What’s in a Name? Part Two:  The Thor/Loki Dynamic (Genesis 32)

I may be in the minority here, but of all the conflicts that have been setup in the Marvel Cinematic Universe I have found the interplay between the heroic Thor and the villainous Loki to be the most human and compelling. For one, sibling rivalries are always bitter feuds in which neither side ever truly wins. The impact of a falling out between family members unfairly divides the entire family even when those without a dog in the fight attempt to remain impartial. But more than that, it is the juxtaposition between two very different and complex personalities, skill sets, and outlooks on life that sets apart this epic struggle for supremacy between the muscular and manly Thor and his trickster younger brother. And the more I dig into it, the more I realized that I have heard this story before… in the book of Genesis to be specific.
Not sure what I am referring to? Maybe this will help… the story starts with the older brother – a rugged, outdoorsy hunter who was truly a “man’s man”. The heir to his father’s substantial wealth, he was his daddy’s pride and joy. Like a walking Old Spice commercial, he SMELLED like the great outdoors. A little crass and impetuous perhaps, he had little time for household tomfoolery and chased food and wives when he wasn’t chasing down wild game. But this isn’t Thor the heir of Odin’s throne, it is Esau, son of Isaac and heir to the covenant of Abraham. And just like Thor, he has a conniving younger brother who is all too eager to outwit his older sibling and take the throne that he believes is better suited to him. And so it begins…
JACOB/ISRAEL: Now for the entrance of an incredibly complex individual who undergoes one of the most substantial personal arcs in the whole Bible. He explodes onto the scene in Genesis 25 with a birth that announced his nature to the world right from the start and earned him his name. The second born of twins, his hand was clasped to his older brother’s foot as the stronger brother emerged first to presumably claim the birthright as the oldest and dominant brother.
As the younger twin emerged from the birth canal still grasping his brother’s heel he was christened “Jacob”, which literally was defined as “he grasps the heel” and carried the meaning “he deceives”. And as Jacob would live up to his “trickster” reputation for the majority of his days, one has to wonder how much of what comes next was already built into his DNA and how much was the result of receiving such a branding before he even opened his eyes for the first time.
Jacob proceeds to play the “Loki” role to his older brother’s “Thor”, tricking his stronger but less tactical brother into selling him his birthright in a moment of weakness, and then claiming the blessing of his father through an elaborate facade that would make the shape-shifting Loki jealous. Preferred by his mother, the two work together to take advantage of his father’s blindness and through their subterfuge convince Isaac that Jacob is actually Esau. Jacob lies, cheats, and steals the Abrahamic covenant blessing from his own flesh and blood. And much like Loki, his outright theft of the throne was the final nail in the coffin for an already strained relationship between the two brothers, and the trickster chose discretion as the better part of valor and fled, never to see his beloved mother in this life again.
But this wouldn’t be much of a story without a redemptive arc, would it? Despite the despicable means by which he procured it, the blessing was always intended for young Jacob. It was prophesied before his birth that the older brother would serve the younger, but Jacob seemed convinced that he would only achieve the promises of God by taking matters into his own hands. Much like the prodigal son, Jacob didn’t trust the process and made the decision to take by craftiness that which was already His by promise.
Jacob was truly living up to his name, and continued to leverage his deceptive mental acuity rather than lean into his spiritual faith as he made things right for himself through trickery and misdirection. He escaped his childhood home with both the blessing and the birthright, and used some mad science to unscrupulously build himself a fortune in livestock right underneath the nose of his equally duplicitous uncle. And once that jig was up, Jacob made a midnight escape from ol’ Uncle Laban’s farm with a large amount of ill-gotten gain to set him up for his next escapade. But unbeknownst to Jacob, his time was up and the day of reckoning was at hand.
Jacob escaped the wrath of Laban only to find himself heading directly towards his older brother Esau, who was approaching him with four hundred men and twenty years of unresolved issues. Anticipating the worst, Jacob immediately began doing what he does best: calculating the odds of survival and trying to cheat one final victory out of this apparent no-win scenario. After splitting his family and belongings into two separate camps to give at least one group a fighting chance to escape, Jacob prepared two lavish bribes and sent them ahead to soften up his older brother ahead of their meeting. And after having done everything he could think of to survive and fight one more day, he offered a prayer to the Lord, sent his family across the river for safety, and spent his final night before the confrontation alone.
When it is the night before an important meeting at work, a major event like moving, a critical medical exam, or when you are about to be murdered by your enraged older brother and his private army it is very important to get the right amount of rest. Knowing that this was quite possibly the final day in the life of Jacob, you would think he would at least get a final night of peace before walking the green mile. God, however had other plans for this night. There would be no sleep on this night… this truly would be the last day in the life of the conniving Jacob, just not the way he was anticipating.
