The Meaning of the name “Israel”

February 13, 2024

The night before the encounter with his brother Esau after so many years apart, an angel wrestled with Jacob. After Jacob showed his strength and resilience in overcoming the attack, the angel blessed Jacob and gave him a new name – Israel. This verse, spoken by the angel, is the first mention of the name Israel in the entire Bible.

“Striven”?

The angel explained the meaning of the name: “for you have striven with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” What exactly does this mean? To understand the deeper meaning of the name “Israel” we must look carefully at the Hebrew.

The operative verb used in the explanation of the new name is translated here as “striven”. Other translations have “contended,” “struggled,” “displayed power,” and other related terms. The Hebrew word for “you have striven” is sarita. The ta suffix means “you have,” the verb root is sar.

It is fascinating to note that this word appears as a verb only 3 times in the entire Bible. Here, and two more times in a passage from the prophet Hosea that describes events from the life of Jacob.

In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. – Hosea 12:3-4

In other words, the only 3 times that this verb is used in the entire Bible it refers to when Jacob wrestled with the angel in Genesis 32.

A rare verb, a common noun

While this verb appears only 3 times in the Bible, sar as a noun is a very common word, appearing in over 400 verses. Its meaning is always the same. A sar is a prince or minister in the governing sense. It refers to someone who has political or governing power but is not the highest authority. A general of an army in the Bible is called a sar tzava (army). A sar is subservient to the king. Here is the first example of the word in the Bible:

And when Pharaoh’s officials [sarei] saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. – Genesis 12:15

To sum up: While sar as a noun is a very common word in the Bible, the verb form of this word appears only 3 times, and only in reference to Jacob. Considering that there is no other context for the use of this verb that can be used for comparison, it is puzzling that the translations render it as “struggle” or “striven.” If this is the verb form of the Hebrew word for minister, official, or prince, the common translation here appears to be mistaken.

“Striven” or “Empowered”

Based on the above understanding of the root of this word, I would like to suggest a different translation of our verse. I believe it is a more accurate understanding of what is meant by Jacob’s new name, Israel.

“He said: No more shall Jacob be said to be your name; rather, Israel; for you have become empowered with God and with men, and you have prevailed.”

It is true that Jacob “struggled” and “strived” in his battle with the angel. It is also true that Jacob prayed to God for assistance when Esau approached with an army of 400 men. That said, I do not believe that the name “Israel” refers to the fact that Jacob struggled. It is meant to refer to the effect that this struggle had on him.

Overcoming empowers us

When people face adversity and crisis situations, they often discover heretofore unknown strengths within themselves. When they use these newly discovered strengths effectively to overcome the crisis, they emerge stronger than before. This is the literal meaning of becoming “empowered.” A person who has been empowered by an experience, has literally uncovered powers that they did not have before.

Jacob began his life as a quiet “dweller of tents.” (Gen. 25:23). His brother Esau was the hunter and warrior. He then lived with Laban as an obedient and hard-working son-in-law, even as he was repeatedly deceived by Laban. He escaped from that situation without ever confronting Laban.

Now, with his brother Esau approaching, Jacob confronted this angel head on. He did not flee. He did not try to avoid the conflict. He prayed to God and engaged in battle. And he won. Jacob proved to himself and to God that he could fight battles and win.

Israel’s mission in the world is to defeat evil and to build the kingdom of God on this earth. This mission is not only about faith and ideas. It is also, oftentimes, about actual struggle and battle in the real world facing real dangers. The statement of the angel who changed Jacob’s name to Israel teaches us about the inner strength of the nation of Israel: “for you have become empowered with God and with men, and you have prevailed.”

Israel is empowered spiritually – with God – and physically – with men – and prevails.

The mission of Israel and all who share the faith in the God of Israel is to be empowered by our struggles to prevail over evil. God empowers us spiritually and materially to accomplish this task.

 

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Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. Rabbi Wolicki is the host of Eyes on Israel on Real America's Voice Network. He is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. Rabbi Wolicki is the host of Eyes on Israel on Real America's Voice Network. He is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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