Last Friday, Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest athletes and most well-known personalities of the 20th century, died at age 74. In his 21 years of boxing, the unconventional fighter won 56 bouts, including three world heavyweight boxing titles, and lost only five.
Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942 but changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted from Christianity to Islam in 1964. As a result of his religious convictions, in 1967, Ali refused draft orders from the U.S. Armed Forces for the Vietnam War, citing conscientious objection. For this, Ali was stripped of his boxing license, and for 3 years in the prime of his career, fought in courtrooms instead of boxing rings for his right to refuse to fight. His case went to the Supreme Court where the judges unanimously ruled in his favor—yet another decisive victory for one of the winningest boxers in history.
Throughout his life, Ali was a paradoxical fighter. His Islamic beliefs inspired him not only to refuse to fight in Vietnam, but also to promote segregation at the height of the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, he refused to pacify “white America” even though he taunted black opponents like Joe Frazier with racially-charged epithets. In the ring, he even defied boxing culture with his personal flair and style. In nearly every way, Ali defined his own path.
A few short years after retiring, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, which some speculate resulted from head trauma while boxing. Ali fought the degenerative disorder for the next 30 years, until his death.
If Ali was familiar with the Bible, he may have found much in common with one of its key figures: Jacob. Like Ali, Jacob was a born fighter. He was born grasping the heel of his twin brother Esau, and eventually Jacob would overpower him. And like Ali, Jacob’s name changed in the middle of his life, when he became “Israel”—a name full of new meaning and significance. And like Ali, Jacob’s adult-onset disability shaped the rest of his life.
But significant differences exist between the two fighters as well. Muhammad Ali is a name associated with praise and greatness in Islam, and he chose to change his name for his own reasons. By contrast, Jacob did not choose the name he received; it was given to him when he encountered—and wrestled with—someone greater than himself, God. Likewise, Jacob’s disability forced him to recognize God’s greatness and to depend on him for strength and protection. In the end, Jacob was not defined by his fighting but by his faith.
Check out Genesis 32 for the story of Jacob’s epic struggle that transformed both his body and identity, preparing him to be the father of the nation that would bear his name—Israel.
The messengers came back to Jacob and said, “We talked to your brother Esau and he’s on his way to meet you. But he has four hundred men with him.”
Jacob was scared. Very scared. Panicked, he divided his people, sheep, cattle, and camels into two camps. He thought, “If Esau comes on the first camp and attacks it, the other camp has a chance to get away.”
And then Jacob prayed, “. . . Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.’”
He slept the night there. Then he prepared a present for his brother Esau from his possessions: two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty camels with their nursing young, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put a servant in charge of each herd and said, “Go ahead of me and keep a healthy space between each herd.”
. . .
But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)