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When Jacob became Israel

As we read last week, the patriarch Jacob managed to dig himself into a hole, where he stayed for fourteen years. Tell me more ...

First he was betrothed to Laban's beautiful daughter, Rachel, in return for seven years working as a shepherd. On the wedding night he was tricked into marrying Leah, the less physically alluring daughter, and only found out in the morning, either because he was so drunk the night before to notice or perhaps she was veiled and it was dark! The only way he could also marry the beautiful Rachel was to work there for another seven years. During that time his love life was interesting to say the least. Not only did he have relations with Leah and (eventually) Rachel, but also with their respective servants too. There was even a comical episode when Rachel hired him out to Leah for a night of passion in return for exotic fruit.

The result of these liaisons were twelve sons and a daughter Dinah. Six of the sons - Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun - were from Leah and two - Joseph and Benjamin - were from Rachel. The other four - Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher - were from the maidservants.

Eventually Jacob fell out with Laban over some sheep and decided to leave him. God spoke to him at this time and told him that it was now time to return to the land of his fathers, Canaan. But first he needed to make his peace with his estranged brother, Esau. This filled Jacob with fear and trepidation, so he needed to know that there would be a measure of divine help in this enterprise.

"Then Jacob prayed, 'O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, 'Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,' I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted." (Genesis 32:9-12)

God's response was swift and unexpected. He took Jacob on in an all-night wrestling bout. It appears that the only way that Jacob could be overpowered was by dislocating his hip. Even then Jacob refused to let go unless he was blessed.

"... Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." (Genesis 32:28)

Israel was his new name, meaning he struggles with God and a new chapter in the history of man's relationship with God had now begun. Israel. It's a strange name really, if you think about it. Here was a favoured dynasty, formed from the twelve sons of Jacob. Yet they were given a name not to indicate any special favour in a positive sense, but one that highlights their one consistent character trait, as the story unfolds through the Bible. Israel - struggles with God. For a chosen, privileged people you would have expected a holier name, such as listens to God, or follows God. But struggles with God? What's this all about? What it tells us and told them, too, was that it wasn't going to be a bed of roses. God didn't choose a compliant, holier-than-holy people who would be His lap dogs and willing servants in days to come. Instead He chose a real, flawed people representative of mankind. A people named after Jacob for good reason. He wasn't perfect, he wasn't always a man of faith and he forced God to bless him on more than one occasion. In many ways he was like you and me.

Steve Maltz
July 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation)

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