Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."
Genesis 32:24, 28-30
I think of “Israel” as Jacob’s “superhero” name. It comes with an origin story. It reveals something about both the hero’s character and his journey. Maybe most important of all, it looks cool on the cover of a comic book. Watch out, world; here comes the God-Wrestler!
And keep in mind, that cool name (Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man) is not the character’s “secret identity,” it’s their public identity. Clark Kent, Diana Prince and Peter Parker are the secret, private names of these extraordinary individuals, the masks they wear when they pretend to be ordinary and try to “blend in.” They might keep those masks on for extended periods, while they go to work, make dinner and brush their teeth, but the meat of the story happens when they shed their street clothes, wrapping themselves in colorful costumes to right wrongs, fight for justice and save the world.
Israel, the one who struggles through sleepless nights trying to get his arms around God, is the extraordinary public truth of some seemingly nondescript guy named Jacob Isaacson.
To be sure, the hero’s true identity is never far below the surface, even in their street clothes. Clark Kent exposes corruption as an investigative reporter. Peter Parker volunteers in soup kitchens.
Typically, the hero only becomes aware of this true identity through some unexpected drama or even trauma. Peter Parker didn’t go looking to be bitten by a spider and have his DNA scrambled. Neither was Jacob looking for a wrestling match with God, and he certainly didn’t plan to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. While their minds were on one thing -- Peter’s high school tribulations, Jacob’s conflict with his brother — something else entirely came out of the blue and revealed the course of their life. (They didn’t even get to choose their own new names; “Spider-Man” got his from an amateur wrestling promoter and “Israel” received his instead of learning God’s name, as he had demanded.)
So I wonder, when will we experience our own extraordinary origin stories and learn our own true, wrong-righting, justice-seeking, world-changing names? Who are we really?
Abba and teacher, surprise us with the truth of ourselves, and commit our hearts to serving your world and your people with the courage of the name you have given us: Beloved Child made in your image. Amen.