id you ever notice a peculiar feature of the way the Bible designates God’s chosen people, the Jews, in the Old Testament? Their famous ancestor was Abraham, man of towering faith (plus very human weaknesses). We would expect the chosen people to be called “the children of Abraham,” but instead they are everywhere “the children of Israel.”
Israel? That’s another name for Jacob, the quintessential cheat of the Old Testament. He was a cheat by name, and a cheat by nature. He came from Rebekah’s womb grasping the heel of his twin brother, Esau, and so was named Jacob, which means “he grasps the heel,” that is, “he deceives” (Gen. 25:26, NIV margin).
He cheated his old, blind father; he cheated his brother Esau; he cheated his uncle Laban. Almost every time he appears in the Bible story we find him calculating, scheming, and manipulating. How could God pass by Abraham and choose this dubious character to be the one by whom His people would be named?
The answer is--grace! God did for Jacob what He has done for cheats and rascals down through the ages and what He still does today: He gives them a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance, and a . . . God keeps on loving them, keeps on calling them back, takes them over the same ground where they have fallen and fallen again, keeps them learning until they wise up and let Him be Lord of their lives. Then they become different, changed, new men and women. Jacob becomes Israel.
God had been working on Jacob a long, long time. Jacob maybe was beginning to wise up, but it all came to a head one night. He is returning to Canaan after many years away. He is coming back a wealthy man, with two wives, 11 sons and a daughter, and large flocks and herds.
But Jacob remembers the last time he saw his brother, and he begins to worry. He left Esau in a rage, furious at being cheated out of the birthright, and planning to kill him. What reception will he get? So he sends messengers ahead to Esau, seeking to ensure that his brother will be glad to see him. But the scouts return with a message that terrifies him: Esau is coming to meet him, with 400 men!
Jacob’s life hangs on the brink of ruin. The day of reckoning for the old cheat has come. He has been too clever by half. Of all the people he has cheated, most of all he has cheated himself.
Greatly afraid and distressed, Jacob divides the people and the flocks and herds into two groups. He figures that if Esau attacks one group, maybe the other will be able to escape. From the flocks and herds he prepares a handsome present for his brother: more than 500 animals, which he sends on ahead in an effort to placate him.
Then Jacob spends the night alone by the ford of the Jabbok. In desperation he pours out his heart to God.
Suddenly he is attacked. A man seizes him and grapples with him. Jacob fights for his life; but as the struggle goes on and on he begins to realize that this is no ordinary man with whom he contends. Indeed it is not: it is Jesus, who comes to cheats, who comes to us, who strives to bring us to the new life He offers.
Jacob clings to the Heavenly Wrestler. The Man wants to leave, but Jacob holds on. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he cries out (Gen. 32:26). Then the Man replies: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (verse 28).
That night Jacob found the new life God had wanted to give him for so many years. With that life came a new name--Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” And his descendants ever after were called “the children of Israel,” never “the children of Jacob.”
That’s where we too belong--we who cling to the Heavenly Wrestler.
William G. Johnsson, editor of the
Adventist Review, enjoys spending time with his two granddaughters and walking on the beach.