The Meaning of Israel

I’ve been reflecting on  the phrase  El-Elohe-Israel,  “God, the God of Israel.” It crops up in the stories around the life of Jacob through a  developing series of encounters with God (Genesis 28-32).

But to see the development clearly, you have to go right back to the opening line of the ancient Hebrew text:

In the beginning, God…

Be·re·shit e·lo·him; ba·ra hashamayim ha’a·retz.” In the beginning, God (Elohim) made the heavens and the earth.”

God speaks life into being through words, like a cosmic film director shouting “Lights, Camera, Action!” (And receiving instant obedience).

And Man, once created, is brought on board to share the process, in a sense, by naming the animals. (Though the one who decided to call it a “blackbird” was being pretty lazy that day).

And yet there is still a huge divide between the world above  ( ha·sha·ma·yim ) and the world below,  ( ha·’a·retz ). How do the two connect?

creation of adam

Though the primeval narratives include statements such as “Men began to call on the Lord,”  the connection between  ha·sha·ma·yim and ha·’a·retz. kicks up a notch in the call of Abraham (Gen 12) and in the idea of  Covenant. That key word means a contract, or agreement, which develops through Abraham’s life into blessing (of family and land, and a “name”). Abraham’s own name has been “expanded” from Abram to indicate an expanded vision of God’s plans for the whole earth.

And the names of God change and develop with this expanding perspective.

And so we come to the life of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and covenant-heir. The name “Jacob” means “cheater, thruster, supplanter.”  The first part of his life, told in dispassionate detail, describes how he cheats his brother Esau out of his legacy, and how he cheats his dying father, Isaac, to do so. Once the fraud is uncovered, he flees for his life, but, on his first night on the run, he encounters God in a vision. The dream-vision is of a ladder, connecting ha·sha·ma·yim and ha·’a·retz. Heaven and earth are brought together, and angels ascend and descend upon it. The way of connection is open, but he had never before known it.

Two thousand years later, Jesus made the same point to Nathaniel (John 1), though substituting Himself for the ladder, with angels, “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

A couple of decades after this first vision, Jacob has prospered, and so with wives and children and livestock, sets out to return home. He hears that Esau is riding to meet him with a fighting force, and so, true to his name, imagines that revenge is imminent and sends everyone else forward to meet Esau, while he remains behind.

And then there’s a second encounter, which is described as a wrestling match (Genesis 32), where Jacob “wrestles” with God and wins, though being permanently disabled from the struggle.

And God said, Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince you have power with God and with men, and have prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Please tell me your name. And he said, Why do you ask my name? And he blessed him there.” – Genesis 32:28, 29.

So the name Jacob (supplanter) has been changed to Israel (“Prince … power with God… prevailed”).

Now the people called Israel emerge from that revelation. The name changes because the character is changed. He is not Jacob the supplanter, but Israel, “the Prince of God – the champion of the Lord, who fought with God and conquered; and who, henceforth, will fight for God, and be His true, loyal soldier.” (Matthew Henry).

The third encounter is in Genesis 33:19-20. It is the staking of a claim, based upon the previous two encounters. “He bought the piece of land where he had pitched his tent from the hand of the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for one hundred pieces of silver. Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.”

It’s easy to miss the significance of this passage. In the first encounter, Jacob calls the place Beth-El (“house of God”). In the second encounter, he himself is profoundly engaged with God, and renamed “Israel.” So in Genesis 33, he builds an altar to El, Elohe Israel. It could almost mean: “God, the God of Me.”

Someone said,  “The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.” It’s true. We can’t pretend to pin down God (like they tried with Gulliver in Lilliput). In fact, sometimes people say “I don’t believe in God” and when they describe the god that they don’t believe in, don’t you immediately think, Neither do I believe in that picture of God!

Three things about El Elohe Israel that teach us about both God and about ourselves.

Ourselves? Yes, did you notice the connection between the change in human names and the change in God’s name? God didn’t “change” but their understanding of Him expanded, and they had to grow to accommodate that new understanding.

Three things: He is the God of the ladder, the God of the wrestling match and the God of the altar.

And what is your name? What is the meaning of Israel? If you are a believer in God then you are grafted into this one name, Israel.

The ladder means forgiveness, the comforting presence of a God whose grace overwhelms all your sin and promises protection, commitment, presence, love.

The wrestling match means a “desire truth in the inward parts.” Our God is “a consuming fire”. He is judge, Lord. He demands not a pinfall, nor a knockout, but submission.

The altar means that He has to become your God. The God of You. He is known in worship, in intimacy.

I am part of the revelation of who God is: his character and my character wrestle together. I know him in forgiveness. I experience him in judgment, I experience him in power and authority, and submit. I draw close in worship.

It starts with the ladder, it continues through the wrestling match, It finishes with the altar. As Bill Johnson put it, so well,  “Royalty is my identity, servanthood is my assignment, intimacy is my strength.”

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