“Your name will be Jacob no more,” He said, “it will be Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.” Genesis 22:28.
Jacob had a checkered past. He tricked his older brother Esau into selling his birthright, and then Jacob proceeded to steal Esau’s blessing from their father, Isaac. In other words, Jacob pretty much took all of Esau’s spiritual and physical inheritance from their father by means of deception. Jacob was a man who looked out for himself, and he would use any trick necessary to ensure his safety and survival. In fact, the name “Jacob” literally means “trickster,” or “deceiver.”
After he stole all Esau’s inheritance, Esau wanted to kill Jacob, so Jacob fled from his home and went to live with his uncle, Laban. One night, while Jacob was traveling, he had an unusual encounter with an anonymous man. The book of Genesis describes the meeting like this–“When Jacob was alone, a man wrestled with him until the break of day.” As day approached, and the man saw that he couldn’t beat Jacob, he pulled Jacob’s hip out of its socket. Though Jacob was in great pain, he refused to let the man go until he received a blessing from the man. The man told Jacob that “your name will be Jacob no more– it will be Israel because you have struggled with God and man and prevailed.”
Who was this man and why did he appear out of nowhere and begin wrestling with Jacob? There are many theories as to the man’s identity– some say he was an angel, some say it was God in a man’s form, others say it was a pre-Bethlehem appearance of Jesus. Whoever the man was, he certainly came from God in Heaven, and had the power and authority to bless Jacob and change his name.
What was the purpose of their wrestling match? It represented the spiritual struggle that was going on within Jacob. Jacob was now the spiritual successor to his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. But Jacob was not yet ready for the plans that God had in store for him. Jacob was still a scheming, conniving man who looked out only for his own interests. He needed to have his perspective changed. He needed to be taught a lesson. So, the anonymous man–whoever he was– came to Jacob and humbled him. For the rest of his life, Jacob walked with a limp because of the dislocated hip received from that man; whenever he walked or felt pain in his hip, he would remember the night he wrestled with that man. But more importantly, Jacob got a new name. No longer was he Jacob,the trickster and deceiver, he was now Israel, which means “one who strives with God.”
God was communicating to Jacob that, if he were going to be the successor to Abraham and Isaac, it was now time to grow up. He had to put his selfish behavior behind him and learn how to follow God. He must be a man who strives with God. The same is true for us today; when Christ calls us to follow him, we must put away all of the sinful behaviors of our past. We are to have a complete change in demeanor, just as Jacob did when he became Israel. No more will we act like the world, instead we must act like people who have been called to follow Christ.