Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. Alexander Louis Leloir 1865. Wikimedia Commons
In the TaNaKh, using the words of the late theologian Gerhard Von Rad, a name was not just “noise and smoke”; instead, there was a close and essential relationship between it and its subject. For Biblical Israel, naming did not mean simply attaching an arbitrary label. It meant conferring on somebody or something its meaning and significance, so I Samuel: “Like his name, so is he.”
In this context, Genesis chapter 32 elaborates a dramatic naming story that arguably aims at identifying Israel’s essence and establishing its destiny.
In the story, the patriarch Jacob is spending the night alone, preparing to meet his twin brother Esau, whom he has wronged in the past. Full of doubts as to what the outcome would be, he undergoes an extraordinary experience.
In one of the most baffling passages in the TaNaKh, a man, coming seemingly out of nowhere, assaults the patriarch giving him no choice but to fight for his life.
Martin Sicker, a writer and lecturer on the Middle East and Jewish history and religion, notes that the mission of the man with whom Jacob wrestled is unspecified and is thus a matter of conjecture. However, the initial purpose of the confrontation with an aggressive stranger might have been to force Jacob to confront his fears and regain the self-confidence needed to face up to his brother. Thus, coming under an unwarranted attack by a man unknown to him, Jacob had no choice but to put aside all fears of inadequacy and defend himself as vigorously as possible.
The late Samuel Terrien, one of the leading biblical scholars of our generation, tells us that the biblical narrator used the psychology of individual fear and remorse to provide a historical setting for his theological philosophy of Israel’s mission in the world.
The struggle goes on through the night with neither side overpowering the other; Jacob, however, succeeds in holding his assailant down to the point that he is forced to say:
The name “Israel,” according to the interpretation given in this text, symbolizes struggle and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver, son of rabbi Abba Hillel Silver one of the most influential leaders of American Zionism and a key player in the establishment of the State of Israel, explained:
And so, on May 14, 1948, Jewish leaders declared the “establishment of a Jewish state in the Land (Eretz)-Israel, to be known as the state of Israel.