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Renaming and Transforming

July 9, 2009

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, [e] because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, [f] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

Genesis 32: 22-30

In this Old Testament favorite (well, one of my favorites), Jacob wrestles with God (or an angel, messenger of God etc. Scholars differ on exactly who this “man” is but for the purpose of this entry, we’re going with the opinion that it’s God). What I find truly fascinating about this story is that God agrees; He actually takes Jacob on and lets him try his strength. When Jacob refuses to let go until God blesses him, God responds by asking Jacob’s name. I don’t think it’s because God was unaware of who He was dealing with; He knew the hairs on Jacob’s head, so obviously He knew his name. His intention wasn’t to jog His own memory about who this stubborn firecracker of a man was, but rather to rename Jacob and transform him through it.

Jacob comes from the Hebrew word that means “supplanter,” which translates to one who takes the place of another or replaces. God renames him Israel, which means “one who struggled with the divine.”

His renaming of Jacob reaffirms God’s intensely personal and unique image that he placed inside him from the start. He is no longer a replacement or a shadow of another man, but a new person, who is transformed, renewed, and resurrected by his struggles with God. Jacob’s blessing is in the fights and questions that bruise and batter us every day, in the heartbreaking, fall-to-your-knees, shake-your-fist-and-scream-at-the-heavens kind of pain that forces us to grow and change.  God could have let him win, given him whatever he wanted, and sent him on his merry way. But instead, He used his struggle to rename him, to re-identify him with who he is — one who struggles, and with God, one who overcomes.

I see much of myself in Jacob, and feel that the renamed moniker of “Israel” belongs to all of God’s children who wrestle with Him, insisting to be blessed.

I spend so much time struggling with God and too often, hold onto names that are not mine — the mantras of selfishness, control, instant gratification, greed. God wants to use these struggles to rename me, to transform me constantly, day by day, and remind me that woven within the identity of “one who struggles with the divine” is also one that overcomes. But I don’t always let Him.

We have to let go of this innate need to conquer, own, and control this struggle and instead, name it and let God’s hand reach to embrace and transform us through it.*

All that Christ stands for — peace, love, justice, truth — none of it comes without struggle. Every single thing that Jesus preached was extremely difficult to live out and asks absolutely everything of a person. His name for us comes out of the intense hardship that is following Him. I have to think that He never intended for us to be be imitations of anything or anyone other than Himself. Even knowing we would fail countless times, He still names us as victorious (for Israel also means “one who fights victoriously with  God.”)


My name, Caroline Elizabeth, means “song of happiness; little and womanly; consecrated to God.” While it’s the name that my parents gave me and perhaps is nothing theologically significant, I feel a deep sense of identity in what this says about me. When I look at this meaning, I see a reflection of who I am. A joyful, laughing, feminine song who continues to give myself up to God again and again, amidst mistakes, wounds, questions, and struggles; one who is  set apart for God’s use.

What does your name mean, and what do you think it says about you?

*A lot of seeds of thought were planted by watching Rob’s newest NOOMA, Whirlwind, which they showed a free premiere of yesterday on Flannel’s website. Just wanted to give a proper high-five where it was due.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Noelle permalink
    July 11, 2009 7:18 pm

    Good thing Noelle means nothing but Christmas in French.
    I now have no pre-disposed adjectives to live up to.

  2. Caroline permalink*
    July 14, 2009 10:10 am

    And you do decorate a mean Christmas tree. 🙂

    I miss you.

  3. Misterwrite permalink
    July 14, 2009 6:05 pm

    I think you’re right. Earlier in Jacob’s story he’s asked the same question by his father, “What is your name?” And Jacob replies with a bald-faced lie, “Esau.” Here God asks him again and this time he tells the truth, and a sorry truth it is (“Supplanter, Deceiver”). But God is changing him, and will continue to. And I pray He never stops working on us either.

    Mike (By the way, Michael means “He who is like God,” so I have a loooooonng way to go)

  4. Caroline permalink*
    July 15, 2009 9:06 am

    @ Mike!

    Thank you for your thoughtful response — bringing in the earlier context of the story helps make it even more apparent in how much we are all Jacob, in need of God to shake us up, rename us, and push us forward.

    I know that God will never stop working on any of us. I would have to think He gets impatient with us sometimes, but truthfully, it’s the other way around. We get impatient with Him, with His love. Sometimes I look at myself and see such a tapestry of mistakes and stupid choices and wonder how God can love me. I get angry at this God whose love is so blind, all the time ignoring that this unconditional love is what I need to accept the most.

    I need His love. I need Him to rename me and give me identity. And I hate admitting it. I hate needing anything.

    But I need Him. Like Jacob, I am a liar and deceiver, and I need to wrestle with God as I figure these things out.

  5. August 6, 2009 11:38 pm

    David means “beloved” but I’m pretty sure only by my mom. Also, I think it has some inherent uniqueness in that there was only one David in the whole Bible (but he got over 1,000 mentions).

  6. Colette Victor permalink
    January 30, 2010 3:45 pm

    Hi Caroline, I found your blog when I googled ‘Jacob wrestles with God’. My name is a derivative of Nicolette which means victorious. I also married a Victor. The marriage has gone through a lot of ‘struggles’. In the midst of those struggles, God reminded me that through Him I am victorious. Not only my marriage but personally as well. Thank you for your comments. I will chew on them all day today.

  7. Caroline permalink*
    January 31, 2010 8:19 pm

    What a beautiful metaphor names can be for the struggles we find ourselves in. I rejoice that you are pushing through, allowing God to wrestle with you and understanding what it feels like to wrestle back.

    I am glad my words could provide something for you. Thank you so much for reading!

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