God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from
Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, "Your name is
Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be
your name." So he called his name Israel. (Bereshit/Genesis
I recently wrote a non-TorahBytes piece entitled, Are
You What You Do?, where I discuss the relationship of who we are to
what we do. This week's Torah portion sheds some additional light on
this subject of identity.
The verses I quoted relate to the second time in the Torah that God
changes Jacob's name to Israel. This might seem strange, especially
since God said the first time "Your name shall no longer be called
Jacob" (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28, emphasis mine). One would think
that "no longer," means no longer, especially since it is God
who says it! God certainly doesn't have short-term memory loss, so is
this some sort of biblical contradiction? Because the second occurrence
sounds as if it is unaware of the first one, one might conclude that
this is evidence that the Bible is a collection of disparate traditional
retellings of the same incidences. In this case, while the wordings of
the name changing are almost identical, the situations in which they
occur are completely different. The first occurrence is in the context
of the unusual story of Jacob's wrestling with God by the Jabbok River (Bereshit/Genesis
23:22-32). The second is at Bethel, which includes the passing on of
God's promises previously given to Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, and
father, Isaac, to him.
I find these types of Scriptural problems encouraging, since they are
evidence that the Bible is not contrived. If someone was making up these
stories, knowing they weren't true, they wouldn't purposely create
supposed contradictory elements. Instead they would go out of their way
to smooth out the differences in the details. In cases, unlike this one,
where the situations appear to be similar, the supposed contradictions
are typical of the various perspectives of eye witnesses on an event. In
the case of God's changing Jacob's name, where the contexts are
different, and the words of God similar, the best conclusion is that it
did indeed happen twice.
But if these accounts are completely accurate (which I believe they
are), why would God change his name to Israel twice, each time declaring
that his name would no longer be called Jacob? Well, there's another
problem, which might actually provide a solution. As far as I know, the
previous people in the Bible whose names were changed by God were
Abraham and Sarah (originally known as Abram and Sarai). But when God
changed their names, we never again see any references to their old
ones. Not so with Jacob. Even though God said he would be called Jacob
no longer, he is still called Jacob almost double the amount of times as
Israel. But why?
It's hard to know for sure, because the Bible never explicitly tells
us, but one possibility is that this is an indication that Jacob
personally never fully lived life in his new God-given identity. Even
though his encounters with God radically changed his life, setting its
course on a direction that would impact the world for all time; he
continued to be a "work in progress." And possibly for the
same reason, the Hebrew Bible regularly, though not exclusively, refers
to the nation of Israel as Jacob. Like our namesake, Israel as a people
will not experience the fullness of what it means to be Israel until our
final restoration (see Romans 11:26-27).
Are the accounts of God's changing Jacob's name simply wrong, then?
How could it be that God would declare twice that he would no longer be
called Jacob, when he was called by that name many times afterwards even
by God himself (Bereshit/Genesis 46:2). Here's my suggestion:
While God's declaration sounds to us like a prediction, as in "I
have looked into the future and no one will ever call you Jacob
again," it could rather be a statement of intent. God is giving
this man a new identity, and as far as God was concerned, that identity
was available to him right then and there permanently. But that didn't
ensure that Jacob would necessarily instantly and forever embrace it.
From God's perspective access to his new identity was established once
and for all, but becoming Israel experientially would take the entire
history of his descendants.
The same is true for all who have come to know God through the
Messiah Yeshua. By trusting in him, we are fully God's children, but it
will take the rest of our lives to fully become who we really are.
Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible,
English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a
publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All