From Jacob to Israel: What’s in a Name?

Genesis 32:22-31

Names often have meaning, of course.

I think for instance, of my hometown. At one point in its history it was called “Hangman’s Town” — referring to a more than unfortunate incident which took place downtown early in its existence. Later, community leaders renamed it to “Rochelle” — almost on a whim. Legend has it that a train was passing through carrying a load of “Rochelle Salt” and they liked the name — thinking it sounded better than “Hangman’s Town.” And while this may be so, in some ways, the fact that one of the uses of Rochelle Salt was as a laxative doesn’t necessarily make it all that much better!)

It is true for towns and villages, congregations and buildings and streets. It is also true with people:
Indeed, I do an exercise with our middle school youth every year. I ask them how they came to be named what they are named. Sometimes they can tell me. From time to time their names have been passed along to them from a parent or grandparent. Most of the time, though, they have no idea. More often than not, it turns out their names were just a matter of the preference of Mom and Dad.

In the family I grew up in, the choice of names became something to be smiled at. Indeed, we were told that in that time before genders could be determined before the actual birth, my sisters and I were all supposed to be called “Tom” after our dad. As it turns out, all three of my sisters have Biblical names (Martha, Mary, and Sarah.) I’m not quite certain how they came up with my name — except perhaps, like with so many they just “liked” it. I do, however, share the middle name of my maternal grandmother who died suddenly a few months before I was born.

So yes, names can be a way of representing our history. They can also tell us where we belong and to whom we belong. My dad, for instance, was the first born son of Tom Clark. Tom Clark died when he was all of five years old. Later his mother remarried and after a time, A.J. Hunt adopted him and his brother, giving them a new last name. A new place of belonging.

And so today we have before us, Jacob, who after a long night of struggle was given a new name which told the world something about who he was and who he would yet be. Of course, we know that the name, “Jacob” also had meaning. If you go to the website “Behind the Name,” you will get a sense of what some of those meanings are. I have also heard that “Jacob” means ‘trickster’ or ‘deceiver’ or ‘supplanter’ — and while Jacob could certainly be seen as such, it is likely that meaning is one that was added on later. Perhaps it would be right to simply understand Jacob for who he was at the time of his birth: the “holder of the heel” which apparently represents the actual literal meaning of his name more truly.

And yet, whatever the second son of Isaac and Rebekah’s name was at birth, after the long night described for us now, we are told he would be known as Israel, a word which described and represented both him and the nation of Israel: “the one who has striven with God and humans and has prevailed.”

This is not, of course, the first time nor is it the last when a ‘name’ is meant to be more than a label. Think of this with me:

  • Adam actually means ‘earth.’
  • Eve means ‘to breathe’ or ‘to live.”
  • God changed Abram’s name to Abraham to mean ‘father or ancestor of a multitude.’
  • Likewise, Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah, meaning ‘lady, princess or noblewoman.’
  • Isaac means ‘laughter’ — perhaps to represent the joy and surprise of both Abraham and Sarah at his birth.
  • And it goes on and on. (Unfortunately, given the patriarchal nature of the text, it appears there is more information about the names of men than there is about women.) 

And yes, Yahweh (YHWH) is said to mean, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Indeed, many understand that this was the very name which Jacob was grasping to know at the end of the scene described for us now.

And so we know this: names often do represent something about the one so named.  And yes, as we sense in the scene described in Genesis 22, names, once known, give one a certain amount of power over another. Without a doubt, this is why Jacob pleaded for the name of the one who had kept him up all night long. For whoever he was wrestling, he knew the force of God was somehow behind and within that one. And to know the name of such power? Who wouldn’t want that? Indeed, perhaps it is telling that in this case the name is not disclosed. I expect even this is a sure sign of God’s power over Jacob. And all of us.

And so it is that Jacob ends this long night ‘renamed.’ And while it is so that he has already had quite the life, it is in the events which follow that the future of God’s people truly begins to unfold, living out the truth of his new name:

  • In his encounter with his long estranged brother, Esau, in the very next verses.
  • In his settling at Bethel with his family.
  • In the drama which plays out between and among his sons. And in the ways in which God brings good out of that which was intended as harm. (See Joseph’s words in Genesis 50:20)
  • In the family’s move to Egypt, setting the stage for the God’s liberating work in the Exodus.
  • And again and again in the lived history of Israel.

Oh, yes, in and through it all, the truth of Jacob’s new name, “Israel” is made known. For it is shown again and again that not only the individual but the entire nation “strives with God and people and prevails.” By God’s grace and gift this is so.

  • Above I have offered a number of examples of times when ‘names’ are more than a label. What examples would you add?
  • Can you think of times when a name has been changed after a period of intense struggle like what Jacob experienced — either literally or otherwise?
  • What does it mean to be one who ‘strives with God and people and prevails?” This was true for Jacob and for the nation of Israel. Perhaps this is also true for you or your setting. How has this been so?

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