveries are born out of extreme hardship or pain. Even more enlightening, we discover God can use those difficult or terrible circumstances to help others in their spiritual journeys.
At the Jabbok River Jacob discovers it is no mere man he is wrestling with, instead, he is mysteriously wrestling with God. This match was unlike any of his prior encounters. In the previous ones, he always seemed to come out ahead, at least by his own standards, but not this time. While Jacob would not give up or give in to defeat after tussling all night, God touched the socket of his thigh and dislocated it. Still, the wily patriarch demands a blessing, and here’s where the game change happens.
His wrestling partner says to him, “What is your name?” And he responds, “Jacob.” God replies, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. In light of the mysterious encounter, Jacob names the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
We sense that in this struggle and striving Jacob gets even more than he could have ever imagined. This name change initiates a new chapter in his life. His new name means he now has a profound calling on his life, and by extension the lives of his descendants as well. He now has not a birth name to live into, but a profound calling on his life and the lives of his descendants.
This isn’t the only time in the scriptures we see a name change. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sari becomes Sarah. With the change comes a reframing of one’s identity and calling. Have you ever thought about what your name means? It’s a fun exercise to see for yourself and can be a great tool to help identify God’s call for your life.
For instance, according to a couple of websites (ohbabynames and namestories), my name means pioneer, courageous, ambitious and sociable. But when I move beyond the meaning of my name and think about my calling, I see that I have gifts in apostleship and teaching (see FiveFold Ministry APEST). It’s fascinating to think that even before I knew that about myself, my name indicates that I have those characteristics to further the Gospel through charting new territory. My name spurs me forward in my calling and purpose for my life.
When we begin to follow Jesus, we see that our identity changes to align with how God sees us. We are justified (Romans 8:33); we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17); and, we are created for good works (Ephesians 2:10). We, as believers in Christ, have general callings such as serving, giving, making disciples, and glorifying God. However, each of us also has a more specific call on our lives. Most of the time understanding God’s individual direction for us doesn’t come easily, but in exploring our distinct callings, we, like Jacob, wrestle with God as we discover and discern.
Jacob’s life story is an encouragement to us normal, everyday followers of Christ. How can this person, whose life was filled with deceit and trickery, begin anew? We see how God extended grace to this man, and because of his example, we too can receive God’s abundant grace in our lives.
It’s assuring to know that no story is so far from God’s grace that it cannot be redeemed by the One who redeems. Regardless of who we have wronged, what we have done, or how low we have gotten, we, like Jacob, can have a name changed so that now we are called beloved by the One who is love Himself.
This beautiful song sung by Lauren Settembrini always reminds me how profound that truth is.
By Elaine Friedrich
Dr. Elaine Friedrich is a lay member of the North Georgia Annual Conference and serves as the Director of Digital Discipleship and Faith Formation at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia.