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The Blessing of a New Name

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Text: Genesis 32:22-32

22 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. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have [struggled] with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 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. 30 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.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

Preface

Last year, NPR broadcasted an interview on All Things Considered where they discussed the importance of names. In that interview, they discussed how NASA has for a long time picked names for their space crafts and rockets that captured some sense of the nature of the mission. One interesting fact from the interview was NASA’s naming of the first Space Shuttle. NASA ran a letter writing campaign for the public, which was organized by fans of Star Trek. NASA was going to name the first shuttle Constellation, but because of the overwhelming response of these fans, they chose to name it Enterprise after the starship Enterprise from the television series. Aside from the support of many Star Trek fans, the name Enterprise was appropriate as it means “a project to be undertaken, esp. one that is important or difficult or that requires boldness or energy.” This was an important name to inaugurate the Space Shuttle era. But a good name is important for just about anything. If one wants to be successful in selling a product, the product ought to have a good name. A good name will convey what the product does. Likewise, a company’s brand is its definition in the world, the name that identifies it to the marketplace and distinguishes it from everything else. Therefore, names are important. This is also true for names in the Bible. This morning, we are continuing the series on characters of the Bible and will be studying about Jacob, the second son born of Isaac and the third patriarch of the Old Testament.

 

Context:

To frame the passage we have just read, Jacob had just left his uncle Laban where he resided for 20 years. He and his family are on their way back to Jacob’s home, when Jacob learns that Esau, his twin brother, was on his way along with 400 men to meet him. This news troubled Jacob because he thinks his brother is coming to kill him and possibly his whole family. Jacob had struggled his whole life to prevail, first with Esau, then with his uncle Laban. Now that he was about to reenter his home, Canaan, he was shown that it was with God he must wrestle because it was God who held his destiny in his hands.

Jacob’s Character:

While we now know the immediate context to Jacob’s wrestling match, I would like to back up a moment to review several of the events that lead Jacob to this point in his life. We will see that Jacob’s life was marked with many valleys and peaks:

Early life

·         He cheats his brother Esau out of his birthright when his brother is exhausted and about to die. Not a very “brotherly” thing to do.

·         He then steals Esau’s blessing by deceiving his father Isaac and lying about God in the process. When I read this a while back, I remember thinking how Jacob had the audacity to name God in his plot.

·         As a result of this deceit, Jacob is compelled to flee for his life from his brother Esau.

HIGH – At a place called Bethel, he experiences a spiritual vision of angels ascending and descending on a stairway and makes a vow to God saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me safe, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.

Lives with Laban

·         Jacob’s Uncle Laban deceives him. Jacob had agreed to work for 7 years to marry Rachel, but Laban tricks him and he marries Leah. Then, Laban requires Jacob to work another 7 years for Rachel.

·         Afterwards, there is continual struggle with Laban and jealousy between his wives.

·         He departs Haran, the place where Laban lived, for the Promised Land because Laban no longer favored him. Laban pursues him and they agree to not harm one another.

Journey Home

HIGH – Learns of Esau’s approach and prays to God for help.

HIGH – He then wrestles with a man until daybreak.

HIGH – Returns to Bethel, remembers former vision and vow to God, and builds an altar.

Later Years

Joseph is sold into slavery.

HIGH – But Joseph rises to power in Egypt and helps his family during a famine.

HIGH – Ends his life blesses his family and prophesying the coming Messiah.

So, Jacob had a life full of valleys and peaks. As we can see, Jacob had some good moments and some bad moments. This is not unlike our lives today. I believe we all go through periods of our lives when we are on a spiritual peak, where things are going great and we are really close to God. Then there are other times when we are in a spiritual valley, where things are not so good and we don’t feel very close to God. Jacob’s life, however, ends on a spiritual peak, where he blesses his family and prophesies the future Messiah. Through all the peaks and valleys, we do see a character flaw in Jacob. For the most part, he was not a very nice person. He was opportunistic, selfish, and a deceiver. These are not good qualities…but not surprising when we consider his name.

The names of people in the Bible had significant meaning. To the Hebrews, names generally expressed some personal characteristic, some incident connected with birth, or some hope or desire of the parents. For Jacob, his Hebrew name meant “supplanter.” “To supplant” is to cause someone to stumble, or to supersede another person esp. by force or treachery.” To be called “the Supplanter” does not seem very appealing, but it was appropriate. From his birth, Jacob was “supplanting” others. He was born second, but grasped his brother’s heel during birth. As Jacob grew up he made it his habit to go on grabbing everything he could for himself, especially those things that belonged to his brother Esau. So, Jacob had to live with a name that for the most part fit his character.

