There is a passage in the Bible that fascinates me. Picture yourself in the story: you have two wives, two servants, eleven sons, you’ve just crossed the ford of the Jabbok, and suddenly you’re caught up in a wrestling match with none other than the Creator of the Universe (we all love an under-dog story). Hard to imagine, but this is the story of Jacob. The details of the story are limited (to be fair, “the first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club”). It’s a confusing story.
Perhaps it’s no longer the case but, back in the day, someone’s name revealed something about who that person was, what they were like, what their life was like. For example: Moses means Saved from the water; Ruth means Friend; or think of Esau, which means Hairy – because you know, he was super hairy. Their names tell us something about their story.
After the dramatic and somewhat ridiculous event that takes place in Genesis 32, we read that God turns to his midnight sparring partner and says: “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.” It’s a strange story and I have lots of questions. But it is the new name that God gives to Jacob that caught my attention – ‘Israel’, which means ‘Struggled with God’.
When I read the Bible and examine the lives of Biblical characters, I’m often tempted to put them on a pedestal, to glorify them in a way that Scripture might never have intended to. I think of them as great people of faith who were consistent, calm and courageous in their pursuit of God. But if names tell us something about stories, perhaps I ought to pay closer attention.
Fast forward through the story and we learn that Israel the man becomes Israel the nation and, through this man and his descendants, God’s people are formed and God’s purposes are fulfilled. Our journey as people of faith and as a community of faith is a continuation of the story that we read in the Bible. Our story is a continuation of Israel’s story.
I’m not always (or often) a person of great faith. But maybe I don’t need to be. Maybe I just need to take a leaf out of Israel’s book.
They struggled with God. They argued with God. They debated with God. They spoke out of turn. They were rude at times. They asked great questions, and they asked some stupid ones. They relentlessly pursued God, and they continually turned their backs on God. They shouted, they screamed, they cried and stomped their feet. But they were also formed into a people who would intimately know God and subsequently reveal God.
Maybe great faith isn’t a lack of struggling, but a willingness to embrace the struggle of faith.
I read stories in the Bible and I have so many questions. But I guess that’s the point. God’s people have always struggled with God – so we can too. Maybe becoming a person of faith and a people of faith is about doing just that – asking questions, voicing frustrations and going in search of answers.
Israel wrestled with God – and won!