A Heel-Grabbed God – Genesis 32
We have settled on a name for the wildly moving mass of unborn boy that is taking over my torso. It is still a few months ahead of our son’s arrival, and we’ve known his gender for only a handful of weeks—still, it feels like this process of deciding took forever.
Any name my husband liked, I couldn’t stand, and vice versa. (We knew it would be this way. The disagreements were foreshadowed early in our marriage, when Nathan told me he loved the Puritan practice of naming children after virtues: Patience, Chastity, etc. I twisted up my whole face at him in response.) This time around was the same as with the naming of our daughter: one of us would toss out an idea, and the other would immediately make a face or say, determinedly and disgustedly, NO.
But we hashed it out, because names are important. This boy will wear his forever: infancy, childhood, awkward teenage years, early adulthood, old age—as long as he is privileged to live. The sounds made by his name will reverberate on people’s ears when he first introduces himself. The way the letters appear together on paper will become some people’s first impression of him. These are the silly, real things we talked about when talking about the name. Names are important. And we were more than willing to be determined and disgusted about them until the final question was, to our estimation, decided well.
In Genesis 32, a man and a nation get a new name. Jacob, the heel-grabbing—that’s not a compliment—son of Isaac and Rebekah (see Genesis 25), the wily, conniving brother of Esau (Genesis 26 and 27), the husband of one unwanted woman and one lying thief (Genesis 29 and 31), has been in exile because he rightly fears the brother he betrayed will kill him. But now Jacob is not welcome in his home of exile either, and God is using this circumstance to send him back to the place and the person he once fled.
On the journey from one country to the other, Jacob is so afraid that he choreographs an all-family parade ahead of him: drove after drove of gifts and flattery, all craftily designed to soften Esau toward his brother as he closes in. To enter the land where Esau dwells, Jacob’s household crosses the Jordan River. Everyone but Jacob crosses by the end of one day, but at nightfall Jacob is still on the opposite bank, alone. At this juncture, an odd thing happens:
A man wrestled with [Jacob] 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.” (verses 24-26, ESV)
Up till this point, what we know of Jacob’s life is marked almost entirely by his feisty efforts to get what he wants. The guy was reaching for his brother’s place as early as the birth canal. He weaseled his way into a birthright that wasn’t his and then deceived his way into the blessing that was intended for his brother. He went on the run to keep alive and to keep all that had become his. Then he worked for seven years, twice, until he had gained the woman who had caught his eye.
This is a man who somehow always, undeservedly, ends up with his slimy hands gripping something good. We get the impression he will do nearly anything for it. Even now, on the eve of his grand scheme to earn Esau’s favor, Jacob endures a seemingly unending brawl against a man he doesn’t know, refusing to let go until he gets another blessing out of it.
What he ends up with is a blessing attached to a name.
And [the man] said to [Jacob], “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.” … And there he blessed him. (verses 27-29 ESV)
“You have striven with God…and have prevailed.” The irony here is that just a touch from the God-man was enough to dislodge Jacob’s hip and leave him limping down the road later. If the reader doesn’t leave this passage with a question, she has missed much of the point. Because, really, what in the world kind of prevailing is this?
In the time and culture where the Bible’s texts first came, to give someone a name was to suggest an identity. Adam, the first man, has a name that means “man.” Eve, the Bible’s “mother of all the living,” has a name derived from the word for to live or to breathe. Abraham, the first patriarch, has a name that means “high father.” And so on. What these people are called represents who they are.
So it has been with Jacob. The meaning of his name, “heel-grabber,” paints a picture of one who is low, who must grasp at a thing that is ever-moving away from him. It should come as no surprise that a man like this becomes a manipulator and a combatant. He is down in the dirt and what he wants is maybe out of reach. How else, beyond scrappiness and scrounging, can a Jacob get anything for himself?
Then he meets God face to face. A different kind of combatant.
In Genesis 32’s divine wrestling match, Jacob claws and clamors like usual, insistent on getting the better of his opponent—or at least maintaining a grip long enough—in order to win a blessing. At the end of it, he is blessed by the One who orders all blessings, and he is called heel-grabber no more.
What can we make of this? A clue to the riddle is in Jacob’s new name.
Israel comes from a combination of two Hebrew root words, one meaning “God” and the other meaning “power.” When God introduces the name to Jacob-now-Israel, he puts those two meanings together in one way:
“…Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (verse 28, ESV)
But there is another way to combine those two Hebrew roots, and when you do, the meaning you come away with is different entirely. What you get in version two is: “God strives.” The jaw-dropping beauty in this story is that both meanings for Israel here are true. But one is unquestionably dependent on the other.
Israel prevails against God because God strives.
The heel-grabber can come out of the trampled dust with a new name, now marked by God! and Power! Why? Because that God who appears in Israel’s name is the God who comes down to his low level, to the dirt that he has long been in. This God, who could dislodge a joint or crush a skull with his pinkie finger, chooses to make himself weak in an earthly wrestling match so that the truly weak one—the deceiver, the manipulator, the selfish jerk—can be said to have triumphed.
Israel. It should be no surprise that the name stuck around, eventually defining not only a man but a nation, and then not only a nation of Hebrew Jacobs but a global family with all kinds of Gentile Jacobs grafted in. You and I also—yes, even we—can be ones who wear this incredible identity: He prevails. She prevails.
Good news! God strives.
Our God has made himself weak not only in an Old Testament wrestling match but also at the final reckoning: on splintered wood, with sharp nails holding all the brutality of sin against him. He traded his ultimate weakness for our ultimate triumph: we can prevail, we can grab the eternal life that’s rightfully his, because he has bloodied his heels and all of himself for us. For us, who most days are worshipers of image and fame and wealth and prestige and romance and respect and achievement and comfort far more than we are worshipers of him.
Do you see? It is the ultimate love story. The shame and degraded death that were rightfully ours, are gone. The Hell that is rightfully for us, no longer holds our place. Christ has striven to the point of death to take all that for us, and to give us all the eternal good that is deservedly his alone.
On his last breath, what Jesus said was, “It is finished.” These are the words of a God whose weakness is both a choice and a mission. This is the sound of our names on his lips.
Lisa Velthouse founded Pick Your Portion as a way of encouraging herself and others to choose the good portion every day. Without accountability, she tends to save Bible study and prayer until “a better time,” which typically doesn’t happen until she’s too tired to keep her eyes open. Lisa has been working in publishing and public speaking since the age of 17, releasing two books —Craving Grace (a memoir) and Saving My First Kiss (for teens)—contributing to two other collaborative books, and speaking to audiences across the United States and abroad. Once the “2000 Brio Girl” for Focus on the Family’s Brio magazine, Lisa served for a time on staff at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI, and has written for a number of publications. Lisa is married to Nathan, an active-duty Marine Corps infantry officer; together they have one young daughter and live in southern California. LisaVelthouse.com.