Jacob left Laban’s place and arrived at a ford of the Jabbok. As he was getting near to his hometown, he was afraid of his brother Esau because he knew that Esau would kill him. So Jacob divided all his belongings into three groups and sent one after the other with lots of presents for Esau to appease him.
After sending all his belongings first, he was going to cross the ford of the Jabbok with his wives and children, but he decided to stay again that night, whereas he let his family go like all others. Then the famous incident occurred. A mysterious man appeared before Jacob, and Jacob grabbed hold of his clothes as if he was wrestling with that man. Jacob asked him his blessings.
- The mysterious man’s identity is revealed as “El” at the end of the story as Jacob recognizes him as such (Gen 32:30). Jacob designated the place as Peniel, the “face of El” or “encountering El.”
The man was strong enough to dislocate Jacob’s hip socket with a single punch. He could have trounced Jacob, but he didn’t. Gen 32:25, nonetheless, says the man was unable to prevail against Jacob. It is probably not because Jacob was physically stronger than the man but because his will to live was strong enough to prevail on the man’s mind to reply to Jacob’s demand. Indeed, Jacob really did not want to die. He let all his belongings cross the river before him even including his wives and children. When he found a strangely extraordinary man, he grabbed hold of the man abruptly and never let the man go. He was that desperate.
The man, El, asked Jacob’s name to give him a new, better name. The concept that changing a name can affect the future is also found in the Abram-Abraham narrative. The name “Jacob” has something to do with “heel.” The man gave Jacob a new name, “Israel”, (Gen 32:28) and explained that he gave the name because Jacob had striven with Elohim and humans and prevailed.
So one might think that “Israel” means “he prevailed over El” as the man’s explanation implies. But it is not. Genesis 32:28 has two verbs; one is “yakol” (prevail), and the other is “shara” (strive). “Israel” or more precisely, “Yshra-El” is from “shara.” “Israel” means “he strived with El” not “he prevailed over El.”
Anyway, it seems that Jacob took the change of his name as a sign of El’s guaranteeing his life. Jacob finally let the man go.
Considering Jacob’s desperate actions, the meaning of the name Israel is not as cool as one might think it is. He just wanted to survive his brother’s vengeance. That is why he sent lots of presents to Esau before he crossed the river; he even let his wives and children go whereas he stayed; strived with the strange man. He tried everything he could do to survive, even at the expense of all his belongings and family! The name Israel describes his egocentric, desperate actions for his life. Nevertheless, El did not criticize Jacob or beat him. El might not have been delighted with him, but he consented to Jacob’s request. I think the lesson we can learn from the name or the event at the ford of the Jabbok is this: El is merciful and generous even when our actions are not so noble or only selfish. There might be a level of selfishness that El can tolerate, but, as Jacob did, it might be ok to strive with El only for oneself when we are too weak, and there is nothing left to lean on.