(6) Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel – Genesis 32:28

The promise that God made to Abraham was passed to his son, Isaac. He had twin boys, Esau and Jacob, and the promise was passed to the younger one, Jacob. Jacob came out of the womb holding on to his brother Esau’s foot and was given the name ‘grasper’ or ‘deceiver’. This set the tone for Jacob’s life as deceit runs through his life story.

He started by taking advantage of his brother’s hunger and makes him sign over his birthright, as the oldest son, in exchange for a bowl of stew. He then moves on to tricking his father into giving him his blessing. When Isaac was old and thought he was nearing death he called Esau and told him to prepare his favourite meal “so that I may give you my blessing before I die” (Genesis 27:4). Isaac loved Esau who was an outdoors man who loved hunting while their mother Rebekah favoured Jacob who was more of a stay-at-home man. So, Rebekah and Jacob worked to deceive Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob. Isaac was blind by this time and so Jacob dresses in Esau’s clothes and takes his father a tasty meal and asks for his blessing. Isaac is taken in and gives him the blessing of the first born – a legally binding act – and makes him “lord over your brothers” (Genesis 27:29). When Esau returns from hunting he is bitterly angry with Jacob who then has to flee from home.

He goes to live with his uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother, who turns out to be almost a match in deceit. Jacob falls in love with his daughter Rachel and agrees to work for seven years to earn her for a wife but after seven years of patiently waiting to consummate his love Laban gave him his older daughter, Leah, instead. Jacob had to work for another seven years to get Rachel too – although this time he got payment up front. During this last seven years he built up significant flocks and herds by out-tricking Laban who tried to give him as little as possible.

After fourteen years he returned home and was horrified to hear that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men. Jacob took time alone to pray and a man came and wrestled with him. Jacob knew that this was no ordinary man and he hung on, asking for a blessing. The man gave him a blessing and announced that his name was changed from Jacob, the deceiver, to Israel, meaning ‘he wrestles with God’.

The name ‘Israel’ appears over two thousand times in the Bible. It is first the name that was given to Jacob after he wrestled with God but it became the name of the nation that was descended from him. He had twelve sons who were the fathers of the twelve tribes that became the nation of Israel, and the inheritors of the blessings given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Later when the nation of Israel split in two the northern kingdom was known as Israel while the southern kingdom took on the name of the largest tribe, Judah.

After Jesus came to earth, the name Israel was applied to his followers, the new people of God. Paul, who was fiercely proud of being from the nation of Israel, wrote that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile” – meaning that in the church there was no longer any distinction between those who were physically descended from Jacob and those from other races – “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and he signed off his letter to this racially mixed church by calling them “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

God’s people down through the centuries have had a name that signifies mankind’s struggle to have a relationship with God and his gracious response in making such a relationship possible. The Bible is full of accounts of flawed characters like Jacob that God got hold of and changed, an encouragement to all of us with our own flaws and defects.

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