The changing of names in the scriptures is not uncommon. Abram was changed to Abraham, Sara was changed to Sarah, but what about Isaac the middle of the three patriarchs of the Abrahamic faith? It is considered that the insertion of the letter ‘Hei,’ is pivotal in making a significant character change within the name of a person. So for a moment let us consider what God actually did in making the decision to change the nature and character of a person through this means.
Many of the Bible’s firsts are associated with Abram. He is the only one in the Bible to be called Abram. He is the first to be named the Hebrew, Gen 14:13, the first to tithe – instituting a form of priestly taxation and the first to initiate circumcision as the covenantal sign for the chosen people.
In Genesis 15:1 Abram encounters an incarnation of YHWH.
15 After these things the Word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
2 And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
4 And, behold, the Word of the Lord came unto him, saying, ‘This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.’
5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.6 And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
In this encounter, there is a word used that is very little recognised. It is a significant word and one we need to take much notice of. The word is ‘Dabar.’ In the Hebrew it means ‘Word,’ and conjoins with God’s name YHWH.
The Word of the Lord appears earlier in the passages of the creation narrative. In Gen3:8
It is often rendered ‘voice’ or sound.
8.And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. 9And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? 10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
On a side note, you might ask, if Adam heard the voice of the Lord in the garden, then who was the conversation between? I’ll let you think about that.
Moving back to Abram’s vision, we see that God is about to mark him out from other men. It is a prophetic encounter and significantly, Abram is proclaimed righteous enough to carry the prophecy forward, in his seed.
Gen 13:14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord. vv 15:4. 17:5
It was not be until Abram was 86yrs old that his name was changed to Abraham. Abraham’s wife Sarai also had her name changed. It is also significant here to note that the blessing to the prime patriarch and his wife did not come until their names had been changed.v17:5
Abram is a complex name in itself and quite profoundly reflects his natural status within the community. ‘Ab,’ in the first part is, of course, the Hebrew word for ‘father’ and the Hebrew verb ‘rum’ refers to high status and also of being ripe and ready-for-harvest of fruits.
It could be considered therefore that the meaning of ‘father of many’ can be extracted from this thread. The insertion of the Lord's name represented by the letter ‘Hei’ into Abraham and Sarah’s names, is an identifying marker not only to the people but for those viewing from the heavenly abode. Ishmael and Isaac, however, received no name changes but are given their names by God before they were born.
Now we come to the main part of this study – Jacob!
Jacob is the third patriarch and most significantly he bears a name that is almost synonymous but very distinct from his changed name. Before we get to that, let us first try and put some bones on his birth name. To most Bible students, the name of Jacob means ‘He who closely follows; supplanter or he who follows at the heel. It is from the Hebrew verb ‘Abak.’ Two negative adjectives: ‘aqeb’ means overreacher and ‘aqob' insidious or deceitful adds gravitas to our initial view:
Jacob’s very birth seems to foreshadow the meaning of his future identity. But is it right to label him as such? The struggle within the womb of Rebekah gives us the understanding that the two boys, Esau and Jacob would be in a struggle at least for a while.
Just look at this passage in Genesis:
Genesis 33 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
33 Ya‘akov raised his eyes and looked out; and there was ‘Esav coming, and four hundred men with him. So Ya‘akov divided the children between Le’ah, Rachel and the two slave-girls, 2 putting the slave-girls and their children first, Le’ah and her children second, and Rachel and Yosef last. 3 Then he himself passed on ahead of them and prostrated himself on the ground seven times before approaching his brother. 4 ‘Esav ran to meet him, hugged him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him; and they wept. 5 Esav looked up; on seeing the women and children, he asked, “Who are these with you?” Ya‘akov answered, “The children God has graciously given to your servant.”
