What’s In A Name?

1 God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem.

And as they journeyed, a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him when he fled from his brother. And Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth.

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. 10 And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. 11 And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12 The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” 13 Then God went up from him in the place where he had spoken with him. 14 And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone. He poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it. 15 So Jacob called the name of the place where God had spoken with him Bethel. Genesis 35:1-15 ESV

Ten years earlier, when Jacob had been fleeing from Canaan to escape the anger of his older brother, he had stopped at Bethel. While there, he had been received a vision from God in which he was given a divine promise that he would be the inheritor of the Abrahamic Covenant. The promise given to his grandfather of land, a seed, and a blessing would be his.

“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 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 promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT

Despite all that Jacob had done to deceive his brother, God had assured Jacob of His continued provision and protection. And on that occasion, Jacob had made a vow, stating that, if God kept His end of the bargain and returned him safely to Canaan, he would make his way back to Bethel and worship the one true God.

“If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”– Genesis 28:20-22 ESV

But ten years had passed since Jacob had left Paddan-aram. For an entire decade, he had failed to return to Bethel (the house of God) and worship. Instead, he had chosen to settle outside the city of Shechem, and that decision had resulted in the rape of his daughter, Dinah, by the son of the king of Shechem. And while Jacob had been prepared to make a peace alliance with Hamor and his clan, permitting the intermarriage of their people, his sons had chosen a different path. To avenge the dishonoring of their sister, they slaughtered all the men of Shechem and enslaved all the women and children of the city. And just as Jacob had feared, the rumors of this gruesome act spread to the surrounding nations, creating a permanent stain on Jacob’s reputation.

“You have ruined me! You’ve made me stink among all the people of this land—among all the Canaanites and Perizzites. We are so few that they will join forces and crush us. I will be ruined, and my entire household will be wiped out!” – Genesis 34:30 ESV

But Jacob’s assessment of the situation was not quite right. Rather than painting a target on their backs, the actions of his sons had struck fear into the Canaanites.

a terror from God fell upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob. – Genesis 35:5 ESV

God used the slaughter of the Shechemites to instill a fear of Jacob and his people. The surrounding nations refused to take up arms against the much small and relatively defenseless Israelites, leaving Jacob free to travel from Shechem to Bethel unmolested.

But sadly, Jacob’s return to Bethel had not been his idea. His first response after the debacle at Shechem had not been to seek God but to escape the scene of the crime. But Moses indicates that received divine directions, ordering him to “Get ready and move to Bethel and settle there. Build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother, Esau” (Genesis 35:1 NLT).

What Jacob did next is quite revealing. In preparation for their return to Bethel, he commanded his people to purify themselves, and this was to include the removal of all their pagan idols. Evidently, the household idols that Rachel had stolen from her father were not the only ones in the possession of Jacob’s people. And it appears that Jacob had tolerated their presence for ten years. Perhaps he had turned a blind eye to these pagan gods in the hopes that they might provide an additional source of security and blessing. But now that he was returning to Bethel, he knew it was time to clean house.

“We are now going to Bethel, where I will build an altar to the God who answered my prayers when I was in distress. He has been with me wherever I have gone.” – Genesis 35:3 NLT

God had been faithful. Now, it was Jacob’s turn. So, with all his family and possessions in tow, Jacob slowly made his way from Shechem to Bethel, a distance of about 30 miles. Upon his arrival, Jacob obeyed God’s command and constructed an altar. Then he “named the place El-bethel (which means ‘God of Bethel’), because God had appeared to him there when he was fleeing from his brother, Esau” (Genesis 35:7 NLT).

It is important to note that, prior to building the altar and worshiping Yahweh, Jacob had taken the effort to purge his household of false gods and to purify themselves from the bloodguilt incurred by the slaughter of the Shechemites. It could be that God provided these instructions to Jacob so that the Israelites would not enter into His presence defiled and guilty of idolatry. There was a cleansing and a purging necessary before they could expect to enter into the presence of God Almighty.

On an interesting side note, Moses relates the death of Deborah, the handmaid of Jacob’s mother, Rebekah. She had accompanied Rebekah from Haran in Mesopotamia when Abraham’s servant had come seeking a wife for Isaac. Moses doesn’t reveal how she came to live with Jacob, but it could be that she joined him upon his return to Canaan and after the death of Rebekah. But this faithful servant of Jacob’s family died and Jacob honored her by burying her beneath an oak tree in a valley near Bethel.

For the second time since returning to the land of Canaan, Jacob received a divine message regarding his new identity. Upon his arrival back in the land, Jacob had camped beside the Jabbok River, where he had a physical and life-changing encounter with God. He literally wrestled with the Almighty, eventually receiving a debilitating injury and a blessing for his efforts. And God changed Jacob’s name in the process.

“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” – Genesis 32:28 ESV

Now, as he stood before the altar in Bethel, Jacob received a second reminder that his name had been irreversibly changed by God.

God blessed him, saying, “Your name is Jacob, but you will not be called Jacob any longer. From now on your name will be Israel.” So God renamed him Israel. – Genesis 35:9-10 NLT

It would appear that Jacob had failed to use his new God-given name, choosing instead to retain his old one. And, in a sense, Jacob had retained many of the habits associated with his old name. To a great extent, he remained a trickster and a deceiver. But by reminding Jacob of his new name, God was reinforcing His intention to not only rename His servant but to renew and remake him. God had great things in store for Israel.

Then God said, “I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Be fruitful and multiply. You will become a great nation, even many nations. Kings will be among your descendants! And I will give you the land I once gave to Abraham and Isaac. Yes, I will give it to you and your descendants after you.” – Genesis 35:11-12 NLT

The Abrahamic Covenant was officially passed down to the newly named Israel. As the grandson of Abraham, Israel was the rightful heir to the promise of a land, a seed, and a blessing. God was going to fulfill His covenant promise through Israel and his descendants. And it is essential to remember that one of those descendants would be Joseph, the only son born to Israel through Rachel. He will come to play a major role in the future of God’s chosen people. The other descendant of Israel who will factor into the fate of God’s people will be Judah, from whom the Messiah will come.

The stage is set and the future of Israel is secure. God has been working behind the scenes to prepare the way for the unfolding of His divine redemptive plan for mankind. And while the newly named Israel remains oblivious to God’s plans, he and his family will play a vital role in its fulfillment.

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