Our look this month at God’s ways of relating to His creation in the Old Testament and how those ways compare to His dealings in the new covenant has thus far focused on His relationship to all the nations. Before we move on, however, we must consider how He has related to the nation He first chose to take His light to the world — the people of Israel (Isa. 42:6; 49:6).
In line with God’s promise to multiply the offspring of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3), old covenant Israel consisted mainly of the physical descendants of the patriarch through his son Isaac (17:15–21). Abraham’s children, however, did not bear the name Israel until the Lord intervened in the life of a man who was perhaps the most unlikely candidate ever to receive divine blessing. This man was Jacob, Isaac’s younger son.
Humanly speaking, few of us would have chosen Jacob for great honor because he spent a good deal of his life deceiving others and cheating to get his way. Jacob preyed on his brother’s weaknesses and stole his birthright (25:29–34), conspired with his mother to deceive his father (chap. 27), and did not turn the other cheek when his uncle Laban cheated him (30:25–42). Throughout his life, Jacob displayed a disturbing tendency to rely on himself and not on the Lord’s presence and power.
All that changed when he wrestled with “a man” on the borders of the Promised Land (32:22–24). This was no ordinary man, for He was able to wrench Jacob’s hip out of joint with a light tap, according to Genesis 32:25. Jacob came to learn that he had been wrestling face to face with God Himself (vv. 30–32), and so generations of Christian interpreters have seen in this wrestling match a bout between Jacob and a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Son of God.
In the middle of the match, the man forced Jacob to speak his name, which has significance. The name Jacob means something like “deceiver” or “cheater,” and in giving his name to the man, Jacob was really confessing his sinful self-reliance on his own way. As a sign of Jacob’s forgiveness and transformation, the patriarch was given the new name Israel, the name by which all future generations of God’s people would be known (vv. 26–29). And true Israelites by faith would wrestle like Jacob did — holding on to the Lord with all their might that they might find blessing.