What’s In A Name?

Genesis 32.22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, quite strange.

It constantly subverts our expectations, no matter how many times we come to it. It reveals things about ourselves that we didn’t even know about ourselves. And it points to an ever-present reality that runs counter to how we think the world works.

Listen – Jacob is the worst.

We all know that plenty of figures from the scriptures have problems – nobody’s perfect. But Jacob? Jacob is a loser.

Prior to his birth Jacob wrestles his twin brother Esau in the womb, a perfect foreshadowing of his life to come. 

And when Esau is born, he comes out with his twin brother grabbing at his leg, so his parents name the second-born Jacob, which means heel-grabber. 

What kind of name is heel-grabber?

Jacob, hustler, scoundrel, liar, cheat, fool, faithless son of Isaac and Rebekah.

Long story short:

Two decades before the infamous battle royal on the banks of the Jabbok river, Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright. 

Esau comes in from the field, having hunted and collected food for the rest of the family, and with hunger he asks his brother for some red stew from the stove. Does Jacob willingly hand it over to his twin brother knowing full and well that the firstborn contributes more to his wellbeing than the other way around? No. 

Jacob prepares the plate, lets the scent waft in front of his brother’s nose, and says, “I’ll give you this only if you give me your birthright in return.”

And Esau, famished from working for the family, willingly agrees. After all, what good is a birthright in comparison with the deep hunger of your belly?

But it doesn’t stop there.

Later, Isaac in his old age, eyes weary and poor of sight, near death, asks for Esau to come and to receive his blessing, AKA his inheritance. Isaac wants to pass on all of his wealth to his eldest twin son. 

Esau, come bring me some of my favorite food that I might hand over the goods.

But the heel-grabber is quick to act. 

He walks in with the aforementioned food, and boldly lies to his father. He covers himself in fur to appear harrier like his brother. He leans forward to receive the kiss that conveys it all, and takes it without remorse.

For what it’s worth, that’s three of the ten commandments broken in as many verses.

Esau’s fury in response to his heel-grabbing brother heel-grabbing his blessing leads Jacob to flee for his life. 

Jacob becomes a stranger in a strange land, wandering about, and during this time he has a dream, a dream from God. In the dream there is a ladder stretching up into the heavens, angels are going up and down, and the Lord says, “Jacob, know that I am with you and I will never leave you.”

Which, considering what happened and what’s about to happen sounds more like a threat than a promise.

When Jacob wakes from the dream he sets up an altar to the Lord and he is afraid. 

His fear leads him to prayer. Does he pray for forgiveness? Does he offer the Lord a contrite heart?

No. He bargains with the divine: “Lord, if you will stay with me, and keep me, and make sure that I have food to eat and clothing to wear, then you can be my God.”

Jacob encounters the divine through the dramatic vision of the ladder, is still no better than he was before! 

Soon, Jacob has nowhere left to go. Esau’s fury remains on the back horizon. So he reaches out to his uncle, Laban, who takes him in, provides the food and shelter that Jacob demanded from God. Jacob meets Rachel, bargains with Laban to marry her, works seven years, and then, on his wedding night, is duped by his uncle into consummating the relationship with Leah, Rachel’s sister.

More bargaining ensues, and with another 7 years of labor he is finally granted the wife he wanted from the beginning.

Soap operas aren’t even this good. But wait, there’s more!

After 14 years of labor, and after receiving untold wealth and wives, Jacob returns the hospitality of his uncle turned father-in-law by cheating him out of his wealth hiding away the best of the livestock for himself.

Again, not to make too fine a point of it, that’s a few more commandments broken.

Jacob is a no good dirty rotten scoundrel. He runs from all his problems all while making more problems for himself and his family. He’s a liar, and a thief, and a cheat. There’s nothing holy about this heel grabbing son of a, Isaac. 

Why then do we read of this man and his wandering heart? Why do we lift these verses from the strange new world of the Bible and say, “Thanks be to God”? Why does God promise to remain with Jacob even though he has nothing to show for his so-called life?

Because Jacob isn’t his real name.

On the run from his mistakes, from his failures, and perhaps even from himself, Jacob catches wind that Esau is looking for him. So he divides up his family and all of his possessions, assuming that at least half will make it to safety. And, all alone, he sleeps by the bank of the Jabbok river.

A strange figure appears in the middle of the night. Perhaps the consequences of his actions made manifest in the flesh. They wrestle until the sun begins to rise. The stranger knocks Jacob on the hip, dislocating it forever, and demands for the fight to end. Jacob refuses, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

Still looking for blessings.

“Who are you?” The figure asks.

