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2. Jacob

2-3-1 Jacob's Name Change

We all grow up with some concept of God. This is as true for those with atheist or apostate backgrounds as it is for those steeped in Sunday School from the cradle. That concept of God which we have in our youth tends to stay with us, and in some ways dogs us for much of our lives. Growth towards a real, personal knowledge of the true God, our Father, is a lifelong process. Jacob grew up in the most spiritual home on earth at the time (although some of the goings on would have made the neighbours doubt this). He was brought up 'in the Truth', we could say. And yet his conception of God was woefully immature for many years. His struggle towards the true knowledge of God is not only fascinating; because Jacob's spiritual growth really is intended as our model. Nathaniel thought he really believed in the Lord Jesus. The Lord commented: " You shall see (usually used in John concerning faith and spiritual perception)  greater things than will see heaven opened, and the Angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man" (Jn. 1:51 RSV). It was Jacob who saw Heaven opened and the Angels ascending and descending. And Christ's comment that Nathaniel was " an Israelite (Jacob-ite) indeed, in whom is no guile" (i.e. Jacob without his guileful side) is a reference to Jacob's name change. It confirms that Nathaniel was to follow Jacob's path of spiritual growth; he thought he believed, he thought he saw Christ clearly; but like Jacob, he was to comprehend far greater things.  

The covenant God made with Abraham was similar in style to covenants  made between men at that time; and yet there was a glaring difference. Abraham was not required to do anything or take upon himself any obligations. Circumcision [cp. baptism] was to remember that this covenant of grace had been made. It isnít part of the covenant [thus we are under this same new, Abrahamic covenant, but donít require circumcision]. Perhaps this was why Yahweh but not Abraham passed between the pieces, whereas usually both parties would do so. The promises to Abraham are pure, pure grace. Sadly Jacob didnít perceive the wonder of this kind of covenant- his own covenant with God was typical of a human covenant, when he says that if God will give him some benefits, then he will give God some (Gen. 28:20). Although he knew the covenant with Abraham, the one way, gracious nature of it still wasnít perceived by him.  

Jacob's Name Change

Several times at the very end (Gen. 49:2,7,24) Jacob mentions his old and new names ('Jacob' and 'Israel') together, as if to show that now he finally accepted and believed the wondrous change that God had wrought in him. First of all, he doesn't seem to have accepted his name change, and needed God to remind him of it again (32:28; 35:10). To accept, really accept, the Name we called upon ourselves at baptism (Acts 2:21; 9:14; 22:16; Rom. 10:12-14) is difficult. To believe that God really does see us as His people, bearing His Name, with all the moral glory this implies... it took Jacob no less than 50 years to realize the implications of Jacob's name change (Jacob's name was changed when he was 97, and he only uses it freely of himself just before his death at 147) (2). It's unusual for a man to repeatedly mention his own name when talking to others; and yet this is exactly what Jacob did in 48:20; 49:2,7,24; it was as if he was playing with a new toy, reflecting his grasp of that basic, wondrous truth he had been taught 50 years ago; that in God's eyes, his name had changed. In God's eyes, he was not the Jacob, the liar, the supplanter, the deceiver; but Israel, the prince with God. But it took 50 years for the wonder of it all to come home to him.  

The name change reflected God's perception that Jacob had changed. And yet at that point in time, it seems Jacob didn't realize his change; for he had to be reminded of the change of name later, he had to be encouraged to accept that it was really true. 2 Kings 17:34 criticizes men for worshipping Yahweh but also their own gods; they are rebuked with the comment that God had made a covenant with " the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel" . The suggestion is surely that when Jacob became Israel, he quit the life of half-hearted service to God. This was the decision he came to that night when he wrestled with the Angel, and his name was changed. Then he realized that there were only two ways, the way of the flesh and the way of God (cp. Mt. 6:24; 7:13,14; James 3:11,12). It is for this reason that soon after the wrestling incident and change of name, Jacob purges his family of their idols (35:2). Once he has done this, God reminds him the second time that his name has been changed (35:10). Like Jacob, we find it very hard to ascertain our spiritual growth; the very construction of our natures makes 100 % accurate self-examination impossible (Ps. 19:12; Prov. 14:12; 1 Cor. 4:4 RSV). It's not only that we fail to perceive all our errors; we also fail to realize when we have made a significant turn for the better in our lives. Yet God perceives this, as He did with Jacob that night when He renamed him. This perhaps the hardest struggle we have; to really grasp the height of God's positive perception of us. It took Jacob, spiritual hero that he was, 50 years. And a like joy, that almost child-like playing around with that 'new' name he'd received 50 years back, should characterize our spiritual maturity. 


There was a unity, a mutuality, between Jacob and God at the end. No longer did he see God as someone else's God, not even just his father's God. The lessons of Jacob's name change were finally learnt. Thus he asks Joseph to bring his sons to him, so that he may bless them; but when he gives the blessing, he states that this is God blessing them (48:8,9,15,16); he saw God working through him. At the very end, Jacob gathered himself up into his bed to die, and then God gathered him up (this comes out very clearly in the Hebrew text; 49:33). That desire of God for mutuality with His servant Jacob had always been there. 50 years previously, Jacob had made " supplication" to God (Heb. 12:4) as he wrestled the Angel; and at that very same time, God dealt " graciously" (the same word translated " supplication" ) with Jacob (Gen. 33:11). At that time, God " recompensed" to Jacob according to his sins, and Jacob responded by " turning" (same word translated " recompensed" ) to his God (Hos. 12:2,8). It's too bad our translations disguise these things. By the end of his life, this spirit of mutuality between him and God had become perfected. And so with us; we too can live our lives thinking that if we do this, that and the other, God will do this and that for us. The idea of a two-way relationship with Him, of His Spirit, with all that implies, dwelling in us, until our will is His will; all this takes time to develop. The Lord set before us an ideal, whereby we would so mature in Him that whatever we ask will be granted; we will ask what we will, and receive it, because whatever is asked according to God's will is received. In other words, our will, our innermost desire and ambition, in things great and small, abstract and physical, will be His (Jn. 15:7; 1 Jn. 5:14). And then, in the eternity of the Kingdom, we will be God's inheritance (Dt. 4:20; 9:29), and He will be ours (Ps. 16:5). This mutuality of inheritance between us and God is commented upon in Jer. 10:16, in the very context of Jacob: " The portion of Jacob (i.e. God, the inheritance of Jacob) is not like them...Israel is the rod of his inheritance; Yahweh of Hosts is His Name" . This is yet another reflection of God's recognition that finally, Jacob fulfilled his promise to make Yahweh his God (28:20).   The lessons of Jacob's name change were finally learnt.