I share here a sacrament meeting talk I delivered recently in my St Louis congregation. I suspect there have been many other such sermons on the same topic delivered in wards around the globe over the past three months. President Nelson’s October address seems to have made a powerful impression on our people in this time of spiritual hunger. I endorse President Nelson’s message and am grateful to have reflected on it at length here.
In one of the most enigmatic scenes in the Old Testament, a man stands alone on the bank of the Jordan river at midnight. The man is Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, a hard-driving trader in a hurry from the moment he was born grasping his twin brother’s heel as if to drag him back into the womb. Jacob has been on the move for many years, first leaving home to escape the wrath of his twin Esau, from whom, after the failed heel-grab, he eventually did manage to take the coveted birthright blessing. Now Jacob has fled from his father-in-law Laban, from whom he has won two daughters and much property. The Lord is calling him back to Canaan, the land of his father, and Jacob is on his way home.
At the threshold of return, the Jordan river, Jacob finds himself at an impasse. His family has crossed, but Jacob himself stays behind. At his back is Laban, before him is Esau; in either direction Jacob is unsure whether he faces friend or enemy. He has planned, worked, and fought all his life to get here–and now he stands alone in the dark stillness.
Maybe you know what happens next. A figure appears, and “wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And he saw that he had not won against [Jacob], and he touched his hip socket and Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched as he wrestled with him. And the figure said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” And Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And the figure said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out.” … And there he blessed him. And the sun rose upon Jacob as he passed, and he was limping on his hip.”[fn 1]
Jacob, ever the competitor, wrestles the mysterious divine figure to a draw, and, as he has from Esau and from Laban, finally gets from him what he desires. There’s a twist hiding in this strange story, however. This time, what Jacob wants is not preeminence or property, but a blessing under the hand of the wrestler. My study Bible tells me that the root of the word “bless” in this verse is “berach: to kneel”: Jacob asks to kneel before his competitor, giving him the upper hand–literally.[fn 2] In other words, Jacob, who has always made sure he comes out on top, is now willing to make himself vulnerable by bending his head low. The wrestler does no harm, but blesses Jacob with a new name: Israel, which, the narrator tells us, means “You have striven with God and man, and you have prevailed.”
But who actually prevailed that night? Jacob, it’s true, wrestled the blessing he desired from the angel; in this sense Jacob prevailed. But in victory, he chose supplication and submission, and in that sense the Lord’s angel prevailed. This is reflected in the meaning of the name Israel, which — despite what the biblical narrator says — originally means something like “God will rule” or “God will prevail.” So who really prevailed that night? Maybe both interpretations of the name Israel are right: maybe Jacob prevailed, by letting God prevail.
President Nelson recently drew our attention to the meaning of the ancient name Israel. In his October address, he noted that the word Israel can be translated “Let God Prevail.”
Thus the very name of Israel refers to a person who is willing to let God prevail in his or her life. … The word willing is crucial to this interpretation of Israel. We all have our agency. We can choose to be of Israel, or not. We can choose to let God prevail in our lives, or not. We can choose to let God be the most powerful influence in our lives, or not. [fn 3]
President Nelson shows us the twist at the center of Jacob’s wrestle: Jacob chose to seek blessing, not victory, from the angel. The same question faces us. Our agency gives us power in our lives, though at times we may feel powerless against misfortune, illness or injustice. Still, like Jacob, we must wrestle. How often have you felt that you must seize a long-desired blessing–a pregnancy, a recovery, a job, a success–when God seems to withhold it? Perhaps Jacob, on the bank of the Jordan river at midnight, has a lesson for us. Perhaps we prevail not by grappling desperately for what we desire, but by seeking instead the blessing that God will give. As President Nelson says, “We can choose to let God prevail in our lives, or not.” So who really prevails? Could it be that our agency is greatest precisely when we choose to patiently acknowledge a higher power?
By drawing our attention to the meaning of the name Israel, President Nelson invites us to think about belonging in a different way. The Bible gives us the story of an ancient people. Their covenant with God, their enslavement in Egypt, and their rescue and deliverance to the Promised Land is a template that guides our own spiritual lives. Christians see the gospel of Jesus Christ expressed in the story of Israel: we too covenant with God, through faith in Christ, we are enslaved by sin and death, and we are rescued by the atonement of Jesus Christ and delivered into the “promised land” of eternal life. The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob speaks of our “escape and rescue” from death and hell through Christ, just as the Israelites were rescued from bondage(2 Nephi 9:10); and the prophet Alma uses the story of Israel as a template for his miraculous story of repentance and redemption in Alma 36.
As Christians have told the story of Israel as a template for our own spiritual journey in Christ, often the first question has been WHO: “Who is the true Israel?” Virtually every Christian community has claimed the mantle of Israel for themselves in some way–beginning with the apostle Paul (Romans 9), to early American Puritans, and beyond. And asking who is not a bad question! Indeed, the book of Mormon proclaimed to early North American converts that the indigenous people of their continent were modern Israel, and as Latter-day Saints we understand ourselves to be heirs and partners in the covenant of Israel in the last days.
President Nelson encourages us to ask a different question about Israel: not so much who, but how. How are we to be modern Israel? By letting God prevail. By seeking blessing, not property. Reconciliation, not conquest. By exercising patience, not coercion. Long-suffering, gentleness, and meekness, not arrogance, violence, or selfishness (see D&C 121). By letting God fight our battles, not seeking retribution from our enemies.
When we ask how, not just who, are God’s covenant Israel, we become the kind of person that, as President Nelson says, is “willing to let whatever He needs you to do take precedence over every other ambition… willing to have your will swallowed up in His.” I’d add that we might also ask the same question about heaven and eternal life. Do we become preoccupied wondering or worrying about who will be in heaven? What happens if we ask instead how to be in heaven? We might discover that heaven is more a way of living, than an exclusive club or a faraway place. When Thomas asked the way to heaven, Christ replied “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
To let God prevail is not to be apathetic or careless with our lives. Often it takes more creativity, more enterprise, more careful judgement to discern and walk the way of Christ than to chase our own self-interest. The story of Jacob teaches us this lesson, as well. After limping across the river Jordan, Jacob has to face his brother Esau. Years ago, Jacob was forced to flee when Esau threatened to kill him for claiming the birthright. Now Jacob sees Esau approaching across the plain, with a force of 400 men. How will Jacob respond? Will he fight for his own interests, or will he choose the way of reconciliation and let the Lord prevail? Surely this moment calls for skill, courage, strength, and wisdom.
As Esau approaches, Jacob “bowed to the ground seven times until he drew near his brother. And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Esau asks Jacob why he has brought vast and valuable herds of livestock, and Jacob answers “If I have found favor in your eyes, take this tribute from my hand, for have I not seen your face as one might see God’s face, and you received me in kindness?” [fn 4]
This scene of humility, forgiveness and love exemplifies what it means to let God prevail. And it echoes through the rest of the scriptures. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus tells of the disgraced son’s return: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). And when the prophet Enoch is shown the ultimate reconciliation of Zion, the pure in heart united across all differences of time and place, that culminating scene uses the language of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau: “Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other” (Moses 7:63).
I like to remember that Jacob must have limped as he walked toward Esau on the plain. Life leaves scars, some that don’t disappear with time. Our Savior, the one who most fully allowed God to prevail in his life and death, bears the deepest scars of all. But he is also the great healer. “Return unto me, … repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you” (3 Nephi 9:13).
- This passage is adapted from Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis 32 in The Five Books of Moses: a Translation with Commentary, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.
- See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, p 122, footnote 29.
- Adapted from Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis 32 in The Five Books of Moses.