Why Was Jacob’s Name Changed to Israel and What Is Its Significance?

Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Perhaps you are familiar with the story. But, in case you are not, I will tell it to you.

God appeared to Jacob as he came from Paddan-aram and blessed him. God said that his name was Jacob, but Jacob should not be his name any longer. From now on, his name should be Israel. God told Jacob that his own name was God Almighty (El Shaddai). God Almighty then commanded Jacob to be fruitful and multiply. He told Jacob that a nation and a company of nations as well as kings would come from him. God Almighty was going to give Jacob and his offspring the land that he gave to Abraham and Isaac. So, Jacob set up a pillar of stone and poured a drink offering and oil on the pillar of stone. Jacob called the place Bethel.

Is that the story you were expecting to hear?

Probably not.

You were probably expecting to me to tell you how Jacob sent his family across the Jabbok stream, but Jacob stayed alone on the other side of the stream. During the night, he wrestled with a man until day broke. The man was not able to prevail against Jacob so he put Jacob’s hip out of joint. The man asked Jacob to let him go, but Jacob said he wouldn’t let the man go until he blessed him. The man asked Jacob his name. When the man was told it was Jacob, the man said that he would no longer be called Jacob but Israel, since he had striven with God and men and prevailed. Jacob asked the man his name, but the man did not tell Jacob. The man merely asked Jacob why he wanted to know. So, Jacob called the place Peniel because he had seen God face to face and lived. The sun came up on Jacob as he passed Penuel. Therefore, the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh on the hip socket.

If you are familiar with the story of Jacob’s name being changed to Israel, then that is most likely the story you are familiar with. But, this story is completely different in every way than the first one I told.┬áThe first account in this post is from Genesis 35.9-15. The second account, the more familiar one, is from Genesis 32.22-32.

What is going on here?

Why are there two completely different accounts about the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel in the Bible?

Both accounts are from the book of Genesis. In fact, these accounts are just a few pages apart in the modern Bible.

Did Moses forget what he wrote in the first one when he wrote the second one?

Or, did Moses not write either account?

After reading Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman at the end of last year, I have come to believe that Moses did not actually write either account. In fact, Moses most likely did not write any of the first five books of the Bible, at least in the form that we have them.

In Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman persuasively shows that there were actually four writers of the first five books of the Bible. This is commonly known as the JEPD theory. The letters JEPD stand for the “identity” of the four writers. Based on a combination of textual, linguistic, historical, and archaeological data, scholars have been able to identify four (at least) separate writers of the first five books of the Bible as well as which particular parts of those five books they wrote. I will summarize the identity of the four writers according to Friedman below.

The J stands for Jehovah. This writer only referred to God as Yahweh, or Jehovah, and therefore the letter “J” is used to identify him. This writer was someone particularly concerned with the kingdom of Judah. He focused on the patriarchs, the Abrahamic covenant, and the family of David.

The E stands for Elohim. This writer always referred to God as Elohim. That is, until Moses saw God in the burning bush and God told him that his name was I Am That I Am, or Yahweh. This writer was likely a Levite priest from Shiloh and a descendant of Moses. Unlike the J writer, the E writer emphasized the Mosaic covenant.

The P stands for Priest. Like the E writer, this writer likely was a priest too. However, the P writer most likely descended from Aaron and lived in Jerusalem. The P writer most likely wrote after the J and E writers. The P writer follows the same stories in the same order but retells the stories in a different way to emphasize the Aaronic priesthood in Jerusalem. In fact, the P writer distinguishes between the priests, who were from Aaron, and the Levites.

The D stands for Deuteronomist. The D writer wove the writings of J, E, and P together and wrote the entire book of Deuteronomy. That’s all I will say about the D writer because the D writer does not factor all that much in to Jacob’s name change for the purposes of this post.

In Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman shows that each of these writers retold the history of Israel from a specific perspective. And, that retelling was crafted in a way to add credibility, weight, gravitas, to the kingdom – the northern or southern, Israel or Judah – they were from or their class of the priesthood.

So, about those two completely different stories of Jacob’s name being changed to Israel…

The account in Genesis 32.22-32, the more familiar account of Jacob wrestling with an unidentified man, was written by the E writer. The less well-known, certainly the less talked about, account in Genesis 35.9-15 was written by the P writer. We know this because of how the stories were told.