The Bible captures what happens next with enough ambiguity to keep Bible scholars busy for decades, but the result is still crystal clear. The NKJV says that a “Man” wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the day. The capitalization of “Man” implies deity, and theories abound as to whether this was an angel, a pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus Christ, or perhaps God the Father appearing as a man similar to how He appeared to Abraham when discussing the future of Sodom. Rather than engage in a lengthy treatise on the identity of who this mysterious midnight wrestler was, I believe we will benefit more from unfolding the story from Jacob’s point of view. The truth is that regardless of who decided to grapple with him that night, Jacob didn’t know who it was either and was simply responding to an unprovoked attacker on that night. At his breaking point and out of room to retreat, Jacob found himself in a life-or-death struggle that made the problems of tomorrow meaningless. If he didn’t survive this surprise encounter he wouldn’t be around to worry about Esau and what fresh problems the new day would bring.
Jacob may have mentally surrendered to the idea of sacrificing himself to Esau so his family would survive, but he had no intentions of losing this battle and a wrestling match ensued that literally lasted until the sun was coming up. I’m not sure what experience you have with wrestling, but I was on the wrestling team in high school and typically a match wouldn’t last more than a total of six minutes, and that included two time stoppages. And at the end of those six minutes, I would feel like my entire life-force had been drained from my body. It was a battle to see who would either make a critical tactical mistake or reach their exhaustion point first, and literally every muscle in your body was used in your attempt to subdue your opponent. I can only imagine what an all night royal rumble with a divine being would feel like when I was exhausted after six minutes with a 125 lb. high school athlete. Jacob reached deep down and found that there was more to him than being a savvy con man, and at the point that it would have been easiest to give up and simply let this unwinnable situation become the end of his story Jacob persevered and finally took the first step into becoming who he was truly meant to be.
Jacob refused to submit, and the Scripture records that the Being with whom Jacob was engaged in mortal combat with saw that the sun was coming up. This iron man match was running out of time. He then dislocated Jacob’s hip and instructed Jacob to let Him go. Wait… what? Jacob was now the aggressor here? Even with a dislocated hip and no chance of winning? I’m not sure at what point this happened, but somewhere within Jacob’s Wrestlemania matchup with God a moment occurred in which Jacob decided that for the first time he wasn’t going to run and neither was his opponent. This would not end the same way it always had in the past. And when the Lord looked at Jacob, he no longer saw the trickster and deceiver named Jacob. He saw something more. He saw ISRAEL. And when Jacob flatly stated that he would not release his opponent until he received his blessing, Jacob finally received the blessing that he had been searching for his whole life. Not the blessing that he stole from his brother and impersonated to receive from his father. Not the blessing he connived from his uncle. Those blessings didn’t change Jacob, nor did they satisfy him. But with one sentence, the Eternal Potter finally took this difficult lump of clay and transformed it into what it was destined to be.
With the announcement, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and man and have prevailed”, Jacob the heel-grabber finally died and someone new was birthed. As Jacob and his still displaced hip was now left alone to ponder this unique event in human history, he began to realize something had changed and stated that he had a face to face encounter with God and survived it. And even though Esau was still on his way and nothing visibly changed about Jacob’s situation, HE was now changed as he took his first steps in the shoes of Israel, which means, “prince with God”.
Jacob may have been his birth name, but the God who calls things that have not occurred as if they have already happened saw Israel in Him before he was even born. So what name have you been saddled with? What future was baked into you from childhood, even if you were partly to blame? I know many times in my life I have become so tired of being called something negative or accused of doing something wrong that I finally got tired of it and decided if that’s how they see me, then I guess that’s who I will be. It’s a horrible response to be sure, but if I am already labeled as a failure, a loser, or worse than my motivation to prove that person wrong can only go so far before I finally succumb to the weight of the label.
As we saw with Jacob/Israel, it may be human nature to lean into the groove that others have carved for you but God has other plans… He sees the potential within the prodigal. He has a name for you based on the finished product you will be, not the lumpy clay you may currently resemble. He looked at Jacob and saw the nation he was destined to birth and the generations of men and women who would proudly call themselves Israelis in honor of their flawed but determined patriarch. We cannot control the labels others place on us, and it is even harder to remove the stigma attached to the names when we have lived up to those negative attributes previously. But I encourage you to keep on wrestling… keep holding on to the Lord and refuse to quit.
Jacob did not win the fight… he simply never stopped fighting and that was all it took to achieve victory. You may already be exhausted and your situation may be both as urgent and hopeless as Jacob’s… just endure to daybreak. The night will undoubtably seem forever long and your opponent may feel like you are struggling with God Himself… but don’t give up. And when you suffer a seemingly game-changing setback the way Jacob did when had his hip dislodged… pray and fight even harder. Your true nature and destiny will finally emerge as a result of the conflict you are currently battling, and as Jacob learned it is only when you make up your mind that surrender is not an option that the victory can finally be found.

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