Question: "What does Israel mean in the Bible?"
Answer: The man Israel was initially named Jacob. He was a twin, one of two sons of Isaac and Rebecca, and a grandson of Abraham. When he was born second, he was clutching the heel of his older brother, Esau. He was named Jacob because Jacob sounds similar to aqeb, the Hebrew word for “heel.” The root of the word is also the same root as the word for “follow,” which makes sense as Jacob followed Esau in birth. The root is also the same root for “to supplant” and carries the idea of deceiving or usurping.
Jacob lived up to his name, as he did attempt to supplant his older brother who had significant rights and blessings as the firstborn. He purchased Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29–34). Jacob also impersonated Esau so that his blind father, Isaac, would give the blessing intended for Esau to him (Genesis 27). Esau swore to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41). Jacob also seemed to deal deceptively with his father-in-law, who had also dealt deceptively with him on several occasions (see Genesis 29–30).
Jacob finally left his father-in-law, taking with him all of his flocks, herds, wives, and children, and he headed back toward the land of Abraham and Isaac, but he feared Esau’s reaction. Indeed, he heard that Esau was headed toward him with 400 armed men. The night before he anticipated meeting Esau, Jacob put his entourage across a stream for safety while he spent the night by himself, presumably so that, if Esau came upon him at night, only he would be killed but the rest of his family would be spared.
In the middle of the night, a mysterious person came into Jacob’s camp, and they wrestled. The mysterious person is first called a man (Genesis 32:24). Another mention this incident says that Jacob wrestled with “an angel” (Hosea 12:14). After the incident, Jacob says, “I saw God face to face” (Genesis 32:30). In Hebrew, the word translated “God” can refer to Yahweh but can also refer to an angel as a “divine being.” The exact identification of this person is not as important as the interaction between him and Jacob.
Jacob and this person wrestled all night long. What initiated the fight and a dozen other questions are simply not addressed. As they wrestled, the mysterious individual could not overcome Jacob, so he touched Jacob on the hip, which seems to have injured his joint. Then the mysterious person asked Jacob to let him go, but Jacob said he would not unless he blessed him:
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28–29).
The Hebrew word for “struggle” has the root consonants SYR, and Israel has the root consonants YSR with the suffix -el, which means “God”. The words’ similarity creates a play on words. Jacob “the deceiver” had been named “one who struggles with God.”
The incident between Jacob and the angel is a demonstration of grace. Jacob certainly did not deserve the blessing that he received. God had simply chosen to bless him, even in the womb, before he had done anything (Genesis 25:23, cf. Romans 9:11–13). Likewise, it was only by grace that Jacob could wrestle with the “man” and prevail, as the mysterious individual certainly had power to overcome and to harm Jacob. He let Jacob “win.” On Jacob’s part, perhaps this was the first time he had ever come to realize he was in over his head. Esau was closing in, and he felt helpless. Jacob asked for a blessing from this person, which put him in a place of humility so that he might receive grace and blessing.
The nation of Israel is named after Israel the patriarch. Unfortunately, the people of Israel seemed to also be in a constant struggle with God. Although He graciously took them unto Himself as His chosen people, they repeatedly turned their backs on Him. As a result, in Jeremiah 31:33–34, God promised a new covenant with Israel that would guarantee their obedience:
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
Israelites who come to God through faith in Christ enter the New Covenant and no longer have to struggle with God. By the grace of God, Gentiles who receive the Messiah of Israel are also included in the New Covenant. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles no longer have to struggle with God or with each other.
In Christ, the struggle is solved, and we have peace, as explained in Ephesians 2:11–22:
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”