Why Was Jacob Still Called Jacob After His Name Was Changed to Israel?
In the book of Genesis (32:28; 35:10), God changed the name of Jacob (meaning “supplanter” or “deceiver”)1 to Israel (meaning “having power with God” or “God’s fighter”).2 God even went so far as to say, “Your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name” (35:10, emp. added). However, Jacob’s name was used by the inspired prophets dozens of times thereafter, including immediately following the accounts of Jacob’s name being changed (32:29-32; 35:14-15). Even when God instructed the patriarch to go down to Egypt many years later, He referred to him as “Jacob” (46:2). How is this usage consistent with the statement that Jacob would not be called anymore by that name?
First, when Moses used the name of Jacob multiple times immediately following the accounts of his name being changed to Israel (including in the very next sentence—Genesis 32:29), he provided commentary on Jacob’s name change. That is, he revealed that God’s statement, “your name shall no longer be called Jacob” (32:28), did not literally mean that the patriarch would never be called “Jacob” again. Recall that after Jesus gave Simon the new name “Cephas” (John 1:42), Jesus still often referred to him as “Simon.”3
So what did God mean when He informed the grandson of Abraham that he would no longer be called “Jacob”? There are at least two possibilities. First, the Lord may have meant that Jacob would no more be widely identified and recognized by the meaning of the name Jacob. Instead of being the deceitful, supplanting brother who lied to his father in order to steal his brother’s blessing (Genesis 27:1-40), he would forever become known as “God’s fighter,” or one who “has power with God.” “Jacob” was now “Israel” (even when his birth name was still used).
A second reasonable explanation is that the Lord meant Jacob would no longer be known simply by the name Jacob—that is, by the name of Jacob only. Consider that when Jeremiah prophesied that “it shall no more be said, ‘The Lord lives Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but ‘The Lord lives Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north’” (16:14-15, emp. added), he did not mean that the Jews would never again talk about Israel’s Divine deliverance from Egypt. (After all, they were expected to celebrate the Passover every year—Exodus 12.) The prophet Jeremiah meant that the Jews would not only talk about the exodus from Egypt, but also their (future) exodus from Babylonian captivity.
Consider another example of this type of language. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “Christ did not send me to baptize” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Paul did not mean, however, that he was forbidden to baptize anyone or that he actually was not supposed to spend any time whatsoever baptizing individuals.4 Paul meant that he was not merely sent to baptize. Paul was not denigrating immersion (cf. Romans 6:1-11), but his special purpose was to preach the Gospel of Christ (which would lead truth seekers to submit to immersion in water for the remission of sins, regardless of who actually baptized them).
Although we may not know precisely why God and others chose to use the name of Jacob even after his name was changed to Israel, logical possibilities exist. It could be that he would no longer be thought of and called upon with the negative meaning of the name Jacob in mind. Or, it might also be that implied in the statement is the idea of “simply” or “only.” That is, the patriarch would no longer only be known as “Jacob,” but as “Israel.” Both of these possibilities are perfectly reasonable explanations, especially in light of the fact that such types of language are used elsewhere in Scripture.
1 Genesis 25:26,32-34; 27:36; cf. Hosea 12:3.
2 Merrill F. Unger (1988), “Israel,” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
3 Matthew 16:17; 17:25; Mark 14:37; Luke 22:31; John 21:15-17.
4 Jesus, after all, commissioned the apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). What’s more, the apostles baptized penitent believers during, as well as after, Jesus’ ministry (John 3:22-26; 4:1-2; 1 Corinthians 1:14-16; 12:13).