Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's in a Name? The Blessing of Jacob at Peniel

Shakespeare may have thought that a rose by any other name was still a rose, but names were of great significance to the people of ancient Israel. A name to them was not just a word; it was an important part of a person’s identity. We clearly see this in many Biblical instances where a person’s name is changed after an encounter with God. These names often highlight important themes in the text, some of which go beyond what is immediately obvious.
For example, many commentators highlight that the name Israel, which is the new name that Jacob receives after his blessing at Peniel means strong with God. They identify this as a reflection on the perseverance of Jacob in his wrestling with God. Since Jacob would not let go until he received a blessing they say he was strong in his encounter with God. While the new name certainly points to this, I think it is a mistake to see the name (or the blessing) as primarily about Jacob’s strength. In fact, if we look carefully at the “name” theme in this narrative we find a deeper perspective on the blessing at Peniel and one that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The incident is recorded in Genesis 32:
“The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, 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 name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” (Genesis 32:22-31 ESV)
Jacob and the stranger have wrestled throughout the night and the man then demonstrates supernatural power by dislocating Jacob’s hip with a touch. Jacob, now recognizing that this is no mere man, clings to the stranger and demands a blessing. The stranger, however, does not immediately bless Jacob but instead asks him a question. The stranger asks Jacob what his name is. We know that the stranger is God so he was not simply asking for information. There is something deeper behind the question.
You may remember that this is not the first time that Jacob was asked this question. Twenty years earlier his father Isaac had asked him twice who he was and both times Jacob lied and claimed to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing his father intended for Esau (Genesis 25:18-27). Notice what happens when Esau finds out that Jacob has stolen his blessing: “As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Genesis 27:34-36 ESV). After this, Esau vows to kill Jacob.
This is ultimately why Jacob is all alone by the bank of the river Jabbok when we meet him in Genesis 32. After Esau threatened to kill him Jacob left home and stayed away for 20 years. Then an angel told him to return home where he would be blessed, the incident in Genesis 32 takes place as he is returning home. Even after all these years Jacob still feared the wrath of his brother Esau (Gen. 32:6-12) and this is why he was alone when the stranger took hold of him.
Earlier, when Esau asks “is he not rightly named Jacob?” he is calling attention to the fact that the word “Jacob” means usurper and is also a play on the Hebrew word for deceitful. Now, years later, this stranger has defeated Jacob physically by dislocating his hip. The picture seems to be that Jacob is not even able to stand under his own power and is clinging to the stranger. Deprived of his power, all he could do is petition the stranger for a blessing realizing that he could not impose his will upon him.
Although the stranger has broken Jacob’s body he is not done with him. The question he asks is part of the struggle, one crippling blow was to the hip and the question about his name is another. This question undoubtedly reminds Jacob of how he lied about his name in his deception of his father in order to receive Esau’s blessing. With this deception brought to mind Jacob must essentially give a confession. He must identify himself as a usurper and a deceiver. In giving his name, Jacob must come to terms for the first time with who he actually is. He, already broken physically, must now also confess that he is a deceiver and thus is not deserving of the blessing that he seeks. Only after Jacob was deprived of every pretense of self-sufficiency and confesses his true nature does he receive the blessing.
The stranger breaks Jacob not only physically but also shatters his pride. It is only once he admits his unworthiness and resigns himself to complete dependence on the grace of the stranger that Jacob receives the blessing and a new name. He is now Israel. The new name is not primarily to call attention to Jacob’s strength but rather to the victory he wins in weakness. It is only when he is broken that he is proclaimed to be strong with God. The recounting of the blessings of Jacob in Genesis 35 indicate that the name “Israel” was as much about the promised blessings as a statement of fact about Jacob.
The blessing of Jacob is an illustration of God’s initiative in blessing His people by grace, through faith. It is picture pointing us to the Gospel. Jacob cannot contribute to the blessing and is helpless to bring it about. It is only when he is utterly defeated in his own power that Jacob is said to win the victory. The God-man blesses Jacob but reserves the revelation of His own name (Jesus) because the appointed time had not come.
The God-man took hold of Jacob, overcame his stubborn resistance, broke his pride and blessed his cry of faith. I pray that He has done the same for you.

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