In line with His mission to form or create a distinct people for the good of the world, God called Abraham’s grandson Jacob. God has previously called Abraham out of whom, according to God’s promise, a great nation would rise through whom “all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12.2-3).
Now, Jacob was very different from his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, who despite their faults were honorable people. Jacob, on the other hand, was a deceiver and a cheat. Even his name which means “he who grasps the heel of another,” a Hebrew idiom for a cheater. Jacob—so named when he was born because as his firstborn brother was pulled from the womb, he reach out and grabbed his brother’s heel—would certainly live down to his name.
Jacob was a conniver. He swindled his brother out of family birthright, the right to inherit the firstborn son’s portion…for what? A cup of soup. Next cheated his brother Esau out of the family blessing by posing as Esau to his nearly blind father. Jacob was always looking for the advantage—his!
However, one man—his uncle—was able to outmaneuver him. Once when uncle Laban promised Jacob his daughter in marriage, he tricked Jacob into marrying his oldest daughter Leah before he could have the sister he really loved. In the end, Jacob still came out smelling like a rose. He had Laban’s two daughters and all the livestock he had raised and all the wealth he had acquired while in Laban’s hire.
Jacob even tried to get the advantage over God. One night a “man” wrestled with Jacob all night. This angelic wrestler was not able to overpower Jacob and so he outmaneuvered Jacob pulling his hip out of socket. Still Jacob would not release his assailant and Jacob demanded that he would not let him go unless the man first blesses him. At that moment, Jacob was transformed from the “cheater” to the “one who wrestles with God,” which in Hebrew is name Israel. The angel explained that it was “because you have struggled with God and men and have won.”
Jacob’s new name Israel will eventually apply to his descendant who will form the distinct people of God, the nation of Israel, and like their ancestor, they will struggle sometimes in partnership with God and sometimes against God over what it means to join God in his mission.
However, the story of Jacob is still a story of hope. God will work out his Mission with or without us, whether we work with God or against him. However, as the story of Jacob testifies in the end, God will do amazing things with us, through us and for us, if we work with him. By the end of Jacob’s story, he has been reconciled to his brother and he is in covenant relationship with his God. It does not get better than that.