The now but not-yet of our God-given identities.


For the week of December 6, 2014 / 14 Kislev 5775
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4-36:43 (English 32:3 - 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 - 12:12

Who Are You Really?

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 35:9-10)

Hello my name is........

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 rights reserved.

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