If you were to think of the most famous wrestlers of all time, you might think of the greats like Cael Sanderson who went 159-0 in college, the only Division I wrestler to go undefeated with 4 national championships. Or perhaps you’d look to Dan Gable, who, after falling 1 match short of a perfect college record, went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 1972 without letting any of his opponents score even a single point! Or for the more savvy wrestling fans, I’ll throw in Alexander Karelin who went undefeated for over 13 years in international competition, winning Olympic gold in 1988, 1992, 1996 only falling one point short of his 4th consecutive Olympic gold to US Heavyweight Rulon Gardner. But none of these compare in magnitude or notoriety to Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis 32.
Jacob had swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright and the blessing of his father, but now, after two decades away, he is returning to the land of his father. As you might imagine, Jacob had probably been dreading this move as it meant going back and facing up to his actions. Knowing that he is facing a very bad situation, he tries to “butter up” his brother by sending an exorbitant amount of gifts ahead, and protecting his family by not sending them all at once in case there is a slaughter. He keeps his Rachel, Leah, their two servants, and the sons at the very back to protect them most of all.
But the night before they are to meet Esau, something very significant happens. Something to which not much context is given. That in and of itself is significant. Verse 24 seems to jump out of nowhere with this wrestling match. They wrestled all night long. Wrestling is exhausting. In high school, I had a very few matches that went beyond 6 minutes (a full length high school match). I was totally out of gas at the end. I can’t imagine a match that lasted hours! But the wrestling match IS NOT the point of this passage. There are two significant things that happen at the end. First, in the midst of wrestling, Jacob’s thigh was “out of joint.” This could be a dislocation or something similar, but regardless of what it was, it would leave a lasting physical reminder. But of what was that supposed to remind Jacob? Was it just to remind him of an “accident”? No, in verse 28, we find the meaning of the reminder.
“And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” You see, the name Israel (See the name “EL” at the end? That’s a name of God) can have a couple of meanings, but there is one that stands out as fitting both the immediate context of this story as well as the overarching history of Israel as a nation. Israel means “God prevails.” You’ll note the parallel between that name of God and the idea of Jacob prevailing in his life. Jacob prevailed as the important brother even though he wasn’t the oldest. Jacob’s flocks out performed Laban’s flocks even though he didn’t choose the “choice” animals. Yet, in spite of all of Jacob’s successes, this new injury, and new name would serve as permanent reminders that ultimately God will prevail. It was also particularly important with what happens in chapter 33.
Jacob could do all he wanted, but if Esau so chose, he could have wiped out Jacob (Israel) and his family. But God prevailed. The children of Israel spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt. But God prevailed. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years because the enemies seemed too great. But God prevailed. Goliath insulted Israel. But God prevailed. Haman wanted to destroy Israel. But God prevailed. The Babylonians took Israel captive. But God prevailed. Mankind rebelled against God, and death passed upon all men. But God prevailed.
The name of Israel shouldn’t just be a reminder to the Jews, but to us as well. (Romans 9:6 is an interesting study in this vein) We may face a number of trials, persecutions, and failures in this life, but at the end of the day, no matter what happens, no matter who is in office, no matter what may seem impossible, ISRAEL: GOD PREVAILS!