Families have stories.
These stories form a set of common remembrances often re-told when the family gets together. They serve to remind the generations who they are and from where they have come. Unusual, extraordinary, or sometimes even humorous, these stories capture something important for the family to remember about themselves. All families have stories.
This passage is one such remembrance for the people of Israel. We may be tempted to quickly pass over this passage instead of wrestling with its difficult to understand cultural elements. It just seems strange to wrestle all night long with someone previously unknown and ask for his blessing in the morning. Jacob’s odd story actually gives us an insightful explanation into Israel’s name change and with the changing of their name came the transformation of their identity.
Although it is written in a basic, straight-forward, matter-of-fact style, the contents of the story create questions. Was it a normal cultural occurrence for two men who previously did know know each other to wrestle all night? How did Jacob have the strength to wrestle until daybreak? . . . and many more questions.
The wrestling match occurred at an important juncture for Jacob who had agreed to return to Canaan in obedience to God. In doing so, Jacob knew he had to face the brother, Esau, who had vowed to kill him twenty years previously. Word reached Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men. Desperate and in dire need of help from God, he found himself in the midst of a long wrestling match.
The name Jacob means “heel-catcher,” “supplanter,” “leg-puller.” Every person who heard his name did so with a sense of suspicion and caution. It was not a flattering reputation. So when Jacob would only agree to let go of his wrestling partner if he received a blessing, and that blessing was the changing of his name (and identity), it truly was a wonderful blessing. His name and identity now meant “Triumphant with God, one who prevails with God.”
After receiving this blessing Jacob faced Esau. Possibly it was this blessing that gave him strength and courage for what that meeting would encompass. And, Esau’s gracious reception of Jacob (now Israel) was a continuation of the blessing.
Jacob’s wrestling serves as a metaphor for the people of Israel. From the time Jacob emerged from his mother’s womb grasping the heel of Esau his twin, to the all-night wrestling match of this passage, Jacob had been contending with God and humanity. In the same way, the story of the Israelites would be one of contention: a wrestling with God and those around them from the birth of their existence. And just like Jacob, if Israel employed Jacob’s tenacity, they too would prevail.
Questions for Preaching and Further Consideration
What stories in your family or community are told and retold over and over?
What do these stories communicate about your family identity and relationship with God?
What stories are waiting to be formed to further shape your identity in Christ?
What blessing from God are you willing to wrestle and hold on for?