My wife and I broke tradition. We didn’t mean any harm by it. I suppose we are just a little rebellious. My first name is Thomas, my dad’s first name is Thomas, my grandfather’s first name is Thomas. How cool would it have been to have the same name for four generations? But we didn’t do that. Thomas has always been a good name, I have gone by Tommy or Tom, and when I was in trouble, sometimes my mom would call me by my given name. But when we had our first son, we chose to call him something different. We didn’t even care about the meaning of the name; we just wanted something that sounded good and was a little unique… although not too unusual.

In the Bible, names have special significance; they represent an identity and describe their character. Whether we realize it or not, it gives us a backstory on an individual as we read their narrative. One of the most well-known examples of this is in the life of Jacob.

His life starts with a negative and almost derogatory name. Jacob means to be a “supplanter” or literally a “heel holder,” with the connotation of holding someone back. Imagine running a race, and as you are about to lose, you grab their heel to stop them from running or winning. His name embodies the narrative of Jacob; he is about to lose, and he finds a way to come out ahead. Heel grabbing is also the story of humanity; we use dirty tactics to get ahead. We lie, steal, and cheat to become successful.

Later on, we read of Jacob’s name changing. In a bizarre account, we have Jacob coming face to face with a power stronger than him but one that is also willing to tussle with him. It is a unique encounter of give and take that makes us aware of how quickly it could have ended from the beginning.

Genesis 32:24-30 – “Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have contended with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 And Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.”

The situation is mysterious and intriguing; however, what we can focus on today is changing the name. Jacob is a “cheater,” which also becomes apparent in this account. He is defeated but, true to his name’s sake, will not let go of the heel. Because of his tenacity, the mysterious figure bestows on Jacob a new name that seems positive and appropriate for the people that will spring up from his name. However, it also has a negative overtone. Jacob’s new name is Israel, meaning to wrestle, contend, or struggle with or alongside God. In one sense, it is as though Jacob is victorious, but it signifies that this future population will be locked in a wrestling match with God.

Isn’t this the story of humanity? We are unwilling to submit to God, so we are locked in a battle of supremacy. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we cannot win but that God allows us to contend with Him. God could win easily at any moment, but He knows we grow from the challenge and trials we face. The nation of Israel never learns this lesson; they continually battle God for who is in charge. Sometimes they follow Him, but most of the time, they do whatever is right in their own eyes. We are constantly wrestling with God.

Yet, in his faithfulness to His people, God promises not to let their name remain a reminder of their struggle with/or against Him. Their name will change, and they will be a part of the process. 

Isaiah 62:1-4 – “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, Until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, And her salvation like a torch that is burning. 2 The nations will see your righteousness, And all kings your glory; And you will be called by a new name Which the mouth of the LORD will designate. 3 You will also be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, And a royal headband in the hand of your God. 4 It will no longer be said to you, “Forsaken,” Nor to your land will it any longer be said, “Desolate”; But you will be called, “My delight is in her,” And your land, “Married”; For the LORD delights in you, And to Him your land will be married.”


This profoundly symbolic text alludes to when God transforms His people; he will not change their names through force. He does not choose arbitrary names because it sounds good. He knows there will come a time when the people who want to follow God will choose to do so. Isaiah’s analogy is that of a married woman who decides to take her betrothed’s name, and so will those who choose to follow God. The names bestowed upon the followers of God are because they willingly choose to change their name, not out of obligation or coercion but out of loyalty and love.