"What is your name? And he said, 'Jacob.'" Genesis 32:27
Is it possible to pray without saying any words? Yes. Fasting, for instance, is a kind of prayer without words and yet it is very powerful. Kick that up a notch and you have possibly the highest prayer level: wrestling with Almighty God. Jacob engaged in such prayer and it changed everything.
Actually, before Jacob wrestled with God there was a “words” prayer that went first; prayer that was rooted in fear. He had good reason to be afraid. Jacob was returning back to the land of his brother Esau whom he had cheated of his birthright. He had also deceived their father Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing. Even while obeying God in returning, he was shaking in his boots.
Jacob prayed this initial prayer on the way back home. “’O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who didst say to me, “Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you,” I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which Thou hast shown to Thy servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me, the mothers with the children. For Thou didst say, “I will surely prosper you, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”’” (Genesis 32:9-12)
Notice how he repeats himself and reminds God about the prosperity twice. He also reminds God there are wives and children to consider. He humbles himself profusely. He acknowledges how God has blessed him abundantly and how unworthy he is of God’s great faithfulness to him so far. Also remember for later whose God he is addressing: the God of Abraham and Isaac.
Besides praying, he covers his bases in as many natural ways as he can too. What could it hurt to have a little extra insurance? Jacob creates gifts for Esau – ones that he hopes are too good to refuse. He sets servants off at intervals with flocks of sheep, oxen and donkeys etc. to cross the land and meet Esau and present them as peace offerings from himself.
Those people still left with him he divides in two. In case one band is attacked hopefully the other will survive. That should show us the degree of distress Jacob felt at the prospect of meeting his brother after so many years. Finally, he sends his wives, maids, children and possessions across the river until he is all by himself. “Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Genesis 32:24)
What was this wrestling really all about? What was Jacob wrestling FOR? Was it still part of his petition to God over the fear he felt meeting Esau again? No I don’t think so. But fear played a part because it exposed a deeper issue. A crisis can often strip away our pretenses and bring us face to face with something we would rather not confront.
Who was Jacob?
Who was Jacob at the root? His name tells the story. Rebekah was pregnant with twins and even in the womb they were struggling against each other. She inquired of the Lord and he told her: “’Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples shall be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.’” (Genesis 25:23)
Esau was born first but “afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob.” (Verse 26). The name means “one who takes by the heel, or supplants.” Jacob’s name prophetically described his character, which was a deceiver, one who took advantage, a manipulator. Deep in his heart Jacob knew it was true: he was a crook. His actions had confirmed it and yet his actions had confirmed something else too. Remember that he valued the birthright so highly he designed a plan to manipulate it from his brother. Truly, Jacob was at war with himself as much as he had warred with Esau in the womb.
Now we come back to the essential question again. When he wrestled all night by himself with “the man” who was really the God of Abraham and Isaac, what was he wrestling to obtain? The Lord said to him near morning, “’Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ But he (Jacob) said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” (Genesis 32:26)
Does that make sense? God had already promised to bless him hadn’t he? His prayer in the beginning confirms he saw how God had favored him at every turn. He had secured Abraham’s blessing from God when Isaac blessed him instead of Esau. God himself had spoken blessing to him: “’And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’” (Genesis 28:15)
We have a clue in something Jacob said after he had the dream of the angels going up and down on the ladder in the place he called Bethel (meaning house of God). This happened as he first traveled to his mother’s brother Laban in Haran. He said, “’If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God.’” (Verse 21)
MY God. You see, evidently he had never yet taken God to be HIS God. He knew about God but he didn’t know God. He was contending for his identity. He was wrestling for his divine destiny. Not Abraham’s blessing, not Isaac’s blessing – no coattail blessings -- but HIS blessing. In order to have it he had to give up himself in the struggle.
Jacob’s New Name
Why do I think that’s what happened? Because God gave him a new name. “And he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.’” (Genesis 32:28) Israel means “he who strives with God.” He was no longer a Jacob; he was an Israel. This was not the stolen blessing from Esau but his own blessing obtained honestly in the wrestling match.
Yes, he now had it but not without price. He was left with a permanent mark of the struggle. God “touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him.” (Verse 25) He limped for the rest of his life.
Jacob’s limp is a good reminder to any of us who would aspire to wrestle with God. What though if our own identity is at stake? What if we look deep inside ourselves and find Jacob there? Is any price too high to pay? Dare we become Israel?
Few engage in this highest level of prayer. I understand it because the cost is great. The question for those who might try is this: how badly do you want a new name?
Read next about Hannah's great prayer.