What does Genesis 32:27 mean?Taken by itself, this verse seems unspectacular. However, this simple question and answer represents a colossal moment in human history, and a defining example for understanding Christian theology.
Jacob is a man with a reputation for deception and lies (Genesis 27:36). He famously impersonated his brother, Esau, in order to trick his elderly father into giving him a blessing (Genesis 27:30–35). Even his name suggests deception: Ya'aqōb means "heel-grabber." Further, this event takes place by a river named Yab'bōq, meaning "emptying." And, the Hebrew word for "grappling" is yē'ābēq. Jacob is waiting to see how his reunion with Esau will go (Genesis 32:6). All of this emphasizes the level of conflict, struggle, and scheming present in Jacob's life.
After grappling for some time, the stranger suddenly takes advantage in the fight by dislocating Jacob's hip. At this point, Jacob seems to realize he has been wrestling with a physical manifestation of God Himself, or possibly some kind of angel. Though seriously injured, Jacob not only refused to submit, he demanded the man bless him before he will release his grip.
In a brilliant, pointed moment of crisis, the man asks a question striking right at the heart of Jacob's past, his personality, and his need: what is your name? Jacob has demanded a blessing, something he once stole by lying about his identity (Genesis 27:19). In this instant, Jacob can either continue to be a liar, and a deceiver, or he can be honest about who he really is. As confirmed soon, this mysterious man is some manifestation of God—his question is exactly like the one asked of Adam and Eve after their sin (Genesis 3:8–9). It's an opportunity to confess, and Jacob passes the test.
Jacob "the heel puller," the "usurper"—Jacob the liar—admits the truth. As a result, God will give him a new name, and a new identity, as the father of God's chosen people.
The symbolism of this event is critical to Christian understanding of sin and salvation. Despite Jacob's lies and schemes, and all of his struggling against God, he cannot be truly blessed until he recognizes his own disadvantage and admits who he really is. This not only involves identity, it is an act of submission—ancient people believed that knowing and using a person's name gave the speaker power. In response, God grants Jacob a new name, symbolically making him into a "new man" with a renewed purpose.