Sometimes you can study a biblical text for a long time and still miss the significance of a certain detail. This happened to me regarding Jacob’s wrestling match in Gen 32. I had preached on this story for years. I thought I knew the story. Yet I never recognized the significance of v 28:
So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
A simple dialogue. Familiar. And therefore very easy to just pass by. Skip over. But wait! Think about it: Why would the author include this dialogue in his story? And why is the dialogue even necessary? If the mysterious stranger is in a position to bless Jacob why would he ask this question? Would he not know who Jacob is? And why would he ask this question precisely at this point? These are important questions.
As I was thinking about the story again a while back (note: it’s worth going back to the same text over and over again!), I all of a sudden started to understand (note: a great feeling!). The big issue in the dialogue between Jacob and the stranger is the blessing. This is not surprising because this has been the issue from the very beginning of the Jacob story (it’s also an important issue in the story of mankind – see Gen 1:28). Jacob wants the blessing, even though his father wants to give it to Esau. And Jacob gets the blessing. But he gets it through deception. As a result he has to flee from home. He has the blessing. And yet he does not. And Jacob knows it. So when he returns home twenty years later and the stranger starts wrestling with him, Jacob has only one request: bless me! (Gen 32:27) In essence this is the same request he had back in chapter 27 when he entered the tent of his father. And once we recognize the connection between the two chapters (Gen 27 and 32) the dialogue that follows in Gen 32:28 makes perfect sense. Jacobs asks the stranger to bless him, but instead of blessing him, the stranger asks the question: what is your name? And by doing so he takes Jacob back to Gen 27. Because that is precisely the issue in Gen 27:
Then he came to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” (v 18)
Who are you? asks Isaac in Gen 27. And Jacob answers: I am Esau your firstborn (v 19). And he gets the blessing. Now, twenty years later, he wants to get the blessing again – the right way. And the stranger asks the same question: Who are you? As attentive readers of the Jacob story this does not surprise us. The question must be asked and it must be asked at this point because it is here that Jacob failed in Gen 27. He got the blessing but only because he lied about his identity. So before he can get the blessing the right way the issue of his true identity must be resolved. And this time Jacob gets it right. He does not lie but admits: I am Jacob.
This admission is significant not only because it is the truth but also because of the significance of the name. In Hebrew the name “Jacob” (ya’āqōb) is related to the verb ‘āqab meaning “to deceive.” Thus Esau is able to say in Gen 27:36:
“Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!”
Thus Jacob’s name is related to his identity. Throughout his life, Jacob is the deceiver, always playing tricks on other people. He gets the birthright through deception (according to Esau), he gets the blessing through deception, he gets wealthy through deception. This is his identity, an identity he does not want to admit to, but which the story nevertheless keeps emphasizing. (Note the irony in Gen 27: Jacob gets the blessing by lying about this identity, while the whole story proves that he is rightly named Jacob.) So when Jacob tells the stranger in Gen 32 that he is Jacob, he is not just telling the truth but also confessing his true identity. He is the deceiver, the one who always tried to help himself with his own hand instead of trusting God. The beautiful thing is that as soon as he admits this, his name (and therefore also his identity) is changed! (Gen 32:29)
So how do we apply this to ourselves? By recognizing that Jacob’s temptation is our temptation. Like Jacob (and like Adam and Eve!), we often deny our true identity (we are humans, dependent on God) and try to get the blessing our way (by making ourselves God [false identity] and deciding what’s good for us and what is not). The result is always the same: we live in the exile of sin, burdened with guilt. But God does not give up on us. He comes and asks that probing question: who are you? And when we, like Jacob, are willing to admit our true identity (helpless, sinful human beings), God says: now you have truly succeeded. And through Jesus Christ he gives us a new identity. We become what we were meant to be from the very beginning. And that’s the good news of salvation!