In our first reading the writers of Genesis, departing from giving us an historical record of events, wove a favorite old fable into their account, using it to express a true reality.
While Jacob toiled for fourteen years in his father-in-law’s pastures on the upper Euphrates, he acquired two wives and large herds of sheep. Then, he led all of them a few hundred miles southwest to the land of his father Isaac between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean.
The whole flock came to the swift Jabbok stream that flows from the east into the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee. When the people and the herds came to the north bank of the shallowest stretch of the stream, Jacob himself was the only man strong enough to wade through the ford. So, one by one he carried each of the beasts and people across. Then, when he returned for the last time to the north bank, he met with a man-like individual out of the favorite fables from those times.
From those ancient times when not even one bridge had been constructed, some giant of a man would station himself at every place where a swift stream could be forded. In this story such a man, a keeper of the ford, appeared, disputing Jacob’s right to ford his stream. He challenged Jacob had to wrestle with him to win the right to cross the Jabock.
As dawn approached, the story brought in two familiar elements from such fables. One detail was that Jacob’s opponent was a creature of the night who must disappear at daybreak. The other detail was that in such struggles with otherworldly creatures, one could only triumph by guessing his opponent’s real name. (We see this element in Grimm’s fairytale about Rumpelstiltskin.)
To gain his release, Jacob’s opponent gave him the new name of Israel, with Isra being “to wrestle,” and el being “a god.”
Since Jacob was the common ancestor of all Jewish people, they are all Israelites, and they are always ready to wrestle even with God.