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. The 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. Remember, 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.

The Believer and Jesus – Connected by 130, 17, and 110

Today’s Reading: Genesis 47-50

While the book of Genesis covers a period of thousands of years, the bulk of the book focuses on the lives of two men that cover no more than 200 years – Jacob and Joseph.

In my post Jesus Is the Key to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I wrote about Jacob and his name change to Israel. His name change is one of the few in the Bible that is not permanent. The post shows how this is one way we see Jacob as a type of the believer who grows, with stops and starts along the way, from carnal to spiritual.

Joseph is widely regarded as the most explicit and complete type of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. Nearly every facet of and event in his life reveals Jesus.

Throughout the second half of Genesis, there is a contrast between the life of Jacob, or the believer, and the life of Joseph, or Jesus. In the last four chapters of Genesis, today’s reading, Jacob is associated with the number 130 while Joseph is associated with the number 110. And, the number 17 connects them both.

What are these numbers telling us about Jacob and Joseph, the believer and Jesus, the connection between the two?

130

In Genesis 47, Joseph brings Jacob before Pharaoh. Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is? In verse 9, Jacob answers Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.”

Jacob had lived 130 years, and he recognized that that the years of his life had been few and evil. Jacob’s entire life was either trying to deceive others to get what he wanted or being deceived by others to keep him from getting what he wanted.

This is not the first use of the number 130 though. Genesis 5:3 says, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” At the end of Genesis 4, when Eve bore a son for Adam, she called his name Seth because God had appointed for her another offspring.

Seth was the son through which the promise of Eve’s offspring, or seed, would crush the head of the serpent. Seth is now the son that will bring forth the promised son, Jesus. And, it is not hard to imagine that Adam viewed the time between his creation/fall and Seth’s birth, 130 years, as a period of sojourning marked by evil. Therefore, the relationship between Adam and Seth is somewhat analogous to the relationship between Jacob and Joseph.

To truly understand Jacob and the number 130 though, I believe we need to see it as the number ten and 13 (10 x 13 = 130).

In the Bible, the number ten symbolizes God’s law, commandments, complete order and responsibility. We are all familiar with Moses receiving the ten commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. According to John 1:17, the law was given through Moses. Through the Mosaic covenant, Israel agreed to accept responsibility for keeping the law. Another example of the connection between the number ten and law or commandments is found in Genesis 1. God created the heavens and the earth with ten commands – “God said…” Thus, God brought complete order to the creation through his ten commandments.

Ten represents the law and commandments of God, but the number 13 is rebellion to the law and commandments of God. Abram had a son, Ishmael, when he 86 years old in his rebellion to God’s command and promise. Thirteen years later, when Abram was 99 years old, God made a covenant with Abram. God changed his name to Abraham and said that every male among his household must be circumcised. Abraham’s rebellion lasted 13 years until God changed his name, in effect breathing God’s spirit into him, and commanded him to circumcise his the flesh of his foreskin, or die to him self. Therefore, after 13 years, Abraham’s rebellion was over.

More evidence of 13 as rebellion is found in the genealogies of Genesis. Noah was the tenth man, the man of the law and commandments. Genesis 6:9 says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generations.” Who was the 13th man?

  1. Adam begat Seth
  2. Seth begat Enosh
  3. Enosh begat Kenan
  4. Kenan begat Mahalalel
  5. Mahalalel begat Jared
  6. Jared begat Enoch
  7. Enoch begat Methuselah
  8. Methuselah begat Lamech
  9. Lamech begat Noah
  10. Noah begat Ham
  11. Ham begat Cush
  12. Cush begat Nimrod
  13. Nimrod

Nimrod was the 13th man. Genesis 10:10-12 says, “The beginning of his [Nimrod’s] kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah, that is the great city.” Nimrod was the founder of man’s first kingdom Bablyon, which is the city pictured throughout the Bible, not just in Genesis 11, in complete rebellion to God.

Additionally, Genesis 36 tells us that there were 13 chiefs of the sons of Esau. Esau is a type of the natural man, the man in rebellion to God. And the Greek word drakon, which means dragon, is found 13 times in the New Testament, all in the book of Revelation. Of course, the dragon is Satan, from whom all rebellion comes.

So, when we read that Jacob’s sojournings were 130 years, we should understand that the 130 years represents the period of Jacob’s life where he is in rebellion to the laws and commands of God.

17

The number 17 connects the lives of Jacob and Joseph.

