Today’s lectionary reading is one of the most enigmatic in the entire Hebrew Bible. It is the story in which the patriarch’s name is changed from Jacob to Israel. There are all sorts of questions that remain after reading the passage. Who is the man with whom Jacob wrestles? How should the name Israel be translated? How does one punctuate the explanation of Jacob’s name change? What was the original purpose of the story?
After examining several commentaries dealing with this story I am convinced that some of these questions may lay beyond our grasp. Take for example the name Israel. The divine element in this name is El, which means God. There is some dispute over the meaning of the root used to form the name. Is it “struggle” or “rule”? In the most common form, we are left with something like “God will rule/strive” or “Let God rule/strive.” However, in the context of the story, if the root is translated “struggle” it makes more sense to have Jacob as the subject, i.e. “he struggles with God.” Commentators seem split on how to take this name.
Thus, with difficult questions brought up by the passage, is there any core meaning that can be ascertained? I think there is, and I think it lies in a point brought out by Von Rad. Von Rad notes that many expositors view this passage as an answer to the prayer that Jacob utters in 32.9-13. Jacob is afraid of the hand of his brother. And, I think the overall point of this passage is to reassure Jacob. If Jacob is able to wrestle with this “man/deity” and be successful, he really need not worry about his brother Esau. So, the name change from Jacob to Israel serves as a reminder to Israel that he will be successful in his dealings with men (i.e. Esau) because he has struggled with God (or God has struggled with him dependent on the translation of the new name).
For a preview of Von Rad’s commentary, check it out here at Google Books. You can read the whole entry related to this passage.