(iv) 6 Then the slave-girls approached with their children, and they prostrated themselves; 7 Le’ah too and her children approached and prostrated themselves; and last came Yosef and Rachel; and they prostrated themselves. 8 ‘Esav asked, “What was the meaning of this procession of droves I encountered?” and he answered, “It was to win my lord’s favor.” 9 ‘Esav replied, “I have plenty already my brother; keep your possessions for yourself.” 10 Ya‘akov said, “No, please! If now I have won your favor, then accept my gift. Just seeing your face has been like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me. 11 So please accept the gift I have brought you, for God has dealt kindly with me and I have enough.” Thus he urged him, until he accepted it.
12 Esav said, “Let’s break camp and get going. I’ll go first.” 13 Ya‘akov said to him, “My lord knows that the children are small, and the sheep and cattle suckling their young concern me, because if they overdrive them even one day, all the flocks will die. 14 Instead, please, let my lord go on ahead of his servant. I will travel more slowly, at the pace of the cattle ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Se‘ir.” 15 Esav replied, “Then let me leave with you some of the people I have with me.” But Ya‘akov said, “There’s no need for my lord to be so kind to me.” 16 So Esav left that day to return to Se‘ir. 17 Ya‘akov went on to Sukkot, where he built himself a house and put up shelters for his cattle. This is why the place is called Sukkot [shelters].
We see that the two brothers have come to a point of mutual respect. Esau, it seems, no longer holds the grudge against his brother and even offers to help him handle his flocks.
A significant change has taken place to both the men and now Jacob, whose name is Israel, responds responsibly, though with a degree of apprehension at the potential reaction of his brother, and gives Esau the respect he is due as the older sibling. The years of estrangement have left the brothers unrecognizable to each other.
Jacob’s old name reflects his determination to take Esau’s place, that of being the firstborn. Unbeknown to him, Jacob need not have struggled at all. God had a plan that would indeed give him precedence over his older sibling. Jacob is unlike his brother in so many ways. Esau’s nature resembles his appearance
— rugged, hairy and wild like a man in the field. He has reddish pallor that reflects the colour of the earth, perfectly camouflaged for a hunter. Jacob is quiet and prefers to spend his time in the camp, perhaps looking after the sheep, leading a more sedentary life. Esau has Jacob’s attention; Jacob has Rebekah’s. Subterfuge is Rebekah’s plot to supplant Esau and transfer his birthright to Jacob. Her plan is subtle and would not have succeeded if Isaac’s eyesight were not so poor.
This cunning plan cannot be deemed right in the eyes of God, can it? After all, God could have allowed Jacob to be born first.
So why the subterfuge? Could it be that the true nature of the twins is a parallel perhaps of Kane and Abel? There is, however, another example where we see this scenario played out. It is of course in the account of Joseph and his brothers — a not too distant event in the life of Jacob.
The significance of the name change is that God wants us to know who we are in Him and not what we perceive ourselves to be. It is as if He wants us to transcend our human/earthly identity. When God changed Jacob’s name He uttered to him a prophetic event. The offspring of Jacob would become a peculiar people.
Gen 31:22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
This passage is telling us that Jacob had now earned the right through this struggle to be given a new name. The Jacob of old no longer existed. Our understanding of his new name comes mostly from poor translation. We understand it better when we know that Jacob’s struggle with Esau was a battle between two nations, the elder brother and the younger brother. Jacob’s life would come to symbolise the whole struggle of Israel in this world. The story of nations and brothers fighting for position is also reflected in Joseph’s life. He represents the struggle with the nations represented by his older brothers but the end of the story tells us this struggling relationship will be reconciled, just as Esau and Jacob were reconciled. However, Israel’s story would initially be one of a wandering people, dislodged from the rest of the nations. Though living among the nations, they will not find peace until they finally enter their promised homeland.
