A couple of weeks back, as we reflected on the name El Bethel, we briefly considered one part of Jacob’s story. He was forced to flee from his brother and spend twenty years with his Uncle Laban. When he arrived at Bethel, the place where he had first encountered Yahweh, he built an altar and named it El Bethel (Genesis 35:5–8). We considered that name and what it means.
But there is another part of the story that we somewhat glossed over. As Jacob journeyed back to the land of promise, he had no idea what lay ahead of him. Twenty years earlier, he had left behind a violently vindictive brother. He had no way of knowing how his brother had processed things in the intervening years. He could not befriend his brother on Facebook or secretly stalk his Instagram feed. As far as he knew, his brother had remained bitter for two decades. He prepared himself for the worst.
As it turns out, his pessimism proved unfounded. Instead of threatening to fulfil his earlier vow of revenge, Esau embraced his brother and showered forgiveness on him. What a relief that must have been for Jacob. Genesis 33 records what happened after the forgiving encounter between the two brothers:
And Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, on his way from Paddan-aram, and he camped before the city. And from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, he bought for a hundred pieces of money the piece of land on which he had pitched his tent. There he erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel.
“El-Elohe-Israel” is the name of God before us this week. “El-Elohe-Israel” literally means “the God, the God of Israel.” Linguists show that “El” can also be translated “mighty” so that the name might be rendered “the mighty God of Israel.” Still another possible translation could be “God is the God of Israel” (or “the God of Israel is God”). Each of these translation variations make sense in light of Jacob’s story.
If we translate the name as “God, the God of Israel,” we can consider this to be a major turning point in Jacob’s life. In Genesis 32, Jacob had had a very personal and intense encounter with Yahweh. As a result of that encounter, his name was changed from “Jacob” to “Israel” (v. 28). Readers of Genesis have long observed that, from chapter 32 onwards, Jacob is sometimes called “Jacob” and sometimes “Israel.” It is, as a rule, when his faith shines that he is called “Israel,” while “Jacob” is normally his given name in moments of fear, doubt, or disobedience. The name “Israel” represents, in many ways, his conversion. It was after he had a close encounter with Yahweh that his name was changed.
We tend to think of Israel as a nation: God’s chosen people. But remember that, in Genesis 33, when Jacob called the altar by that name, the nation of Israel did not exist. Israel, instead, was a personal name, given to Jacob alone. To call the altar El-Elohe-Israel—“the God, the God of Israel”—seems to be a personal confession of faith. When he had earlier appeared to Jacob in a dream, Yahweh had identified himself as “the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13). But now he was “the God, the God of Israel.” Israel had finally embraced Yahweh as his own. He was no longer resting on the legacy of his forefathers but was now in personal covenant relationship with Yahweh.
If we translate the name as “the mighty God of Israel,” we can see Jacob’s gratitude shining through. He had expected the absolute worst. He knew that his brother was out to kill him. He had no reason to think that Esau’s anger had subsided. Yahweh had called him to return to the land of promise (Genesis 31:13) and he had obeyed. But he had done so expecting to face insurmountable challenges there. Would the God who had been so gracious to him in exile prove mighty enough to be with him against his angry brother?
God indeed showed himself to be mighty. He quickly quelled every fear that Jacob had and provided for him more graciously than he could have imagined. He was certainly “the mighty God of Israel.”
Translating the name as “God is the God of Israel” (or “the God of Israel is God”) is also helpful. When Jacob and his family left his uncle’s house, Rachel stole her father’s idols and took them with her (Genesis 31:19). This became a source of tension between Jacob and Laban (31:30–42ff). This account tells us that Jacob and his family were not always committed to the one, true God. But now something had changed. Jacob had personally encountered God (chapter 32) and was a different man. No longer would he serve “gods.” Now, he recognised that there was only one God. There was no room to recognise the God of Jacob and the god of Laban (or the god of anyone else). There was but one God, and he was the God of Israel.
So what do we take from this name? How should it drive us to adoration as we pray to God in the coming week?
First, allow this name to encourage you to adore Yahweh as your God. Jacob had a lot of knowledge about Yahweh and a family legacy of Yahweh-worshippers, but it was not until he had a personal encounter with God that he became to him El-Elohe-Israel.
As you pray to God this week, can you claim him as El-Elohe-<insert your name here>? Is he your God, or is he simply your family’s God? Do you have a personal, covenant relationship with him, or is your experience of Yahweh limited to mere head knowledge? Jacob needed to wrestle with God before he became Israel and Yahweh became his God. Have you wrestled with God? Will you? Can you confess Yahweh as your God? Pray to him in that way this week.
Second, allow this name to encourage you that Yahweh is the mighty God. His might is sufficient for your every need and burden. A restored relationship with Esau seemed an impossibility to Jacob, a mountain too high to climb. When he finally met his brother, he realised that Yahweh had protected him from realising his deepest fears. El-Elohe-Israel had proven mighty to meet every need that he had.
I don’t know what burdens are weighing you down right now. I don’t know what fears are paralysing you. But I know that El-Elohe-Israel is mighty enough to lighten those burdens and overcome those fears. Will you trust him to do that?
Third, let this name remind you this week that the God of Israel is God—that is, that there is only one, true and living God. The gods of Laban were no gods at all. Before long, Jacob would instruct his entire household to ensure that there were no foreign gods among them (Genesis 35:1–4). He would not allow foreign gods to compete for the attention of his family. He would worship the living God alone and would lead his family in the same.
The God of Israel is God. He has no equal. He has no competitor. Pray this week to the one, true God. Pray to him as your God—the God with whom you have entered into covenant. And pray to him confident of his mighty ability to meet your every need, relieve your every burden, and give you peace in the face of your every fear.