The P writer only has priests as the intermediary between God and man. The P writer never mentions angels. He never uses anthropomorphisms, dreams, or talking animals to reveal God. The accounts of the P writer tend to be shorter and more matter of fact. For the P writer, God is more cosmic and distant. This is exactly how the story of Jacob’s name change is told in Genesis 35.9-15.

Yet, the account in Genesis 32.22-32 has a mysterious, unidentified man wrestle with Jacob. Jacob believed this person to be God in some way. The E writer anthropomorphized God in his retelling of the story. God is more personal for the E writer in that Jacob believed he wrestled God in hand-to-hand combat and Jacob declared that he saw God face to face.

But, why two different accounts retold in two different ways?

What was the significance of these stories to these two writers?

Ultimately, these stories were about how Jacob/Israel received not just a blessing from God but the blessing of God. Therefore, the E and P writers were trying to lay claim to the blessing God gave Abraham for their kingdom/priesthood. You know…the blessing where God told Abraham that “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12.2), “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12.3), and “to your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12.7).

Remember, the E writer wrote from the perspective of the northern kingdom, Israel, and the Levites that descended from Moses. But, the P writer wrote from the perspective of the southern kingdom, Judah, and the descendants of Aaron. Hence, the P writer was more focused on Jerusalem, which was ultimately the capital of the southern kingdom, Judah.

Interestingly, the J writer records nothing about Jacob’s name being changed to Israel. But, that doesn’t mean the J writer had nothing to say about how Jacob got the blessing. The J writer told how Jacob got the blessing when Jacob tricked or deceived (some would say stole) Esau out of his birthright (Genesis 25.29-34 and 27.1-45).

Why would the J writer recount Jacob instead of Esau receiving the blessing given originally to Abraham this way?

Why would the J writer portray Jacob in a negative light?

Remember, the J writer wrote from the perspective of the kingdom of Judah and the family of David. Judah sat between Israel and Edom, the kingdom that came from Esau. Israel was to the north while Edom was to the south of Judah. At one time, David had conquered Edom and effectively made it part of the kingdom of Judah. But, Jacob was more associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. John 4.4-6 says, “And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there.” This is why the Samaritan woman (Samaria being synonymous with the northern kingdom of Israel) at the well said to Jesus, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” (John 4.11-12)

In a subtle way, the J writer was saying that the northern kingdom, Israel, which was closely associated with Jacob, could only lay claim to Abraham’s blessing from God because Jacob tricked Esau and deceived Isaac into giving it to him. But, Judah, the kingdom of David, could lay claim to that blessing because David defeated Edom, the kingdom of Esau. Further, David had conquered lands in the northern kingdom too. Therefore, David, and consequently Judah, had a much more legitimate claim to the blessing of Abraham.

However, the E writer was laying claim to the blessing for the northern kingdom, Israel. In the E writer’s account of Jacob’s name change to Israel, Jacob says to the unidentified man, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” (Genesis 32.26) Jacob believed he received that blessing because wrestled and prevailed against this unidentified man. Even though Jacob never gets the man’s name, he calls the name of the place Peniel. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” (Genesis 32.30) Peniel, or Penuel, was in the northern kingdom, almost due east of Shechem. It was in the tribe of Gad, which meant it was on the east side of Jordan. So, the city that the E writer mentions as important was in the northern kingdom.

But, interestingly, it was not a city of religious importance in the northern kingdom. It was not Dan or Bethel, which were the cities Jeroboam set up as religious centers of worship. Nor did the writer mention Shiloh, which was in the northern kingdom and one of the resting places for the tabernacle. Nor was it one of the three cities that Samuel went to on his circuit of judging.┬áRemember, the E writer is writing from the perspective of a Levite priest descended from Moses in the northern kingdom of Israel. This priest likely favored the northern kingdom politically but not religiously. Politically, because the northern kingdom did not have the place of centralized worship (Jerusalem) that the Aaronic priesthood had control over in Judah. Not religiously, because Jeroboam had set up his own priesthood passing over the Levites. Hence, the E writer associated a city that was in the northern kingdom but not a city of worship in that kingdom to the Jacob’s name change.