Genesis 37:2 says, “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers.” It was at 17 years of age that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers.

But, after his 130 years of sojourning where his days were few and evil, Jacob is reconnected with Joseph in Egypt. Genesis 47:28 says, “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.”

So, Jacob was with Joseph the first 17 years of Joseph’s life. And, Jacob lived the last 17 years of his own life with his son Joseph.

So, what does the number 17 represent?

The first mention of 17, actually the 17th, is in Genesis 7:11, 13, which says, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened…On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark.” The next mention of the 17th is at the end of the flood. Genesis 8:4 says, “And in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.”

So, the flood starts and Noah’s family enters the ark on the 17th. The flood ends and the ark lands on the mountains of Ararat on the 17th. The ark then represents victory over the flood. When we see the ark as a type of Jesus, seventeen speaks to the victory of Jesus.

Jesus, the Passover lamb, the Lamb of God, was selected according to the law on the 10th day of the month. He was crucified, in complete fulfillment of the law, on the 14th day of the month. But, Jesus rose from the grave, was resurrected, won the victory over Satan, sin, and death, three days later on the 17th day of the month.

Also, we can see the number 17 as ten and seven (10 + 7 = 17). We know that the number 10 represents the law and commandments of God. In yesterday’s post, 66, 2, 70, 33, 16, 14, 7 – They’re Jesus not Lotto Numbers, I wrote about the seven as the number of completion and rest. Therefore, we can see 17 as the perfect fulfillment of the law and the bringing of rest from our works by Jesus as well.

Jacob lived with Joseph the first 17 years of his life. In other words, Jacob saw Joseph’s life and how it was in perfect fulfillment of the law of God. This is why Jacob made Joseph a robe of many colors, a beautiful robe, a richly embroidered tunic, or a special robe with long sleeves. Jacob saw Joseph’s righteousness.

But, when Jacob’s son, the sons of Israel, sold Joseph into slavery, they dipped his robe in blood (significantly, the blood of a goat) and gave it to their father. Jacob thought Joseph had been devoured by an animal, his flesh torn to pieces. Jacob believed Joseph had died.

However, when Jacob is 130 years old, at the end of his rebellion to God, he is reunited with Joseph in the land of Egypt. Jacob lives the last 17 years of his life with Joseph. To Jacob, it was as if Joseph had died and been resurrected. After his 130 years, days that were few and evil, Jacob lived in victory with Joseph for 17 years. Jacob is no longer living by his works but in the victory of Jesus. From this point, he is called Israel far more often than he is called Jacob. In fact, the last mention of him in this earthly life was in Genesis 50:2, which says, “So the physicians embalmed Israel.”

110

We’ve seen that 17 connects Jacob and Joseph through Jesus’ victory on the cross and his resurrection. But, what is the meaning of the number 110?

Genesis 50:22 says, “Joseph lived 110 years.” As I said above, Joseph is probably the preeminent type of Jesus Christ. But, perhaps the second most important type of Jesus in the Old Testament was Joshua. Joshua 24:29 says, After these things Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being 110 years old.” So, two of the most important types of Christ both died at the age of 110.

To understand the significance of this, we need to see 110 the same way we did 130 above. The number 110 is ten and 11 (10 x 11 = 110).

We already know that 10 represents God’s law and commandments. So, what is the number 11?

Eleven is mentioned the first time in Genesis 32 when Jacob flees from Laban with his wives and 11 children. Jacob sends them across the stream and is left alone. He then wrestles with God and his name is changed to Israel. In this story, Jacob was judged by Laban and then judged by God. So, 11 is associated with judgment.

We see this more clearly in the tabernacle. In Exodus 26 and 36, we are told that the tabernacle was made of 11 curtains of goat’s hair. The goat was the animal that was judged on the day of atonement. Jesus was judged on the cross on our behalf to atone for our sin. We could say that we judged Jesus according to the law and put him to death even though he was the perfectly innocent and sinless lamb of God.

Joseph’s life of 110 years represents a life that was lived in judgment of or by the law. Jesus was continually judged by Israel according to the law.

So, Jacob and Joseph are connected by the numbers 130, 17, and 110.

But, what a wonderful picture this is of our relationship to Jesus. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law (17), and allowed himself to be judged by us (110), so that he could have the victory (17) over Satan, sin, and death, thereby redeeming us from our period of rebellion (130) to the law of God.