But Israel shall be your Name

What do you notice about this text from Genesis 25:9-22 (NKJV)?

9 Then God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name.” So He called his name Israel. 11 Also God said to him: “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. 12 The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land.” 13 Then God went up from him in the place where He talked with him. 14 So Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He talked with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. 15 And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel.

Despite God changing his name, the text continues to call him Jacob as before! More puzzling, the text that immediately follows seems to use the names interchangeably:

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. And when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel laboured in childbirth, and she had hard labour. 17 Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear; you will have this son also.” 18 And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). 20 And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. 21 Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. 22 And it happened, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine; and Israel heard about it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve…

Why is this? One might expect that the word Jacob is never used after God’s clear directive in verse 9. Are the names used interchangeably to demonstrate we are talking about the same person- one man, two names? Perhaps, but an average reader can cope with this level of complexity, and the text dealing with Abram/Abraham’s name-change offers no such concession. My own explanation, which I shared at our Bible Study, is that the writer is making a deeper point.

Throughout the Jacob narrative, we have seen him vacillate between man of faith and man of fear, between schemer and truster, between old Jacob the deceiver and Israel the wrestler with God. He enacts his mother’s deceitful plan to trick Isaac, yet walks through the wilderness trusting the God of the heavenly staircase. He beholds the angelic encampment on his return to Canaan, yet fears his brother Esau's 400 henchmen. He is the considerate and decisive husband when he meets his wives in the field to depart Laban’s service, but is the apparently weak, indecisive father when Dinah is raped, leaving his two sons to enact their own scheme of terrific vengeance. So is he a strong man of faith, or a weak man of mistrust? He is, of course, both. Hence, the writer alternates between the names of his former years, and his later calling.

How true this is of me, too. Though once Graceless from the City of Destruction, I became Christian and I am this day on pilgrimage the Celestial City. Yet what a wretched man I am; my body of death delights in evil as though I were still Gracless of Destructio and not Christian of Celestia. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practise! I was both a grasper and a deceiver, but through travails and convictions, I called on Christ to save me, and He granted me membership of His Israel. Would that I live up to my new status, revel in my relationship with Him and enjoy His dominion, rather than looking back to the cucumbers and fleshpots of Egypt, the severe fields of Laban, or the wily tents of Rebecca.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay