Did you know that the ancestor of Israel was originally named Jacob? It is common knowledge that Israel began as a Jewish, or Hebrew, nation. In the Bible, its people were also referred to as Israelites. We read that the Israelites referred to the Lord as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
But where in history did the descendants of the patriarchs come to be known as Israel?
Today, Israel is known as a land and a country more than a “people.” For supporters of Israel, it is essential you can explain to others where the name came from and why it’s important. Only then can you help others fully understand the future of this small but mighty nation.
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear…”—1 Peter 3:15
Who was Israel?
Jacob’s name was changed to Israel when he “wrestled with God.”
“And He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’”—Genesis 32:28
If you take a look at Jacob’s history, you will find that he was the third generation of Hebrews with whom God made a covenant.
Here are some interesting facts about Jacob’s family tree…
- Jacob’s grandparents were Abraham and Sarah. They had Isaac, Jacob’s father, when Abraham was 100 years old.
- Isaac was the only patriarch whose name was not changed. Abram (high father) was changed to Abraham (father of a multitude). “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.”—Genesis 17:5
- Jacob’s older twin brother was
- Jacob had 12 sons who, together, became the 12 Tribes of Israel.
- Jacob, as the youngest of the twins, tricked Esau into selling him his birthright.
What happened next?
After Jacob—encouraged by his mother, Rebekah—tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him Esau’s blessing…
“Therefore may God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you!”—Genesis 27:28-29
…Esau conceded that Jacob would indeed be blessed (Genesis 27:33), but still held on to his anger and planned to kill Jacob as soon as their father had passed. Rebekah, hearing the news, urged Jacob to flee.
Where did Jacob go?
Jacob traveled to the home of his uncle (Rebekah’s brother, Laban) in Haran—the ruins of which are in present-day Turkey. Isaac prompted the travel, thinking he was sending Jacob away to find a wife.
While on his way to Haran, Jacob had a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven. The vision is commonly known as “Jacob’s ladder.”
“Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: ‘I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants… Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.’”—Genesis 28:12-13, 15
This is a reiteration of the covenant the Lord made with Abraham and Isaac years before.
Why did God repeat the covenant?
This repetition of the covenant promise God made to Abraham and Isaac was now given to Jacob. It was to provide Jacob with comfort and hope during this crossroad in his life.
God also wanted to confirm that the covenant He made with Abraham and Isaac would be kept. He did not want the next generation to forget or lose hope of the completed work that would be accomplished on the cross and ultimately in Christ’s return.
Although Jacob’s past wasn’t squeaky clean, the Lord did not allow this to define him or change the covenant promise he had made with his father and grandfather.
How did Jacob’s name change to Israel?
Jacob arrived in Haran and met Rachel, the younger of two sisters, and fell in love. But it was custom at the time that the older sister must be married first. Again, trickery entered Jacob’s story, and he ended up marrying both Rachel and her older sister, Leah, because of the deception of their father.
According to the biblical account of genealogy, Jacob had 12 sons and 1 daughter, Dinah.
- Side note… Jacob and Rachel had Joseph, who would later be sold by his brothers to Egyptians and eventually would become a high official, saving his whole family from famine. Four hundred years would pass, and the Hebrew nation would grow in number and become enslaved in Egypt—eventually being led to freedom by Moses as he parted the Red Sea.
In Genesis 32:28, we read of Jacob’s name change. But before that, Jacob decided to return home to see his parents again. Jacob, still set in his own ways and not entirely relying on or submitting to God, began his journey back to Canaan.
Still concerned about his strained relationship with his brother, Jacob decided to send messengers ahead of him to meet with Esau in the land of Edom and present a peace offering. The messengers returned to tell Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him with an army.
At this point, Jacob was “in great fear and distress.” And for the first time, he got on his knees to pray.
“…‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, “Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you”: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth… Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother… For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”—Genesis 32:9-10, 11, 12.
For the first time, we begin to see the emotional and spiritual “wrestling” that Jacob was doing with God. According to the biblical account in Genesis 32, once Jacob was “left alone” he began a wrestling match with the Lord.
At first glance, this might seem strange, but this passage has rich symbolism and importance that helps us understand the Lord and His people. Jacob held on to his fear and ideas, but God prevailed. Jacob finally succumbed to God’s strength and understood His life was preserved.
The Lord gave Jacob a new name, Israel, and his life was forever changed. As he approached his brother, he was still concerned that Esau would be angry and retaliate but understood the protection that was over him because God was for him. Surprisingly, Esau was full of joy to see his brother and the reunion was blessed.
Israel’s story had only begun…
As you read about how Israel became a nation, there are 3 aspects to keep in mind.
- God’s covenant promises still hold true
- Israel, just as God said, is being regathered to her land.
- We all “wrestle” with God in some way. It is always a pull between where God leads us and where we want to go.
With the last one in mind—and reading about the ancestry of the nation and knowing we, as Gentiles, are grafted into her commonwealth—ask yourself, “How am I wrestling with God?”
If you want to know more about how to God is restoring Israel and fulfilling biblical prophecy, just as His covenant promises claim, click HERE to read more.
Once we embrace Israel and stop “wrestling,” how great we will be blessed!