"Our history describes us; it does not define us."
It's a thought that should give us the freedom to be the person God always intended us to be. But it may be easier to hear than to accept.
We're often convinced we are defined by what we have done or the weight our family name carries. We're held captive by our past that keeps us from living into the life God desires for us. We resign our lives to the fact that "maybe we're deserving of all the bad things that are happening to us."
I am a firm believer that no one is too far to be redeemed and restored by God (even though this belief sometimes proves extremely challenging).
Jacob’s story (Genesis 25-35) is proof that we are more than the sum of our mistakes; that our past does not have to define us. "Jacob" means “grasper of the heel” and he was given that name because, well, he was born while grasping on to his older twin brother’s heel. But it’s also a Hebrew way of calling someone a “deceiver.”
In our culture, we tend to know (assume) more about someone, not by their name, but by their profession. My telling you, “My name is Joseph” may not reveal too much about me. But me saying, “And I’m a pastor” may help you make some assumptions about me (and, maybe, how I should behave). (I just wanted to add, for no real reason, that my Korean — and legal — name Sung Woong means “holy hero”).
But in Jacob’s culture, someone’s name revealed the essence of one’s soul. You knew who they were and what they would be. What’s in a name? For Jacob and his people: Everything.
Jacob lived up to his name. (Or was it a self-fulfilling prophecy?) He spent a good chunk of his story in Genesis deceiving, tricking, and conning people. He stole Esau’s (the older twin) birthright and birth blessing to which Esau screamed at his dad, “Isn’t this why he is called Jacob?” (Genesis 27:36).
Really, at heart, Jacob was nothing more than a conman; a slick used car salesman (no offense to used car sales people... or conmen...)
Jacob had to know about that himself, right?
Like on those nights where he couldn’t sleep and his mind drifted and wandered — he had to have thought about the not-so-good things he did, right?
Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright.
He tricked Isaac (his father) into giving him Esau’s inheritance.
He conned his father-in-law out of livestock (and credited God for his lucky abundance--Genesis 30:37-43)
There must have been times when he questioned his morality...
The thing most people know about Jacob is that he wrestled with God. (Genesis 32:22-32). In that story, Jacob is returning to meet his brother for the first time since stealing the inheritance. Jacob ran away because Esau vowed to murder him. As Jacob anxiously awaited his fate, a man came and started wrestling with Jacob (totally normal).
Near the end of the wrestling match, the wrestling stranger (who we believe represented God) asked Jacob to let go. Jacob refused unless he received a blessing. So God wanted to know the name of the person God was going to bless.
This goes beyond, “Hey, what’s your name?” after all, God would already know Jacob’s name.
I believe that God wanted Jacob to say his name as a confession; to confess who he is; to come clean about his shadiness. And perhaps, for Jacob, to confess proved more painful than death itself.
We all know someone who’d rather die than admit that they were wrong. (If you can’t think of anyone in your life — maybe you’re that person....)
This wasn’t the first time Jacob was asked his name. Earlier in Jacob’s story, he approached Isaac (who became blind in his old age) dressed up like Esau. “Who are you, my son?” Isaac was unsure if it was Jacob or Esau in front of him.
“I’m Esau, you’re oldest son,” replied Jacob. (Genesis 27:18-19)
And now, after wrestling, Jacob was asked his name once more.
Maybe Jacob really wanted that blessing.
Maybe he was just tired of who he was.
But in the presence of God, Jacob says, “I am Jacob.” Which is essentially saying, “I am Deceiver.” As readers and listeners of Jacob’s story, we expect some sort of justice to follow the confession. He admitted all the shady things; all the hurtful things; all the lies he committed in the presence of God. Justice should be doled out. Except, what God says next comes as a shock to those of us who are justice and quid pro quo minded.
God responds, "Your name won't be Jacob any longer, but Israel because you struggled with God and with men and won." (28).
That’s a promotion if I ever heard one. Jacob went from “Deceiver” to “Struggled with God and with men and won.” “What?!?” seems like an appropriate response.
But that exchange captures the essence of God’s grace.
God sees you.
Not your actions from the past.
Not what you’ve done.
Not your regrets.
God doesn’t see your limitations but your capacity.
God sees the beauty in the flaws you (or others) may see in you.
God sees you like an artist admiring her life-long work finally completed and says, “it is good.”
God calls you by your real name.
Joseph Yoo is a West Coaster at heart contently living in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He serves at Mosaic Church in Houston. Find more of his writing at josephyoo.com.
[Posted November 19, 2019]