Meditations on “The Big Picture” 4: Jacob or Israel
Gen 32;28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.
There are some people or names that are so familiar that we simply miss their presence or significance. My concordance tells me that the name ‘Israel’ appears 1841 times in the Bible and the name ‘Jacob’ appears 363 times. In other words, this man or this nation or this land gets mentioned over two thousand times in the Bible. (The name ‘Jesus’ gets 1274 mentions). The story starts with the name Jacob and ends with the name Israel. It starts with a man and ends with a nation and a land.
First of all the man. He is a twin, born of Rebekah and Isaac is his father. His twin, born minutes before him is Esau. (see Gen 25:24,25) His name means grabber, or deceiver, given because from the womb he appeared to grab the heel of his brother. He was very different from his brother who was a hunter and cared little for his birthright, something considered very important in those days. Thus Esau sold Jacob his birthright for a meal (see Gen 25:29-34). Later on, when Isaac was an old man and nearly blind, Jacob and his mother worked to deceive Isaac into giving him the family blessing (see Gen 27:1-41) Because of this Esau was against Jacob who had to flee and go and live with a distant uncle where he lived for many years (see Gen 27:42-45) To cut a long story short his time with Laban was characterised by these two men, appearing as bad as one another, plotting to get the better of one another. Jacob, over the years prevailed and accumulated many flocks and herds of his along the way, and also ended up marrying Laban’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah. Over the years there appears to be a competition to see who can bear Jacob the most sons and into this competition are drawn two maids, Bilhah and Zilpar. The end result of all this was twelve sons and one daughter. The twelve sons obviously grew and had families and in the course of time each of these families grew and became a tribe. We thus have the twelve tribes of Israel.
Israel? Yes, if you are not familiar with the story, on his way home after his years with Laban, Jacob wrestled in the middle of the night with a man who turns out to be God. Although losing the wrestling match, Jacob will not let go of his opponent and so the Lord simply puts his hip out of joint to completely disable him and make him unable to continue but then we find, “Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Gen 32:28) Israel means “he struggles with God”.
Now of course that is a two sided name because we might think it is praise for having held on to God through their midnight tussle but the truth was that Jacob had, in one way or another, struggled with God throughout his life. He was such a schemer that everything he did was for himself. As we’ve already seen, he had robbed his brother of his birthright and his blessing. When he was fleeing to Laban, Jacob had a dream and saw the angels ascending and descending and the Lord had reiterated His intent to give his family the land. Instead of just gratefully receiving that promise Jacob’s response had been, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God.” (Gen 28:21-22). It is the language of bargaining. He still has the mentality of one who bargains with God, trying to get his own way. He doesn’t realise that he has been chosen by God anyway. Before the wrestling incident, on his way back, he had prayed, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, `I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.” (Gen 32:11,12) Yes, he is calling on the Lord but it is as if he is leaning on the Lord to fulfil His promise to look after him. It is still the language of one pressing a bargain and that is how Jacob had lived.
We need to go right back to the beginning of Jacob’s story: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Gen 25:21-23) Later when it came to Isaac blessing the two boys prophetically, this became even more clear. Jacob would be the leader. Read Esau’s side of the story and you see a man who cares little for God or for his heritage; little wonder God, who knows what will be, chose Jacob over Esau. But wasn’t Jacob a twister? Yes, he was to start with and for much of his life, but follow the story to its end and you find an old man who is aware of his birthright, aware of God’s calling on this family, aware of the significance of the Land and who prophesied over his sons before he died. He is a man who honours God’s will and becomes a spiritual giant, a changed man.
And so the family grows in Egypt and becomes over a million people, a nation called Israel. When they eventually take the land of Canaan it will become named by the nation that occupies it, Israel. It may get temporarily renamed Palestine but today we know it as Israel! As we go on to consider the years, the centuries that followed, we need to remember this is a nation called into being by God. It was not the work of a scheming man but the sovereign calling of God. The two names Jacob (twister, deceiver) and Israel (struggler with God) say everything about this nation.
Don’t look down on them for these names also describe what the rest of us are like, and like them we too need a marvellous work of grace done in our lives. We are no different; they simply are a nation under a microscope who reveal what the rest of us are like, schemers, twisters, self-serving and godless until God came to us and drew us to Himself to receive His blessing to transform us. Jacob’s prosperity and all his children came in a competitive spirit environment and yet the truth from the outset was that God wanted to bless and use him. Because Jacob was so set in self the Lord simply used that so that a nation would emerge and become the ground on which life with God would be revealed. Amazing!