Jacob Renamed Israel at Peniel

Here is a summary of a journal article that seeks to explain Jacob’s encounter with God at the crossing of the Jabbok River: http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/Articles-Books/Ross_JacobPeniel_BSac.htm

 

THE NATURE OF JACOB

The special significance of Jacob’s becoming Israel is the

purification of character. Peniel marks the triumph of the higher

over the lower elements of his life; but if it is a triumph for the

higher elements, it is a defeat for the lower. The outcome of the

match is a paradox. The victor (“you … have prevailed,” Gen.

 

350                 Bibliotheca Sacra – October-December 1985

32:28) wept (Hos. 12:4) and pleaded for a blessing: once blessed he

emerged, limping on a dislocated hip. How may this be a victory

and a blessing?

The defeat of Jacob. Because Jacob was guilty, he feared his

brother and found God an adversary. Jacob prepared to meet Esau,

whom he had deceived, but the patriarch had to meet God first.

God broke Jacob’s strength before blessing him with the promise of

real strength (the emphasis is on God’s activity).

When God touched the strongest sinew of Jacob, the wrestler,

it shriveled, and with it Jacob’s persistent self-confidence.65 His

carnal weapons were lamed and useless–they failed him in his

contest with God. He had always been sure of the result only when

he helped himself, but his trust in the naked force of his own

weapons was now without value.

The victory of Jacob. What he had surmised for the past 20

years now dawned on him–he was in the hands of One against

whom it is useless to struggle. One wrestles on only when he thinks

his opponent can be beaten. With the crippling touch, Jacob’s

struggle took a new direction. With the same scrappy persistence

he clung to his Opponent for a blessing. His goal was now different.

Now crippled in his natural strength he became bold in faith.

Thus it became a show of significant courage. Jacob won a

blessing that entailed changing his name. It must be stressed that

he was not wrestling with a river demon or Esau or his alter ego,

but with One who was able to bless him.

He emerged from the encounter an altered man. After winning

God’s blessing legitimately, the danger with Esau vanished. He had

been delivered.

THE PROMISES TO JACOB

What, then, is the significance of this narrative within the

structure of the patriarchal history? In the encounter the empha-

sis on promise and fulfillment seems threatened. At Bethel a prom-

ise was given: at the Jabbok fulfillment seemed to be barred as God

opposed Jacob’s entrance into the land. Was there a change of

attitude with Yahweh who promised the land? Or was this simply a

test?

In a similar but different story, Moses was met by God because

he had not complied with God’s will (Exod. 4:24). With Jacob,

however, the wrestling encounter and name changes took on a

greater significance because he was at the frontier of the land

promised to the seed of Abraham. God, the real Proprietor of the

 

Jacob at the Jabbok, Israel at Peniel                        351

land, opposed his entering as Jacob. If it were only a matter of mere

strength, then He let Jacob know he would never enter the land.66

The narrative, then, supplies a moral judgment on the crafty

Jacob who was almost destroyed in spite of the promise. Judging

from Jacob’s clinging for a blessing, the patriarch made the same

judgment on himself.

THE DESCENDANTS OF JACOB

On the surface the story seems to be a glorification of the

physical strength and bold spirit of the ancestor of the Israelites.67

However, like so much of the patriarchal history, it is transparent

as a type of what Israel, the nation, experienced from time to time

with God.68 The story of Israel the man serves as an acted par-

able of the life of the nation, in which the nation’s entire history

with God is presented, almost prophetically, as a struggle until

the breaking of day.69 The patriarch portrays the real spirit of

the nation, engaging in the persistent struggle with God until

they emerge strong in His blessing. Consequently the nation is re-

ferred to as Jacob or Israel, depending on which characteristics

predominate.

The point of the story for the nation of Israel entering the land

of promise is clear: Israel’s victory will come not by the usual ways

nations gain power, but by the power of the divine blessing. And

later in her history Israel would be reminded that the restoration to

the land would not be by might, nor by strength, but by the Spirit of

the Lord God who fights for His people (Zech. 4:6). The blessings of

God come by His gracious, powerful provisions, not by mere phys-

ical strength or craftiness. In fact there are times when God must

cripple the natural strength of His servants so that they may be

bold in faith.