Jacob’s dream (Gen 28:12) would signify a covenantal agreement. Israel will always be connected and protected by God and they will always prosper upon the earth so long as they live by the agreement as symbolised by the steps reaching to heaven. In addition to the assigning of a new name, God provides a new place for Israel, although many more twists and turns must pass before Israel will inhabit the land. We see here, that the pattern of redemption is revealed, bringing with it the salvation and safety from the trials which are about to come upon the whole world. For all who put their trust in God and believe in Messiah Yeshua will come under the new conditions. Having done all, they will receive the new name of God
Rev 3:10 Since you have kept My command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.
11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
We are told that the name Israel means ‘He who struggles with God.’ But its meaning is really not clear. There are many nuances in the makeup of the name. For sure, Israel will struggle with God and in coming to terms with his new identity. So let us try and make some sense from the meaning of the name.
There is a passage in Luke that describes the healing of a man with dropsy.
Luke 14:1-6 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
14 One Shabbat Yeshua went to eat in the home of one of the leading P’rushim, and they were watching him closely. 2 In front of him was a man whose body was swollen with fluid. 3 Yeshua spoke up and asked the Torah experts and P’rushim, “Does the Torah allow healing on Shabbat or not?” 4 But they said nothing. So, taking hold of him, he healed him and sent him away.
Apart from the addition of the name ‘El’ which means God, the root word ‘sharah’ is found. It means to be ‘rigid, with liquid.’ Dropsy is exactly this. Instead of the liquids within the body flowing easily, the flow is stemmed and the liquid builds up in areas causing swelling. This disease also highlights the condition of the heart. This condition symbolizes a social condition which will come to identify part of the character of Israel as a people. In addition, we find the noun ‘sar’ which denotes someone in a chiefly or ruling position. The feminine form is ‘sara,’ which mean ‘Princess.’
The confusion comes when we look at how we translate the first part of the name. It is believed that the noun ‘sara,’ only helps us to understand what Jacob did as he fought the Angel of the Lord, but that does not give us his true identity. It may just be wordplay. It seems likely that the word ‘Yashar,’ which means ‘upright,’ is the true meaning of the name. The confusion may come from the loss or misuse of ‘jot and ‘tittle’ marks found in early written text.
This makes sense because we see that the transition is complete. The man born, who struggles to stand in his rightful place in the world, finally receives his position and new persona by becoming ‘upright before God.’
What we gather from Jacob’s life is the story of an imperfect family destined to receive its healing and unification with God. God and Israel are inseparable.
Symbolically, Jacob and his new identity, reflect the unification of God’s house. In God’s eyes, the process will take on a few days but for the physical world or whole of creation it will take several thousand years. Israel is, therefore, a divine blueprint which God is showing to the heavenly assembly — that reconciliation and restoration is about to take place. God, is God of gods, Lord of lords.
Isaiah 45: 4 For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me:
6 That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the Lord, and there is none else.
The initial throws of struggle within the evolution of Israel will show us the separation of a kingdom, just as it was in heaven. In celebration of this restorative event, a new heaven and earth are created, initiating the bridal entry over the threshold of God’s house and a revived royal priesthood.
25 I do not want you, believers, to be unaware of this mystery [God’s previously hidden plan]—so that you will not be wise in your own opinion—that a partial hardening* has [temporarily] happened to Israel [to last] until the full number of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so [at that time] all Israel [that is, all Jews who have a personal faith in Jesus as Messiah] will be saved; just as it is written [in Scripture],
“The Deliverer (Messiah) will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
27 “This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”
*(rigidity, hardening, with regards to the stemmed flow of liquid - ‘sharah’)
Finally, we have come to recognise that the changing of names is not an arbitrary or whimsical decision and neither is it a spontaneous act. The changing of names and the giving of names by God whether in the womb or in the world are given as signs and messages. They are all prophetic acts from God.
Exodus 3:14 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
14 God said to Moshe, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh [I am/will be what I am/will be],” and added, “Here is what to say to the people of Isra’el: ‘Ehyeh [I Am or I Will Be] has sent me to you.’” ‘I AM.’