Please remember that a part of the reason for this current study has to do with a hypothetical question I raised a couple of posts back, namely, “what would it be like if we could have an actual conversation with God?” In my attempt to come to grips with the question I’d raised, I figured one of the ways any of us begin any conversation is by simply asking a question. I reasoned further and felt perhaps God has already asked questions. Although they may have been posed to other people in other times and places, I felt He’d ask me pretty much the same thing if He were to begin a conversation with me. And, I told myself, “If I haven’t answered such a clear question, why should I expect Him to say more?” So, I began to consider the question.
Here’s the next question which, I felt, deserved close consideration and a thoughtful, honest answer. Since the last post, I’ve been reading and pondering the life of Jacob (Genesis 25:19~37.). And, you know, it takes time to think. For purposes of this post, I pick the story up after several years of questionable conduct which sees a respected Bible figure in a wagon load of trouble. Most of which has to do with his reaping some consequences of what he’s sowed. Jacob has been pursued by an irate father-in-law who feels he’s been cheated. Sweating bullets while one of his wives sits on some stolen merchandise under a clever, if delicate, disguise, he manages to wiggle out of another jam. Con men are usually pretty smooth talkers. But he’s still staring at the unpleasant prospect of meeting his brother, Esau, whom he’d swindled out of the family birthright years ago. Word has just come to him that his brother has been spotted coming this way, stirring up a lot of dust, with a large band of men. It looks as if his past is about to catch up with him. Life has a way of doing that. He’s hemmed in on all sides and has about run out of options. I don’t understand what took place that night under the desert sky, but he’s obviously in a pressure cooker, and here’s how the writer of Genesis relates the incident.
“And Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when the man saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint as he wrestled with him. And the man said, ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said, ‘I will not let thee go, unless thou bless me.’ And he said unto him, ‘What is thy name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’ And Jacob asked him, and said, ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said, ‘Why is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [that is, The face of God]: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:24-30
In order to understand the question (and the answer), we should probably consider the significance of names and their use in ancient times. Names usually had substance and meaning. A name wasn’t simply a fluffy, empty, catchy nom du jour. There was no Hollywood glitz and the silly, superficial “starlet’s” with tacky names. There were no famous athletes with steroid inflated biceps, bloated egos and self-centered lifestyles. Names meant something back in those times. I don’t know how parents were able to do it, but the names they used often were expressions of their child’s own best traits. If someone were given a name that translated “courage,” he was expected to be courageous. I really don’t know whether the parents had some kind of uncanny way to anticipate or predict the way the child would behave once they hung a name on him. . . or whether the name verbalized what they expected of their child, and the child was steered and guided to live up to those lofty expectations. Some cultures have been more successful than our own in molding the character, work ethics, habits of their children than we’ve been.
Once again, I admit to not knowing how that was often such an accurate description of what a child was like or would become. In any event, in the Scriptural context we’re viewing, the name is critical to understanding the meaning of the incident and viewing the question we’re considering in appropriate context.
Jacob’s story is pretty well documented in the book of Genesis.
His name meant “schemer,” or “supplanter.” Or “grabber.” Or “cheater.” Loosely translated, westernized, and modernized, that could easily mean “con artist.” Everyone who ever knew him, even from the time of his birth, knew he was a selfish, self-centered, smooth talking, master of deceit. Even if you read his brief biography casually, you’ll see the trail he left is littered with stories of people whom he cheated, used, to whom he lied, and from whom he stole. He was named appropriately, and he lived up to his name.
He is better known to history by a name change which took place along the way. He became known as Israel. Israel is the “father” of the Nation which today bears his name. When the new name was given to him, it appears that “Jake” also acquired a new nature, a new, very different personality. It seems that the same thing (changing the name and the nature of a person) occurred again in the New Testament.
I don’t think it is necessary for me to identify myself as guilty of all the rotten kinds of shenanigans Jacob did in order to see myself in a story such as this. My flaws and sins may have been of a different nature, but regardless of what they were, the reality is that I sinned against God. . . perhaps in other ways. And it seems that I, too, must wrestle with God and am forced to face myself honestly and confess who I really am.
Whatever took place that night, it is clear the event marked the turning point in Jacob’s life. It is the defining moment. From the time he had that encounter until the day he drew his final breath, he was a different person. When he came to terms with his real identity. . .when he was forced to face himself and the truth, he became a candidate for a new name. Jacob had to grapple with the truth about himself and probably found that more difficult than the strange struggle that left him with a limp before God decided to make the change.
Who are you? Have you ever honestly asked yourself that question?
And, understanding that God already knows the answer, have you answered the question thoughtfully and candidly for your own benefit?
Wasn’t it Socrates who said: “Man, know thyself?” In my opinion, that takes time. And honesty.
It isn’t as if God needs to know the answer to that question, or any other. But you do. I do. What others think of me (my reputation) is really irrelevant. Before I can have any kind of meaningful relationship with God, ….I believe this story makes it clear that I have to come clean. Understand who I really am, and acknowledge that in the presence of God.
My Enemy By Edwin Sabin
An enemy I had whose way
I stoutly strove in vain to know;
For hard he dogged my every step unseen,
Wherever I may go.
My plans he blocked: my aims he foiled;
He blocked my every onward way.
When for some lofty goal I toiled,
He grimly said me nay.
“Come forth,” I cried. “Lay bare thy guise!
Thy wretched features I would see.”
Yet always to my straining eyes
He dwelt in mystery.
Until one night I held him fast.
The veil from off his face did draw.
I gazed upon his face at last. . .
And …Lo! Myself I saw.