After twenty long years of exile Jacob decided to travel home even though he knew Esau had vowed to kill him and was on his way to meet him with a regiment of 400 men. As he prayed to God for help, Jacob acknowledged that he was “unworthy of all the kindness” that God had showed him (Genesis 32:11).
On the night before he met his brother, Jacob struggled with everything he had been and hoped to be.
It was a life-altering struggle. After he wrestled with God, his conscience, and all he had done to Esau, he emerged a new man with new determination. He resolved to reconcile with Esau and to ensure they could cooperatively co-existeach in his own land. He also limped on an injured hip to teach us that truly coming to grips with God–and the way God wants us to live–involves pain as well as progress and reward.
With whom did Jacob struggle on that eventful night?
Was it an angel, his conscience, or did he struggle with God? Perhaps it was the spirit of his brother Esau, or a combination of the above. We cannot be sure. We can be sure that after the struggle, Jacob awoke a new man with a new name. He became Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” Only after that night did Jacob begin to realize his full potential as a covenantal partner with the Almighty.
Note that the name Israel does not mean to believe in God or to understand everything about God. It means to struggle with the idea that despite all the evil and immorality we see in the world, there is a good, caring God who implores us to use our talents to make the world a better place. The invitation to that struggle–to and the way each of us can use our talents to make a better world–emerges from the Hebrew Bible, but is open to all of us whether we identify with a particular religion or not.
After the struggle, Jacob knew that Esau prepared to wage war (Genesis 32:7), but he prepared to make peace. He sent his brother a generous offering (Genesis 32)an abundance of cows, bulls, goats, camels, ewes, rams, and donkeys. Through this gesture, Jacob endeavored to return to his brother the material value of the birthright he had wrested from him long ago (Genesis 25:29).
With this offer Jacob, who is now Israel, was saying, “I acknowledge and regret the pain I caused you.” The gift was so substantial and so sincere that by the time Esau and Jacob met, Esau abandoned the course of violence that he had planned for twenty years. The two brothers embraced, as brothers should.
Jacob’s growth and development make him worthy to bear the name Israel.
In his transformation, he becomes a worthy role model for us. The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws. Jacob grows through the mistakes of his youth and becomes the responsible leader of our people. He blesses Joseph’s sons and brings them into the Covenant of Abraham. Although he lives as a pensioner in Egypt for seventeen years, he makes his son Joseph swear that he will ensure his burial not in a foreign country but in the land God promised to his fathers, Abraham and Isaac, the land that Abraham purchased at an exorbitant price in the sight of all the people of Heth long ago.