At this time of year, the Church readings are from the Acts of the Apostles. We have had the dramatic conversion of Saul, and his renaming as Paul. It reminds me of one of several other renamings in the Bible, that of Jacob to Israel.
One of the most haunting episodes in Genesis is the wordless night long wrestle between duplicitous Jacob and the mysterious figure at the ford of the Jabbok, on the north-eastern frontier of the Promised Land.
The eerie battlefield on the banks of the Jabbok is universal. Somewhere along our journey, most of us will find ourselves there. As with Jacob, there comes a time when, in order to go forward, we must first stop. We have to stand back from everybody and everything in our lives and - utterly alone with ourselves - confront all the compromises we have made. In order to find our way, we have to go deep into the trackless dark and grapple with our demons.
While the world slept, Jacob fought for his survival, unable even to see the face of his adversary. As dawn crept over the horizon, the first words were spoken. Jacob’s opponent said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking”.
“I will not let you go”, Jacob said between clenched teeth, “unless you bless me”.
Before he would bless Jacob, the angel forced a confession from him. “What is your name?” he asked. And Jacob was forced into admitting, “I am Jacob”. In ancient narrative, one's personality and one’s very self were inextricably linked with one's name; a name held a person’s destiny. In giving his name, Jacob was confessing to everything that has marked his life to date, “I am the one who supplants; the one who grasps what is not his, the one who deceives”.
When Jacob admitted his name, the response was immediate. “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel (literally “he who strives with God”), for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed”.
As with other Biblical figures (Abram/Abraham, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul), a change of name indicated a new beginning. “Who are you?” “Jacob.” By renaming him, God is saying “No, you are more than you think you are.”
When we find ourselves on that dark and lonely battlefield, wrestling with God, we need to bear in mind that the outcome of the wrestling will determine whether we will receive God’s blessing, and whether we will receive the strength to be reconciled with our past and our present
We will know that we, too, are no longer Jacob, but Israel. The words of Matheson’s moving hymn will pierce us with their relevance:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.
Picture above is Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Delacroix, in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris.