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Wisdom Enhanced Life Lessons

Wisdom: Knowledge plus Understanding

Jacob and/or Israel

By: David M. Colburn

Our Purpose

The Lord God renames Jacob to Israel in Chapter 32 of Genesis and again reminds him of the change in Chapter 35, yet the names Jacob and Israel continue to be used throughout the rest of the Book, as well as later in the Old and New Testaments.

The purpose of this paper is to prayerfully study the knowledge (information) that we find in the Bible as we seek an understanding that leads to wisdom. The question we desire to answer is what is the intentional purpose of the use of the different names “Jacob” and “Israel” in the Bible; God (of course) has a reason for using two different names for the same man.

As in all such Biblical research we rely upon the Holy Spirit to lead us to the answer, which may be soley through our careful and prayerful direct reading of the Word and published resources from the translators, or may also include Him speaking to us through fellow students of His Word.

What's The Meaning In Assigning Names?

Genesis 1:26-27; 2:15-23

1:26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” 1:27 God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.

2:15 The Lord God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it. 2:16 Then the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, 2:17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”

2:18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.” 2:19 The Lord God formed out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 2:20 So the man named all the animals, the birds of the air, and the living creatures of the field, but for Adam no companion who corresponded to him was found. 2:21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he was asleep, he took part of the man’s side and closed up the place with flesh. 2:22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the part he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 2:23 Then the man said,

“This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

The Bible initially refers to Adam in the generic, “the man” or perhaps a generic singular “humankind”, until Genesis 2:20 where the name “Adam” first appears. (According to the NET translator notes the KJV uses “Adam” in Verse 19, but that appears to be artisitic license on the part of that translation team as no other translators find support for that in the best and/or earliest documents. The NASB and NIV agree with the NET, and the NEB and NRSV do not use “Adam” until even later in Genesis. Linguistically, the translator's reply upon the absence or the presence of an “article” in the text to determine if the correct rendering is generic “the man” or specific “Adam”. At no time does the text report God addressing Adam, or Eve, by name. Eve is not named, but is spoken of in the generic “the woman”, until Genesis 3:20.)

Because Adam was the only member of humankind he had not been given a name by fellow humans, which tied his identity to his flesh rather than to his purpose in relationship with God, so there was no purpose in God renaming him. The Bible text assigns the name Adam in order to create a unique identity among the soon-to-multiply members of humankind – for later reference.

The descriptive term “the man” is used of Adam. and later “the woman” of Eve, where the text is speaking of them more so as members of the unique Created beings “humankind”. When the text uses “Adam” and “Eve” it intends to communicate in specificity about those unique individuals. Later in the Bible the names Adam and Eve would become symbolic of God's original Creation of humankind and as a point of reference for what was His moral will for them, how their rebellion had broken the relationship, and how (in the case of Jesus) He would become the “new Adam” to restore the original relationship between God and humankind.

God said He would create for “the man” Adam an indispensable helper, a "companion,” one without whom he could not complete his purpose. This companion would not (in the original created purpose) be a subordinate, nor one to whom tasks would be delegated, rather one who would fulfill the purpose(s) of humankind which the man could not.

God allowed Adam a role in a secondary stage of Creation (perhaps “secondary” may be rendered – “derivative” or “byproduct” - something that was happening after the Sixth-Day), as He was “... form[ing] out of the ground every living animal of the field and every bird of the air.” He allowed Adam to name them. As Adam named the creatures he also asserted hierarchical superiority over them. This was God's stated hierarchy and Adam's assignment per God's command in Verse 16.

When they were done He then announced that none of them were suitable to the role of “... a companion for him [Adam] who corresponds to him.”; God was declaring that man has no peer among the other Created creatures of the earth. (Chapter 1 of Genesis describes the sequence as God creating the creatures prior to humankind, whereas Chapter 2 has Adam present as God created the creatures; there is no necessary conflict as the creatures God drew from the soil for Adam to name are not required – by the text – to be the first of their kind but only representative of their previously created kind. Since the creatures were to multiply it would be necessary for there to be more than one of each.)

This was not a surprise to God, nothing is, it was a teachable-moment for history that man was made in His partial image (Gen. 1:26-27) and is therefore set-apart from the rest of Creation – Adam required a “help-meet” so that he might complete the purpose(s) God had for him.

In keeping with His former pattern, and maintaining a continuity in Creation, God (Who had created Adam from the previously-created soil) took flesh and bone from Adam's side to create his companion and partner in Eden. It is important to observe that Adam did not continue in the process of naming that over which he had hierarchical superiority when he said, "this one will be called woman," he merely described her intimate similarity due to the flesh and bone link caused by her being "taken out of man." Eve (her future name) was the second member of humankind.

Only after the Fall, as evidence of an element of the curse (as aforementioned, "naming" implies hierarchical superiority), did the categorical descriptive word “woman” become the name “Eve” (see Gen. 3:20).

When Did God First Change A Person's Name?

Genesis 17:1-7

The Sign of the Covenant

17:1 When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the sovereign God. Walk before me and be blameless. 17:2 Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants.”

17:3 Abram bowed down with his face to the ground, and God said to him, 17:4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of a multitude of nations. 17:5 No longer will your name be Abram. Instead, your name will be Abraham because I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 17:6 I will make you extremely fruitful. I will make nations of you, and kings will descend from you. 17:7 I will confirm my covenant as a perpetual covenant between me and you. It will extend to your descendants after you throughout their generations. I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you.

This is the first recorded case of God changing the name of a person in the Bible, He always did it with a very intentional purpose, just as everything God does is with perfect intent.

According to the NET translators Abram meant “exalted father”. This might also be understood in the context of how a first born son was though of, as Jacob/Israel described his first born in Genesis 49:3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the beginning of my strength, outstanding in dignity, outstanding in power.

Abraham meant “the father of a multitude”, a prophesy of God's promise to him. It is important to note that God's covenant with Abraham was conditional – the text of Genesis 17:1 “When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the sovereign God. Walk before me and be blameless. 17:2 Then I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and I will give you a multitude of descendants.”” records that God required Abraham to walk in obedience before Him in order that he might be blameless and thus worthy of blessing. (It may be that God's withholding of a son to Abraham and Sarah was due to the delay in Abraham's obedient walk with God, which may also be the reason that God later tested Abraham via the command to sacrifice him. It was critical that if Abraham was to be God's vehicle in His great plan that Abraham fulfill his part of the covenant. God not only clarifies this in Genesis 17:9 “Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep the covenantal requirement I am imposing on you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.”, He adds a significant symbolic expression to reinforce it - circumcision.)

Sarai meant “princess” and indicated her connection to her past, a princess is the daughter of a queen.

Sarah meant “queen or royal priestess”. and indicated her future; Genesis 17:16 “I will bless her and will give you a son through her. I will bless her and she will become a mother of nations. Kings of countries will come from her!””

When And Why Did God Change Jacob's Name To Israel?

Genesis 32:26-32; 35:9-10

32:26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” “I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.” 32:27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” 32:28 “No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”

32:29 Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” “Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. 32:30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”

32:31 The sun rose over him as he crossed over Penuel, but he was limping because of his hip. 32:32 That is why to this day the Israelites do not eat the sinew which is attached to the socket of the hip, because he struck the socket of Jacob’s hip near the attached sinew.

This is the first time that God informs Jacob that He has ordained that his new name will be Israel. Observe also that verse 32 refers to Jacob/Israel's descendents as “Israelites”, not “Jacobites”.

35:9 God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan Aram and blessed him. 35:10 God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but your name will no longer be called Jacob; Israel will be your name.” So God named him Israel.

This is the second time that God tells Jacob that his name has been changed. The NET translators explain “The name Israel means “God fights” (although some interpret the meaning as “he fights [with] God”).”

Just as He had done with Abram, changed to Abraham, and Sarai, changed to Sarah God was declaring His “ownership” of them and of their life-purpose.

Why Does The Word Of God Use Both Names: Jacob And Israel?

Genesis 29:1; 35:13-15, 21-22; 46:1-5, 30-31; 47:27; 47:28-31; 49:7; 50:24-26

29:1 So Jacob moved on and came to the land of the eastern people.

The family of Jacob had a corporate identity, they were known as those who lived in an “eastern region”; the NET translator's suggest that “... the land of the eastern people” may be rephrased from the Hebrew “the land of the sons of the east.”

35:13 Then God went up from the place where he spoke with him. 35:14 So Jacob set up a sacred stone pillar in the place where God spoke with him. He poured out a drink offering on it, and then he poured oil on it. 35:15 Jacob named the place where God spoke with him Bethel.

35:21 Then Israel traveled on and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder. 35:22 While Israel was living in that land, Reuben had sexual relations with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard about it.

In 35:13-15 Jacob is acting alone, the drink offering is about a past event.

In 35:21 the context of “Israel” is perhaps more plural than singular (Jacob and his people traveled, they were living in the land together, and many of the people heard what Reuben had done).

Note: The NET translators explain that Reuben's action would have been a deliberate effort to prevent Bilhah from asserting certain rights and/or could have been an effort to assert rights ahead of his brothers. It was a very significant political-act in that culture.

The Family of Jacob goes to Egypt

46:1 So Israel began his journey, taking with him all that he had. When he came to Beer Sheba he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. 46:2 God spoke to Israel in a vision during the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob!” He replied, “Here I am!” 46:3 He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. 46:4 I will go down with you to Egypt and I myself will certainly bring you back from there. Joseph will close your eyes.”

Here Israel refers to Jabob traveling with everyone, his sacrifice was no longer looking back but at the moment and ahead, so it comes after his re-naming. God then calls to the fearful-man “Jacob, Jacob” and reassures him.

46:5 Then Jacob started out from Beer Sheba, and the sons of Israel carried their father Jacob, their little children,

Here there is an interesting mixture of name-usage, it begins singular with Jacob but then switches to show again that he is not alone and is in-fact being carried by his sons (plural) who are identified in their corporate-relationship with their father by the corporate name Israel.

46:30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” 46:31 Then Joseph said to his brothers and his father’s household, “I will go up and tell Pharaoh, ‘My brothers and my father’s household who were in the land of Canaan have come to me.

Here the text uses “Israel” in a purely singular context.

47:27 Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they owned land there. They were fruitful and increased rapidly in number.

49:7 Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their fury, for it was cruel. I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel!

These appear to be the first two times that the name “Israel” is used in a corporate sense, describing a people-group.

The NET translators say of the phrase “scatter” in 49:7 “Divide…scatter. What is predicted here is a division of their tribes.

47:28 Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; the years of Jacob’s life were 147 in all.

Here the use of “Jacob” is singular.

47:29 The time for Israel to die approached, so he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If now I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, 47:30 but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” Joseph said, “I will do as you say.”

Here the use of “Israel” is singular.

47:31 Jacob said, “Swear to me that you will do so.” So Joseph gave him his word. Then Israel bowed down at the head of his bed.

Here the use of “Jacob” is singular.

50:24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to you and lead you up from this land to the land he swore on oath to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” 50:25 Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He said, “God will surely come to you. Then you must carry my bones up from this place.” 50:26 So Joseph died at the age of 110. After they embalmed him, his body was placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Here Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are spoken of, each in a singular context whereas the sons are identified by their corporate identity “... the sons of Israel”.

These are but some of many cases in Genesis where the text switches between the use of Jacob and Israel; looking closely a reliably-consistent pattern is not readily apparent.

Looking At The Use Of “Jacob” And “Israel” In The Rest Of The Bible.

Exodus 1:1-10

Blessing during Bondage in Egypt

1:1 These are the names of the sons of Israel who entered Egypt – each man with his household entered with Jacob: 1:2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 1:3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 1:4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 1:5 All the people who were directly descended from Jacob numbered seventy. But Joseph was already in Egypt, 1:6 and in time Joseph and his brothers and all that generation died. 1:7 The Israelites, however, were fruitful, increased greatly, multiplied, and became extremely strong, so that the land was filled with them.

1:8 Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt. 1:9 He said to his people, “Look at the Israelite people, more numerous and stronger than we are! 1:10 Come, let’s deal wisely with them. Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country.”

Here the identity of the descendents of Jacob/Israel has been cemented in their identity from his God-assigned name “Israelites”; thereafter referred to that way. It is also notable that God's repeating of His covenant with Abraham and Issac was refined to Jacob/Israel (adding the tribal detail) it remained conditional the same as with Abraham. (see the previous discusion of Genesis 17:1-9). In the Book of Romans Verse 9:6 the Apostle Paul would later clarify the conditional-covenant “It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel,”


Based upon our study it is generally acceptable to view the use of “Jacob” as a reference to the man prior to God's confirmation of him as bearer of the covenant from Abraham and Issac.

It is also generally acceptable to view the use of “Israel” as a reference to the man, and later the nation of tribes, who embodied the Abrahamic covenant.

The new covenant that Jesus the Christ made possible describes how the old covenant “Israel” would be treated. But that is not a purpose of this study.

End Notes

According to the NET search engine “Jacob(s)” is used 348-times in the Old Testament and 25-times in the New Testament, “Israel(s)” is used 1658-times in the OT and 68-times in the NT. Israelite 104-times in the OT and 2-times in the NT, Israelites 585-times in the OT and 6-times in the NT.

Note: In the world of Biblical terminology one may hear some interesting discussion of the labels “Israelite”, “Hebrew”, and “Jew” in an effort to trace the meanings of each historically.

“Hebrew” is first found in the Biblical text in Genesis 14:13 and next as used as a pejorative in Genesis 39:17 by Egyptians to label the despised Israelite sheep-herders and slaves. (Note: The NET translator's note for Genesis 10:24 refers to Eber as the linkage between Shem and “Abraham the Hebrew” in Genesis 11 but one finds no such usage there. The NET translators notes for Deut. 15:12 list a number of occurances for Hebrew(s) and observe that it may have been a generic for the offspring of people from Abraham's predecessors and not necessarily exclusive to Abraham's decendants – thus not intended to describe “the children of promise” in the Abrahamic covenant.

The term “Jew” (or “Jews”) is a later designation, appearing to describe a socio-religious identity rather than a divine relationship. According to the NET search engine it occurs 117 times in the Old Testament and 289 times in the New Testament.

Translation is the NET Bible unless otherwise indicated -

Note: All pronouns referring to God are capitalized, though they are lower-case in the NET text.

Commentary text is by David M. Colburn, D.Min. unless otherwise noted.

Grateful thanks to John Geiger for asking the question that prompted this Study.

Copyright © 2010 by David M. Colburn. This is from the BibleSeven Wisdom Enhanced Life Lessons – Series, “Jacob and/or Israel” – prepared by David M. Colburn and edited for in July of 2010. This text may be used for non-profit educational purposes only, with credit; all other usage requires prior written consent of the author.

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