Pt. 3: What’s Your Name?
After over two decades, Jacob is a much different man from the one who fled his home after cheating his brother. Toiling in his uncle’s fields and experiencing the humiliation of being cheated have matured him. When he has a falling out with his uncle, Jacob decides to move back home, where he will have to face Esau for the first time since Jacob cheated him.
During his return journey, Jacob’s fear of his brother’s reaction grows. Will Esau still be bitter? Will he kill me the moment he sees me? What does his family think of me? These questions were surely swirling through Jacob’s mind as his family treks through the wilderness.
Up to this point, Jacob still identifies with his old self. In Hebrew, Jacob means “usurper” or “ankle-grabber,” a name he received after exiting the womb clinging to Esau’s leg. In the cultural context, it also meant “trickster.” Not only had he literally held his brother’s ankle; he had usurped (or overthrown) his brother through a deception.
Jacob carries the stigma of his mistakes and misdeeds in his name, a label he cannot remove. Deep in this mindset and fearing for his family’s safety, Jacob sends everyone else out of Esau’s reach, resolving to approach him alone. The night before their reunion, Jacob encounters a man whom Jacob wrestles for hours.
The Bible says, “When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. The man said, ‘Let me go because the dawn is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me.’ He said to Jacob, ‘What’s your name?’ and he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won’” (Genesis 32:25-27).
This is not the only biblical account of God giving someone a new name. In Genesis 17, God changes Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”). In Hosea 2, God promises to exchange Israel’s nicknames Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi (“not my loved ones” and “not my people”) for Ruhamah and Ammi (“loved ones” and “my people”). In Matthew 16, Jesus calls Simon (“hearing”) Peter or Cephas (“rock”).
What do these alterations have in common? In each of these cases, God removes labels that are either meaningless or downright demoralizing. For those of us who struggle with life-controlling issues, labelling is a regular occurrence. We see ourselves as unworthy of a relationship with God, as shameful in His sight and in the presence of our peers. Others label us, too. They see the signs of our struggles and start to identify us as the things we most hate about ourselves.
But God sees what we truly are. He takes away the shame and guilt we place on ourselves. God reminds us that He has a purpose and a plan for us, and even in the midst of our mess, we are victorious if we place our trust in Him.
After this encounter, Jacob finally confronts Esau again. Much to his surprise, Esau welcomes Jacob with open arms. God doesn’t strip only Jacob of his own self-stigmatization, but He also changes Esau’s heart to see Jacob as worthy of love and forgiveness.
As we hand our struggles and shame to God, He replaces our humiliation with His glorious plan for our lives. He also softens the hardened hearts of those whom we have wronged. Giving up our labels is not always an easy process, but if we endure the struggle and let go of the stigma as Jacob did, God promises to rename us in accordance with His glorious plan and purposes.