One Saturday last fall, 285 Indian girls chose new names to symbolize a fresh start in life. Gender discrimination is strong in India—sons are much preferred to daughters, leading to female names such as “Nakusa,” meaning “unwanted.” In a special renaming ceremony, girls with such names picked new ones like “Vaishali,” meaning “prosperous, beautiful, and good.”
When God changed Jacob’s name to “Israel” in today’s reading, it also symbolized a fresh start. Four chapters previously, Jacob had been on the run; now he was returning home. This “wrestling match conversation” is thus the bookend for the “stairway to heaven conversation” we considered on July 18.
Preparing to meet Esau after all these years, Jacob was worried. Would his brother still be holding grudges? Would he seek revenge? Jacob was afraid and distressed. He sent gifts in hopes of appeasing Esau. He divided up his group to try to limit his losses. He spent the night before the big reunion alone, and this is when God came to him in the form of a man. They wrestled. Somehow Jacob understood who his visitor was and demanded a blessing.
How could a man wrestle God without being destroyed? God, who can manifest Himself in any way He pleases, allowed it. With a touch, He disabled Jacob and reminded him of who was in control. Jacob limped the rest of his life, a lesson extended into Jewish tradition as a dietary rule to remember this event (v. 32).
Jacob persisted in asking for a blessing, and God granted his request, including changing his name from “Jacob” to “Israel,” because he struggled with God (vv. 28–29). Jacob named the place, Peniel, that is, “face of God,” because he saw God face to face and lived (v. 30).