The E writer’s account also alludes to Moses because Jacob says he saw God face to face. There is only one other person in the first five books of the Bible that saw God face to face and that was Moses. But, unlike Jacob, Moses got the name of God when he encountered God. Therefore, Moses had more importance than Jacob. So, we can see the elements of the E writer’s story of Jacob’s name change to Israel fit with a Levite in the line of Moses in the northern kingdom trying to lay claim to Abraham’s blessing from God.

The elements of the story in the P account try to lay claim to that blessing too. The P writer does it more blatantly though. In his account, Jacob doesn’t ask for a blessing in a subtle allusion to Abraham’s blessing by God. In the P account, God tells Jacob, “Be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” (Genesis 35.11) This story is very much about who really has the blessing God gave Abraham. In fact, God gave Jacob the same commission he gave to Adam and the patriarchs.

For the P writer, who has claim to that blessing has to do with worship, which is why the P writer’s account has “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he [God] had spoke with him, a pillar of stone. He [Jacob] poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it.” (Genesis 35.14) Jacob called the place Bethel. Yes, Bethel was one of the places Jeroboam put a center of worship in the northern kingdom. But, it was on the border of the kingdom of Israel and Judah. Technically, Bethel was in Benjamin. And, at one point had been conquered by David. Plus, when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, it did not capture Bethel, which became a part of Judah. Hence, the P writer could be seen as laying claim to Bethel for the kingdom of Judah.

Further, in the P writer’s account, Jacob does get the name of God. God identifies himself to Jacob as God Almighty, or El Shaddai. Psalm 91 speaks of the shadow of Shaddai. This shadow was under the wings of the cherubim in the most holy place of the temple. Psalm 91 was written by David, which would please the P writer since David was from Judah. Further, only a priest from the line of Aaron was allowed to enter the most holy place because the high priest always came from the descendants of Aaron. Therefore, the P writer is emphasizing that Jerusalem, Judah, and the Aaronic priesthood have the best claim to the God’s blessing of Abraham because Jerusalem was the place of centralized worship. That is perhaps why the name El Shaddai is mentioned in this account of Jacob’s name change to Israel as an attempt by a priest of Aaron in Jerusalem to lay claim to the the blessing of Abraham.

There is so much more that could be said about the different accounts of how Jacob became the heir of the blessing of Abraham and his name change to Israel. Clearly, it is not what appears to us on the surface thousands of years later. And, we haven’t even spoken of the wrestling (the Hebrew word is used only in this story) between Jacob and the unidentified man or the strange saying about not eating the sinew from the hip because Jacob’s hip was put of socket in the wrestling match.

But, does any of the underlying political and theological intrigue that motivated these writers even matter to us today?

What significance does any of this have for us?

Is it even important to us what this may have meant to the original writers and hearers?

Does the “plain” meaning, if there even is one, matter to us today?

Or, is there an inspired meaning to Jacob’s name change to Israel, a meaning beyond what the original writers intended, that is just as important today as ever?

Ultimately, what matters to us is that Jesus is true Israel – not a certain ethnic group of people or certain small plot of land in the Middle East.

Isaiah 49.3, 5-6 says, “And he said to me, You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’…And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him – for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength – he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Luke applies this passage to Jesus in Luke 2.29-32. Jesus is the true Israel. Jesus – not some faction of the nation, kingdom, priests, or people of earthly Israel – is the one to whom the promises of Abraham belong.

Paul explicitly says this in Galatians 3.16 – “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offpsrings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”

Or, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1.20, “For all the promises of God find their yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.”

Remember those blessings..the blessing where God told Abraham that “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12.2), “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12.3), and “to your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12.7).

They belong to Jesus. Those that find their identity in Jesus, true Israel (Romans 10 and 11), are the great nation God made of Jesus.

They speak of all peoples, nations, tribes, and languages belonging to Jesus and being blessed by him.

They refer to Jesus receiving all the land on the entire earth as his.

Jacob’s name change to Israel is not important so that a country almost 3,000 years later called Israel can lay claim to the blessing God gave Abraham.

The name change is important and has its meaning in Jesus and Jesus alone.

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