The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the 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 is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, 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 place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” – Genesis 32:22-30, NRSV
This story serves to establish the biblical significance of the name of God’s people throughout the story of the Bible: Israel.
If you remember back to the beginning of God’s plan to fix the problem of sin, you will remember that Yahweh called a man named Abraham and promised that Abraham would give birth to a great nation and that God would bless all the world through Abraham’s descendants.
That promise was inherited by Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob. Here, in the wilderness, we will see a display that would become the pattern of God’s relationship with his people.
As Jacob prepared to return home to a potentially dangerous reunion with his brother who he had defrauded, he has an encounter with the divine that results in a change of his name.
It’s hard to be sure what Jacob’s name means.
After wrestling with this mysterious man, who turns out to be some sort of incarnation of God, Jacob’s name is no longer appropriate, he needs another one. So his name is changed to Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” The “El” at the end means “god.” This is a fair characterization of both Jacob/Israel the man, as well as the people.
This is a fair characterization of both Jacob/Israel the man, as well as the people. Jacob has so far struggled with his brother Esau and his uncle Laban. Now he has struggled with God. By God’s mercy, Jacob/Israel has survived these struggles. Why?
We may find an answer in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Romans 1:17, Paul claims that the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel. What is the righteousness of God? It is his faithfulness to his covenant, to his promise to save the world through the people of Abraham. That God remained with Jacob and his descendants, all the way through to his spiritual descendants today: the church, is a testament to God’s righteousness and not Jacob’s merit.