In this prophecy, Isaiah foretells that in the future, when Israel is restored to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem, there will be a mass movement among the nations to come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel at the site of the Holy Temple. This prophecy has clearly begun to be fulfilled in our days. Each year, millions of Christians, believers in the Bible and in the God of Israel, stream to Jerusalem to draw close to the God of the Bible.
Christian Tourism as Biblical Prophecy Fulfilled
It is all too easy to lose sight of just how miraculous this is. Isaiah lived many centuries before the advent of Christianity. Although this verse obviously does not refer to any such thing as Christianity, the fact that Isaiah lived so long before Christianity is critical to understanding just how wondrous this prophecy is. Simply put, when Isaiah wrote these words there were no people in the world who worshipped the God of Israel other than the Nation of Israel. When Isaiah described multitudes from the nations of the world streaming to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel, those who heard this prophecy at the time must have wondered about the unrealistic nature of what Isaiah was saying. After all, why would the nations come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel if they are not part of the nation of Israel? Nobody outside of Israel even knew about the God of Israel at that time. How and why would this happen?
Of course, we now know exactly how it happened. The founding of Christianity, while leading to centuries of suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of those who professed its belief, also led directly to the spread of the Bible and the God of Israel to much of the earth’s population. This is the irony of the historical relationship between Christianity and Judaism. On one hand, centuries of Christian leaders preached anti-Semitic theological ideas that had devastating consequences. On the other hand, it is only through Christianity that the world has learned about God and the Bible. Without Christianity, it is impossible to imagine the millions of pilgrims who fill the streets of Jerusalem every year; pilgrims who know and love the Bible and the people and land of Israel.
Why the God of Jacob?
Interestingly, God is identified in this verse as the God of Jacob. This is an unusual description of God in the Bible. It is used almost exclusively in the book of Psalms. What is intended by this description? Why doesn’t the verse refer to the house of the God of Israel?
The name Jacob is used collectively for the people of Israel on many occasions. To understand our verse, we will need to know more about the specific meaning of this name, and what Jacob implies when referring to the entire nation.
The meaning of Jacob’s name is explained twice in Genesis. First, when Jacob was born his name is explained as referring to his grasping the heel of his brother Esau (Genesis 25:26). The Hebrew word for “heel” is akev. The word for “follow” is akav from the same root. Jacob – Ya’akov – followed his brother out of the womb grasping his heel.
Later, after Jacob and his mother Rebekah deceived his father Isaac so that Jacob would receive his father’s blessings, Esau unjustly accused Jacob of cheating him, even though Jacob had earlier purchased the birthright from Esau. Esau’s cry upon discovering what Jacob had done gave new meaning to Jacob’s name.
Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated (alt. deceived / supplanted / tripped) me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Genesis 27:36)
Esau’s play on words is based on the fact that a Hebrew word for “cheated” is akav, the same root as Jacob’s name. Akav – “cheated” – implies lying in wait, ambushing, or acting with deception.
Jacob – Israel’s Name in the Exile
Simply put, the name Jacob does not have positive connotations. It variously implies following, being on the heel, deception, and trickery. In fact, if we look at Jacob’s own life, we see that he often was compelled to live by his wits and outsmart others – whether it was Laban, Esau, or even his own father.
Not so as Israel. Jacob’s second, loftier, name was given to him when he wrestled with and defeated the angel who attacked him. (Genesis 32:29) That was a battle he won without deception but with might. For this victory, he was told that he was now capable of truly triumphing.
And yet he retained both names. Sometimes he would need to be Jacob, living by his cunning and careful tactics in a hostile and antisemitic environment. At other times he would be able to behave as Israel – triumphant, dominant, and strong.
What is true of Jacob as an individual is true of his offspring – the People of Israel. Thus, they are sometimes referred to as Jacob. The People of Israel, like their forefather and namesake, are sometimes forced to live in exile as subordinates and second-class citizens – the follower, the heel – in a hostile antisemitic environment. Like Jacob their father, Jews have repeatedly been forced to flee after being unjustly accused and targeted. When scripture refers to the People of Israel as Jacob, it is this weakened, exile-identity that is being described.
“For the Lord will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.” (Jeremiah 31:11)
God of Jacob = God who protects Israel in Exile
In light of this deeper understanding of the name, we can say that the “God of Jacob” refers to God as He cares for, protects, and redeems His exiled and subjugated chosen people from the hands of hostile enemies who are more physically dominant and powerful than themselves.
In fact, when we look at the other verses where “God of Jacob” is used, we see exactly that. For example,
“May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!” (Psalms 20:2)
“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:6-7)
To sum up, God is called God of Jacob when the Bible describes how He protects his chosen people when they are in exile. Why, then, would this term be used when describing the nations flocking to Jerusalem to worship Him at the end of days?
I would like to suggest that this is exactly the point of the use of this term for God. Isaiah is not telling us only that multitudes from the nations will come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. Isaiah is adding that these nations will acknowledge the unique relationship that God has had with the Jewish people throughout the centuries of their exile. They will learn to respect the miraculous nature of God’s protection of His people while they were dispersed and persecuted for two thousand years. They will appreciate the God of Jewish history; a history that culminates in the return to Zion at the end of days.
All who have faith in the Bible and in the God of Israel must ultimately also come to acknowledge the unique bond that God has had with His chosen people throughout their history.
This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s new book, Verses for Zion. Verses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast