What's in a Name?

Seeing the covenant promise through the life and name of Jacob

As a young father, one of the most interesting times in preparing to have a child is deciding on the name.  In our house, my wife will typically share with me a name that she likes and then I get to respond as to whether I approve.  It gets interesting because we hardly ever agree on a name.  The exercise gets a lot more fun when you get to name the stuffed animals.  If you know my daughter Natalie, you know that she loves her stuffing-less rabbit named Douglas.  When we name our children, we either pick a name that we have always liked, or have a family name that must live on in tradition and get passed down to the next generation (just think, I could have been Donald Larry Hatch III).  Names are big deal in our culture as our name is our reputation and identity. 

In the Old Testament, the names given to each of the characters in the narrative have special meaning for how we understand the story.  For instance, the name Joseph means "God Provides," which speaks to the Providential nature of God in how He works through the circumstances of Joseph’s life in order to preserve the nation of Israel.  In another example, the name Isaac means “laughter.”  This highlights Sarah’s response when she hears that she will become pregnant in her old age. 

This name of our man Jacob is no different.  We are introduced to him and his twin brother Esau in the middle of Genesis 25.  We find out that the firstborn, Esau – which means “hairy” – was named such because he was born covered in thick, red hair.  When Jacob was born, he was given the name “heel-grabber” because he was grabbing Esau’s heel as he entered the world.  This phrase “heel-grabber” may not seem very significant, but someone that heel-grabs is one that cheats or deceives.  If you know Jacob’s story at all, he definitely lives up to his name.  He steals the family birthright and then tricks his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn.  He is tricked into marrying the wrong woman (how does that even happen?!!!), and he steals from his uncle's house as he leads his family out of town.  The list goes on, but you get the idea – whatever Jacob does is infused with deceit. 

As we read on throughout the narrative, Genesis 35 recounts this amazing experience Jacob has with God.  God blesses Jacob and his family.  He does this by re-commissioning and re-iterating the instructions and promises God gave to Adam, Noah and Abraham.  God commands Jacob to be fruitful and multiply, and He also reminds Jacob that the covenant promise made with Abram of land, nation and seed will be fulfilled through Jacob.  Not only this, but we see that God changes Jacob’s name.  He is no longer Jacob.  God has given him the covenant name of Israel.  In reading the rest of Scripture, we know that it is a big deal when God changes someone’s name.  God confirms His covenant with Abram by changing his name to Abraham.  God changes Saul’s heart and mind on the road to Damascus, and redirects him on a course as Paul to spread the gospel to the Gentiles.

Even with the name change and reminder of the covenant in Genesis 35, Jacob still has issues in raising his own family.  He displays favoritism to Joseph, and does not understand how God is communicating His Providence through Joseph’s dreams.  Jacob’s sons fall in deep and grievous sins indicating that they are not believing in God’s promises.  Jacob’s life almost falls apart when he learns of Joseph’s “death” and sees the bloodied coat of many colors.  Israel has been reminded of the promises of the covenant, but he has trouble seeing how that should change his outlook on life.  In Genesis 43, we begin to see this change – we get a glimpse of Jacob starting to live like he is Israel.  In this scene, Israel finally releases the hold he has on his son Benjamin and allows his sons to return to Egypt to buy more food and free their brother Simeon.  He recognizes that God is the one that is in control and can grant mercy to work out the situation for good. 

Jacob’s story begins to climax and culminate in Genesis 46, where God meets with him again to reaffirm the covenant of land, nation, and blessing.  Jacob is already in the land that God has promised him, but he realizes that this promise of land may be for the future nation of Israel.  God will remain good on his promises!  Jacob knows that he must leave the promised land and go to Egypt in order to survive, but he is confident because God has promised that he will bring the nation back to the land.  Here we see Israel having faith and trusting in God’s promise.  What a contrast from his earlier life, where Jacob was known by how he deceived.

Jacob’s legacy lives on throughout the pages of Scripture.  He is one of the patriarchs of the faith.  Imagine that our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!  God even works in and through Jacobs.  By the end of Jacob’s life, he was living with the full view of his new name in sight.  He was Israel – having faith that God was a powerful, promise-keeper.


Joe Hatch