A New Identity

Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4[3]-36:43)

This week’s parashah begins with Jacob preparing to head back home to the land of Canaan after some twenty long years of working for his father-in-law, Laban. On the journey home, he is attacked by a mysterious figure during the wee hours of the night. As we know, Jacob spends the night wrestling with what most people know as an angelic being. Just before dawn, the stranger asks Jacob’s name. After he responds, the stranger replies, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29[28]). From that point, there is a noticeable shift in Jacob. He begins a streak of name-calling. Let me explain.

First, the event that begins all of the name-calling is when Jacob is given the name, Israel, by the angelic being. Jacob then names that place, Peniel, which means Face of God, because he said, “For I have seen God face to face” (vs. 31[30]). When he set up a temporary dwelling place for him and his livestock after his encounter with Esau, he named that place Succoth, meaning “booths” or “temporary dwellings.” (33:15). When he arrived safely at Shechem he set up an altar to the LORD and called it, El-Elohe-Israel, which means, God, the God of Israel. He then renames Luz, El-bethel, meaning House of God, because God first appeared to him there during the night.

When Deborah dies, he called her burial site Allon-Bacuth (35:8), which means Oak of Weeping. This explains the Torah’s statement, “she was buried under an oak” in the same passage. After this, God appeared to Jacob at Paddan-aram and confirmed that his name shall be called Israel (35:10). This section of naming concludes when Rachel struggled to give birth to her second son and just before her death she named him Ben-Oni, meaning Son of my Suffering. But Jacob didn’t want that stigma attached to him and therefore renamed him Ben-Yamin, or Benjamin, which means Son of the Right Hand (35:18).

What is going on with all of the name-changing in our parashah? If we remember, it all started when Jacob underwent a transformation himself, and his name was changed from Jacob to Israel. The name Jacob means something akin to Follower or Supplanter, as Scripture says, “Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau's heel (Hebrew, eikev), so his name was called Jacob (Hebrew, Ya’akov)” (Genesis 25:26). But Israel means One Who Struggles With God, as it says, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29[28]). It seems his identity shifted from one who was considered the tail to one who was considered the head. Jacob’s new identity was the foundation of a unique people who would one day become a nation dedicated to the service of the Creator.

In the Apostolic Scriptures, Yeshua does something similar with Simon Peter. In his first encounter with Yeshua, this would-be disciple’s name is changed from Simon to Peter. Yeshua said to him, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (John 1:42). The name Simon or Simeon (“Shimon” in Hebrew) is related to hearing as we read in Genesis 29:33, “Because the LORD has heard … she called his name Simeon.” The name Peter, however, means rock, from the Greek word petros. Yeshua uses this meaning in a play on words, when he tells him, “You are Peter (Petros), and on this [bed]rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Both Jacob and Peter are radically changed by a divine encounter with a representative of Hashem. It affected everything in their life from that point forward. Just as Jacob and Peter were given a new identity, one day the followers of Yeshua who resist the lure of idolatry and assimilation are given a new name as well: “To the one who conquers I will give … a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). Who are those who conquer? Those who hold onto both Yeshua and the commandments (Revelation 14:12), because we have been given a new identity and a new purpose.

Have you been given a new name, a new identity? If not, you can do so through a personal connection to the God of Israel through Yeshua right now. With that new identity comes a new life. We become a completely new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). We also inherit a resurrection to eternal life. Yeshua said, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Have you received this new life? If not, what’s keeping you from receiving your new identity today?