With the first reading fifteen years had elapsed since the scene in yesterday’s first reading. Jacob has acquired large flocks from his uncle Laban on the upper Euphrates. As well, he has acquired two wives and two second-level wives and children by them. With all those animals and humans he was making his way back to the home of his parents Isaac and Rebecca. The group came to a stream that was so rapid that Jacob was the only one capable of wading across it. So, he carried sheep after sheep, wife after wife, and child after child to the south bank.
When Jacob made his last trip to the north bank at nightfall he was met by a mysterious stranger who grasped him not letting him go. This story is not presented as an actual account. It is more like a fable. As in Grim’s fable of Rumpelstiltskin both combatants felt they could win if they could learn the other’s name.
On learning that he was called Jacob the stranger gave him a new name. He would be called Israel, which combines the word !sra meaning “to struggle” and el, an ancient name for a god. “Israel” means “One who wrestles with a god.”
Since the whole nation of the Hebrews in descended from Jacob we can say that they were all there in his loins, and as a nation they can be called Israel. They often live up to that name with their willingness to fight even with God.
The meaning of the story for us could be that when our many worries keep us from sleep, we can turn them into a prayer, imitating Jacob by fighting it out with God.