Jacob or Israel?

January 5, 2023

4 min read

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the length of Jacob’s life was one hundred and forty-seven years. When Israel’s days drew close to death, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, please put your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me. Please do not bury me in Egypt. – Genesis 47:28:29

In the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion we find Jacob on his deathbed. Curiously, in these two consecutive verses we see the two names of Jacob, Jacob and Israel, used seemingly interchangeably. In fact, ever since Jacob wrestled with the angel and received his new name, Israel, both names have been used by the Bible. 

Contrast this with Jacob’s grandfather, who, once he had his name changed from Abram to Abraham, never again is referred to as Abram. Why does Jacob retain both names? This question is strengthened when we consider God’s words to Jacob in Genesis 35.

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. – Genesis 35:10

God stated clearly that Jacob “shall not be called Jacob anymore,” and immediately thereafter we read:

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. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel. – Genesis 35:14-15

To sum up our questions: Why does the Bible continue to call Jacob by his original name after God declared that he should no longer be called Jacob? In light of this, what did God mean when He said “your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name”? Why does the Bible call him Jacob in certain situations and Israel in others?

When we look at their origins, we see that the two names, Jacob and Israel, have somewhat opposing connotations. Jacob was given his name because he followed Esau out of the womb, grasping his heel. Jacob in Hebrew, Yaakov, literally means “will follow.” The Hebrew word for “heel” is akev, the same as the root of the name Yaakov. This name implies a subservient or secondary status. Israel, or Yisrael, on the other hand, from the root for “minister” or “overcoming” implies prominence and leadership

We should note that both names, Jacob and Israel, are used in the Bible to refer to the entire nation of Israel. While a full treatment of the uses of these two names throughout the Bible is beyond the scope of this article, consider the following passage from Isaiah.

In that day the remnant of Israel, the survivors of Jacob, will no longer rely on him who struck them down but will truly rely on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God. Though your people be like the sand by the sea, Israel, only a remnant will return. Destruction has been decreed, overwhelming and righteous. – Isaiah 10:2-22

From this passage and numerous others, it seems that the name “Jacob” is used to describe the Jewish people when in a subservient to others in exile. In addition, the term “house of Jacob” which appears a name for the nation of Israel many times in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 19:3, Psalm 114:1), seems to imply the private life of the Jewish people, closing themselves off from outside influence. This is consistent with the first description of Jacob as a “dweller of tents” (Gen. 25:27)

To sum this up, when the nation of Israel retreats from leadership, from influencing the world, either due tot persecution and exile or due to the choice to insulate themselves from harmful outside influences, they are called Jacob. But when Israel rises to prominence and asserts themselves as a nation on the world stage, Israel is the name that is used. 

Jacob retained both his names because he continued to live in both roles. And so have the Jewish people. The Jewish people have spent much of our history as “Jacob” subservient, in exile, continually defending ourselves from outside influences that could compromise our unique identity. At the same time we are also Israel, charged with the leadership mission to be “a kingdom of priests and holy nation” that brings knowledge of God to all humanity.

Perhaps we can now understand the use of these two names in the opening verses of our Torah portion:

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the length of Jacob’s life was one hundred and forty-seven years. When Israel’s days drew close to death, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, please put your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me. Please do not bury me in Egypt. – Genesis 47:28:29

Jacob, living in exile in the land of Egypt, wants to ensure that he will be buried in his homeland, the land promised to Abraham and Isaac. By using the name Israel here, the Bible is telling us that Jacob’s motives were not merely about his own preference for where he would be buried. Jacob wanted to ensure that his family understood that their place was not here in Egypt, in the exile, as Jacob. He wanted to make it clear to them that they must never forget that their homeland is the land that God gave them through the covenant passed down from Abraham. It was not “Jacob” the individual Jew in exile who asked to be buried in the land of his forefathers. He made this request as “Israel.” 

The identification of Jews with the land of Israel as our homeland is an essential component of our national identity. It is only by living as an independent nation in the land that God gave us that we achieve the status of Israel, the nation that is meant to bring the light of God to the world. The desire of Jacob to be buried in the land did not come from a private, personal place. Rather, he was reminding his children, and all of us, that our true purpose is to be Israel, the ministers of God, triumphant and powerful in our land, so that we can fulfil the mission of building God’s kingdom on Earth.

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