“My name is Jacob.”

“No it’s not,” the stranger replies, “Your name is Israel because you have striven with God and humans and you’ve made it to the other side.”

Israel then returns the same question to the nighttime wrestler, “Who are you?”

But he receives no answer. And as mysteriously as the figure arrives, he disappears. 

Israel names the place Peniel, which means the face of God, because in the wrestler he met the divine.

The morning comes and Israel sees Esau coming, with four hundred men flanking him on the right and left. Israel goes ahead and bows to the ground seven times until he stands before his brother.

And Esau runs forward and tackles his good for nothing brother to the ground and finally exacts his revenge. And yet, instead of pummeling him with punches, Esau embraces his twin brother and covers him with kisses and tears. 

The end.

What a strange tale.

Jacob, Israel, is deeply flawed learns nothing except for the fact that he deserves nothing and receives everything. We read his story, we can call it Good News, because grace prevails! 

His actions catch up with him, all of the hurt and all of the pain. He is caught and there is no escape. And only then is he known fully for the first time, and is loved. 

Here, at the end, after a life of failure and betrayal, vulnerable and at his brother’s mercy, he discovers an acceptance which he never could have earned or deserved.

Which leads us backward, slightly. Decades before the battle royal at the river, long before he had a taste of forgiveness, Israel had a vision, a dream, of a ladder extending into the heavens. Israel knows, after all is said and done, that God is indeed at the end of that ladder, but more importantly he knows that the Good News, the gospel, is not that God is up there waiting for him to journey up – instead God comes down to meet him where he is.

And he has the scars to prove it.

The Good News of the Gospel for Israel, for each and everyone of us, is that God meets us in the midst of our sins, not our successes.

For some reason we’ve got it stuck in our heads that, like Jacob, we’ve got to do whatever it takes to win the game we call life. We’ll deceive our parents, lie to our spouses, betray our families. We’ll dig deep pits from which we can’t escape all while thinking we’re getting better and better and better. We’ll make horrible decisions and choices all in the name of progress.

But the life of faith isn’t about how we need to get good for God.

It’s about how God comes to us.

And God’s been doing it since the beginning.

From “Adam, Adam, where are you?” To a midnight brawl at the river to the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, God comes to us.

And when God comes to us and we expect to be clobbered with guilt, we actually get clobbered by grace.

Years ago, at a different church, I was sitting in my office one day, day dreaming about a sermon, when an older parishioner barged in through the door. She was older and getting on in years, but she had this youthful glow that I had never seen.

She shouted, “Preacher you are never going to believe what happened to me.”

My favorite stories always start like that.

So without saying a word I mentioned for her to continue.

“Well you know how you keep preaching about forgiveness? Well, I don’t know what came over me, but I finally decided to tell my husband that I cheated on him.”

“What?” I blurted out as I fell out of my chair.

“It was 30 years ago, and it was only once, but I never told anybody. So after we drove home from church last Sunday and as soon as we walked into the house I told him the truth about what I’d done and with whom and when.”

“What does this have to do with forgiveness?”

“That’s just the thing! I told him all I had done and I waited for him to start hooting and hollering and raising hell. All he said was, ‘I know you cheated on me, and I forgave you a long time ago.’ The nerve of that man. Here I am, carrying this guilt around all these years, and he forgave me long ago. Can you believe it?”

Can you believe it?

This story captivates our hearts and minds because it doesn’t end according to the way it is supposed to. Any good consumer of tales knows that Jacob is supposed to get his comeuppance; whether by violent revenge from Esau, or judgment from God almighty. He is nothing but a loser through and through.

But grace works for losers and only losers.

You know, people like us.

No matter how hard we try, and try hard we do, we can’t save ourselves, we can’t make ourselves right. We can try, and we can make a heck of a mess along the way, but the Lord has a way of reminding us, all of us, that we are not as we ought to be, that we’re up the creek without a paddle. We do nothing and we deserve nothing, and yet God forgives us anyway. Can you believe it?

The story of Israel, of the forgiven heel-grabber, reminds us that God comes to us in our weariness and woundedness. God, ultimately, rules not from a throne of glory, but from the arms of the cross. God’s power is revealed in the weakness of Christ, and God’s grace comes to us in our weakness. 

We don’t have the strength, nor do we have the power, to save ourselves. We are as helpless as Jacob, hobbling around with our hips out of joint. We can run away as far as we can for as long as we can, but one day God will catch up with us. God will grab hold of us. And God will tell us who we really are.

What kind of name is Israel? It means we have striven with God and one another and we’ve made it to the other side. Amen. 

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