I will give you a name:
It will be special, precious only to you
It will reveal your true self
It will dismantle your flaws
It will release your uncertainties
It will take your misgivings
And replace them with “givings”
You could never count.
Uncross your arms,
Unfold your fingers,
Hold out your palm—
Accept this name.
Last Sunday, I preached my first sermon at my church. It was a wonderful opportunity, as it’s a bit like learning to ride a bike—it’s best to try with training-wheels first. My church is my training-wheels, in that I knew they would listen with open hearts and forgive my wobbly bicycle. It was such a safe feeling, to look out on those shining, smiling faces.
My sermon discussed the naming of Esau and Jacob, and how Jacob pulls off the greatest bait and switch deal ever by trading a bowl of stew for an inheritance. What is most fascinating about the story, however, is how the twins are named, and how those names foreshadow their character. The act of naming in the Old Testament is exceedingly important, as giving a name makes an object or a place “known” and “remembered.” Giving a name to a living object, then, like a child, is a spiritual activity that can possibly affect the future of a baby’s life.
When choosing a name, we often choose a family name, or a name whose sound pleases our ear. In Biblical times, names were usually chosen according to their actual meaning in the language, or by the physical characteristics of the child. This was the case with Esau and Jacob. According to different sources, “Esau” is close to the word in Hebrew for “hair”; since he had a great deal of reddish hair when he was born, Isaac and Rebekah name the first of the twins “Esau.” Jacob came shortly after Esau in the birthing process and was holding onto to Esau’s tiny heel. Thus, “Jacob” comes from the word “heel,” but other sources say it is imbued with other less positive meanings, such as “deceiver,” and “supplanter.” Jacob is forever known as a “heel-grabber,” struggling mightily in his relationships with his brother, his father, his father-in-law, his wives, and eventually, God.
As if creating strife amongst his entire family isn’t enough, Genesis 32:22-32 colorfully describes how Jacob engages in hand-to-hand combat with God Himself. Some sources say Jacob’s opponent could have been an angel, as the being is described as “a man.” Perhaps Jacob is even wrestling with himself; yet, it is clear the being directly represents God and speaks for Him. True to form, Jacob somehow finagles God’s blessing from this being. Jacob’s new name, Israel, is a bit grudgingly bestowed, a sign that God recognizes and respects Jacob for his determination and tenacity.
It is an astonishing name, a name that eventually becomes the name of a new people with whom God forges a new type of relationship:
Genesis 32 [NIV]:
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
The name’s meaning is perfect for Jacob, but also foretells the troubled relationship the Israelites (Jacob’s descendants) will experience throughout Exodus, and even beyond. Yet, the most noteworthy aspect of this name, I think, is found in the last part of this verse. Jacob overcomes his battles—those within, and those outside of him. He faces them head on without flinching, and fights for God’s blessings, rather than waiting timidly to receive them.
As B-Flat Christians, we all wrestle with ourselves, with others, and with God. We could all be named “Israel,” in a way, but the critical point is to overcome. Our daily battles are about remaining hopeful in the face of poverty, in practicing empathy instead of judgment, in loving others who definitely do NOT deserve to be loved…in essence, to seek our true names. God knows our hearts and is waiting patiently to gift us with our real selves if we search for them.
What is your name?