While the passage of Jacob wrestling with God is incredible, we should realize that Jacob was doing here what he had been doing his whole life. He had continually wrestled for the things he wanted:

  • He wrestled with Esau before birth
  • He wrestled with Esau during birth
  • He wrestled Esau for Esau’s birthright
  • He wrestled his father Isaac for Esau’s blessing
  • He wrestled his Uncle Laban for romance and wealth
  • Then He wrestled with God for a blessing

I believe, however, that Jacob had been wrestling with God all along. Perhaps Jacob thought he needed to make sure God’s promises came true. After all, God had promised him his brother would serve him. Maybe Jacob didn’t believe God would fulfill his promise.

In the book Hosea, the prophet records the following:

Ho. 12:3 In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God.

In this passage, Hosea connects Jacob’s wrestling match with God, with what took place at the birth of the twins. He teaches that Jacob merely completed, by his wrestling with God, what he had already been engaged in even from his mother’s womb. He was struggling for the birthright – for the possession of God’s promise and blessing. This is further explained by other circumstances in Jacob’s life: Jacob had wrested the blessing of the birthright from his brother Esau; but it was by cunning and deceit, and he had been obliged to flee from his wrath as a consequence. And now that he desired to return to the land of promise and his father’s house, and to enter into the inheritance his father promised him, Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob’s great fear of Esau’s wrath and vengeance, which he could not suppress, had its foundation in his evil conscience and the sin of his willful and treacherous stealing of Esau’s blessing. To save him from the hand of his brother, it was necessary that God should first meet him as an enemy, and show him that his real opponent was God Himself. Jacob must first overcome God before he could hope to overcome his brother.

By his wrestling with God, Jacob entered into a new stage in his life. As a sign of this, he received a new name, which indicated the nature of his new relation to God. And like his former name, his new name also had great significance:

Gen. 32:28 – Then he said to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Israel comes from two Hebrew words, שָׂרָה meaning “to fight”, and אֵל meaning “God.”

So, Jacob, who was called “the Supplanter”, is now called “God’s fighter”. Jacob’s new name would remind him and others of his fight with God in which he had overcome. I imagine this name later filled the Israelites with hope. If one could contend successfully with God, he could then win the battle with man. Thus the name “God fights” and the explanation that Jacob had “overcome” obtained great significance for the nation’s forthcoming struggles. Therefore, I think that God’s blessing to Jacob was to bestow upon him a new name, one that would not remind him of his sinful past, but one which signified strength and perseverance. This is the blessing of a new identity.

Application:

I would like to offer several points from this passage.

  1. All people are sinful, even the heroes in the Bible
    • Jacob deceived his family.
    • Moses murdered an Egyptian.
    • Peter denied Christ.
    • Paul persecuted Christians.

I take great comfort in knowing that even the heroes of the faith were fallen and sinful like I am. Like Jacob, I think we all wrestle with God every time we choose to do what we want rather than what God wants. This is called sin.

Eph. 6:12 – For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

We are all wrestlers.

  1. God changes people
    • Jacob received the name of a great and chosen nation.
    • Moses became the leader of the Israelites.
    • Peter became a important disciple.
    • Paul led some of the most successful missionary journeys.

God does not call perfect people to fulfill His plan. He calls sinful, imperfect, selfish human beings. However, He can take the worst clay and mold it into something beautiful or make it into something of great use and worth.

  1. God is greater than any problem we face
    • As Jacob found, an army of 400 men is not greater than God, just as the Israelites found God to be greater than the pagan nations.
    • Also, like Jacob, we should rely on God, for we cannot fight alone. We should go to Him for the blessing rather than seeking it elsewhere.

  2. God will not forget or break His promises
    1. God promised Jacob would be a great nation…and he became one.
    2. God promised to free the Israelites…and then they crossed the Red Sea.
    3. God promised a Messiah…and Jesus came to save the world from sin.

God is a God of promises, and he keeps them.

  1. Our destiny is not about what we want, but about what God has planned
    1. While Jacob may have thought he was securing his future, it was God who was preparing it for him.
    2. Our purpose in life is not to do what we want. Our purpose is

             i.      To love God completely,

            ii.      To love ourselves correctly,

            iii.      and to love others compassionately.

We all have been like Jacob at times in our lives. But, we can all have the name of Israel. Once someone accepts God’s gracious gift of salvation through His Son Jesus, he or she becomes a new person, and he or she receives a new name…a name forever written in God’s book of life. I’ll close with this reminder:

The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous runs into it and is safe. – Pr. 18:10

Prayer: Father God, we thank you for being a loving and compassionate God. We know we have at times strayed from your perfect will and have struggled to do what we want. Help us to rely upon you, to place our lives in your heavenly hands, where they belong. Also, help us to remember that in you we have a new name, one which is written in your book and which means we will live with you for all eternity. Please be with us as we leave here today and help us to demonstrate to others the life of Christ which is within us. It is in your heavenly name we pray these things, Amen.


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[1] Delivered August 26, 2007, Hickory Rock Baptist Church.

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