The Name Game
“What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 1-2)
The above quote by Shakespeare is quite true. Words, including names, are simply symbols to which humans assign meaning. Yet, they still carry meaning and value. For those who have their babies in the hospital, they aren’t allowed to leave until the baby has a name. My sister and brother-in-law took hours simply trying to decide whether or not to put a dash between the first two names of their daughter!
Similarly, in Hebrew culture, (as well as many cultures around the world today) names are significant. Names were given to children to indicate the type of character the parents desired to see in them. Bible scholar Nahum Sarna comments that a name indicates a child’s “personality and destiny” while his colleague Kenneth A. Matthews adds that Hebrew names often gain their meaning by wordplay based on the Hebrew root and the context of the situation.
Jacob’s name was given to him because it comes from a Hebrew root that means “grasp at the heel” which is how Jacob was born, grasping at Esau’s heel (Gen. 25:26). Figuratively, “grasping at the heel” implies a “one who supplants” or “one who deceives” which Jacob embodies throughout his life. With Esau, Jacob deceives him into giving up his birthright, and with Isaac, Jacob deceives him in order to steal Esau’s firstborn blessing. Further, Jacob is actually the victim of his uncle Laban’s deception when he gives Jacob the wrong daughter as his bride.
Yet, there is hope for Jacob to no longer be defined by his name. In Genesis 32:22-23, Jacob is given the name Israel, which suggests that the character associated with the name Jacob need no longer be true. Even still, he only receives this graceful gift after struggling with the LORD God, with Yahweh himself.
Struggling with Yahweh
After leaving his uncle Laban behind, Jacob obeys Yahweh’s command to return back to his own land (Gen. 31:3). The only problem is that in order to get there, he will have to cross Esau’s land. Jacob is so distraught that his brother will still want to kill him for his past deceptions that he sends Esau gifts and breaks his camp into two sections. If Esau destroys one half, he will still have one half remaining. Finally, in desperation, Jacob cries out to Yahweh to save him from his brother Esau.
During the night, as Jacob is alone, a “man” comes upon Jacob and wrestles with him. Jacob will not give up, he keeps clinging to the “man” and will not let go, so the “man” touches Jacob’s thigh to wound him. Yet, Jacob would still not surrender! The “man” does not want to be seen in the light, so at daybreak he asks Jacob to release him. Jacob will only comply if the man blesses him. In response to this, the “man” asks Jacob, “What is your name?” Jacob tells him and he responds, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (Gen 32:28).
This struggle by the Jabbok River is reminiscent of other Ancient Near East literature where men fight with river gods in order to access the river. However, the biblical account is unique because Jacob has no trouble crossing the river. His aggressor is first identified as “a man” and only later is identified as divine. While many scholars debate whether it was Yahweh himself or an angel of Yahweh, this specification seems somewhat irrelevant because regardless, Jacob comments that, “I saw God face to face.” Jacob recognized he had seen God himself (even if it was through an angel). When Yahweh asks his name, Jacob “discloses his character,” as one scholar says, because his name “take by the heel, supplant, deceive” indicates his previous actions against his family members. It’s a confession of sorts.
Yet, Jacob did not leave with his same name. The name “Israel” is difficult to translate because of the various Hebrew roots it could be related to including: “to struggle/fight-,” “to rule-,” “just/right-,” and several others (Alan P. Ross, Studies in the Life of Jacob Part 2: Jacob at the Jabbok, Israel at Peniel). Yet, the text itself explains that the name indicates: “Jacob struggled with God and with man and was able” (Gen. 32:28). Jacob is now declared to be someone who perseveres, but not by his own deceptive aptitude. He was in need of the blessing and power from Someone else.
A Blessing of Grace
Traditionally, it is the inferior who asks for a blessing from a superior, so when Jacob asks for a blessing, he does so realizing that his wrestling opponent is superior to him. Jacob stole his father’s blessing and is now determined to receive one “face to face” from this stranger. Though it may not be obvious to the modern reader, Jacob’s name change is a blessing because his past identity of deceiving is no longer how his future generations will remember him. His identity is no longer tied to his individual guile, but instead to this one interaction with Yahweh next to the river.
Jacob realizes that the only reason he was able to succeed was because the “man” had the grace to: 1) Not reveal his identity/deity, (Ex. 33:18-32), and 2) not more severely injure him or kill him. Jacob does not immediately transform, but he does trust Yahweh more as his life continues forward. His limp is a constant reminder of the mercy shown to him. Jacob can now have confidence that Yahweh answered his prayer. He will be able to pass by his brother Esau whom he had deceived and robbed because Yahweh has allowed him to live. Yahweh has given him a hope of a future, as Israel.
The Name We Bear
Like Jacob, we come to God with a pattern of rebellion. Jacob chose independence and duplicity to succeed. Yet, God chose to show him that his self-reliance would never suffice. He could not bless himself nor win all his own fights. Jacob recognized his need of a blessing from the “man.” Graciously, He blessed Jacob, changing his name and showing him mercy.
We may struggle with God at times, but our “name change” is the grace we’ve been given in Jesus. As followers of Jesus, our identity is in Him, and our dependence is on Him. This is grace not because we have earned Jesus’ sacrifice, but because Yahweh’s gracious character does not change. He still wants a relationship with us and for us to trust His path for us, because He is with us (Immanuel = “God with us”).
Does it mean that we will never struggle with Yahweh for control over our security, comfort, joy, rest? No. It means that when we do, we must choose to cling to His grace, as Jacob clings to his aggressor, and trust Him so we can yield our own self-reliant actions and plans to Him.
Lynsey Stepan is a recent Th.M. graduate who is pursing a job in teaching the Bible. She loves God's word, especially studying it in the original languages, and is grateful for the opportunity to share her thoughts through writing. In her free time Lynsey likes to walk her dog, watch hockey, play guitar & hang out with her 3 month old niece.