“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
This famous quote from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet indicates names do not matter but is Shakespeare right? Does our name influence how people see us and who we grow to be? Studies suggest that stereotypes based on names do prevail and a given name may influence a person’s self-esteem and how others perceive them. Sorry to all the Karens.
In scripture names matter. Over the last few weeks we have been following the story of Jacob. Jacob we are told means “heel” or “cheater” and was so named as he was born clutching at the heel of older twin Esau. Jacob seemed to grow into his name first bargaining with Esau for his birthright. Then with the help of his mother, Rebekah, he tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him his blessing which was meant for Esau, Isaac’s favourite son.
Last week’s reading introduced us to Uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Laban upon meeting Jacob embraced Jacob and said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” As the story develops, we realise the gravity of this statement. Not just that they are related but that Laban like Jacob is a trickster and he succeeds in tricking Jacob into marrying both of his daughters Leah and Rachel.
Although Jacob preferred Rachel, it is Leah who bears Jacob children; 4 sons named Reuben meaning “see a son”, Simeon meaning “because God has heard”, Levi meaning “joined” because Leah hoped that her husband would be joined to her because she had borne him three sons (Genesis 29:34) and Judah meaning “praise”.
Rachel who did not have any children envied Leah and like Sarah had before her she offered her maid Bilhah as a wife. Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son which Rachel named Dan which means “he judged” since “God has judged me and has also heard my voice and given me a son” (Genesis 30:6). Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed”; so she named him Naphtali. The wrestling continues and Leah too gives Jacob her maid Zilpah who has 2 more sons; Gad because of the “good fortune” of another son and Asher which means “happy”. Leah goes on to have another 2 sons and a daughter before Rachel finally has a son of her own which she names Joseph, “he adds” because another son had been added.
Jacob’s family has not only grown but so has his livestock for through a deal and some additional trickery, by both Jacob and Laban, Jacob is given all of Laban’s spotted and speckled livestock.
Jacob leaves his father-in-law to head back home but Jacob has not forgotten his brother’s anger and his intention to kill him so Jacob sends a message to his brother that he is coming, that he is quite wealthy, and that he wishes to find favour in his brother’s sight (Genesis 32:3-5). The messengers return saying Esau is riding to meet his brother with 400 men.
“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.”” (Genesis 32:7-8).
Jacob prays for divine assistance and then takes matters into his own hands sending ahead of himself servants with a significant portion of his stock as a gift to appease Esau (Genesis 32:7-21). And so, our passage begins. Jacob has not heard back from his messengers; he does not know if Esau has accepted his gifts. He does not know if his servants are even still alive. And yet he sends his wives and children into the path of Esau and his men – without him.
“Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32:24)
The text is cryptic. Is it a dream? A metaphor for his fear or his brother? Was it an angel or God? Jacob identifies this stranger to be none other than YHWH (Genesis 32:31). Whoever it is, Jacob’s response is to stand his ground and face his attacker. He refused to let go unless he was blessed. The “man” asks him “What is your name?” Jacob answers with no ancestors, clan or people. He wrestles alone, stands alone and names only one name, “Yaaqov — Jacob — a Heel – trickster”. Then the wrestler gives him a new name: “Israel – God wrestler” and he blesses him.
No longer will Jacob be able to call himself “trickster,”. No longer can he identify himself in a way that is anything other than God-like. Can you imagine doing that in your own life? If you were unable to identify yourself or talk about yourself in a way that was anything other than
In baptism we are given a new name. We are made one with Christ and named “follower of Christ”. In baptism services there is renunciation of Satan, demons and evil. This can be understood as a renunciation of the competing voices that want to name us. So many times we hang on to the names and perceptions of who we are that are either given to us by our parents, or our peers, our relationships to other people and to organisations. We get so caught up in our identity; in what we call ourselves, god or bad, the ways we act or think, or the things we have done that we miss the fact that God has already given us a new identity, a new name. We are named as beloved children of God.
Jacob somehow knew that the being that he wrestled with is the same God who was with him throughout his long travels. So he calls the place Peniel, “face of God”, “for I have seen God face to face and I’m still alive!” (Genesis 32:30). After the night of wrestling Jacob/Israel sees Esau coming with his four hundred men, so he arranges his company, and this time he goes ahead of them to meet Esau. Esau runs forward and Instead of striking his brother hugs and kisses him, and then weeps. It seems Esau does not bear grudges. In an echo of his earlier statement, he says to Esau: “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” and with those words he blesses his brother.
If we continue growing into the new name that we have been given and let it be our identity it will transform who we are, our behaviour and our relationship with God as it did Jacob. It will enable us to be a blessing to others and will impact our faith allowing it to continue to grow. Faith is not just a gift from God; it is a lifelong pursuit of God for us and us for God. We may never have the complete answers but in the struggle to hang on to faith and God, we become stronger, and we grow.
Rev Tammy Hollands