The Etymological Origin of the Word ‘Israel’

According to Webster, etymology is, “the tracing of a word back as far as possible in its own language.” The first occurrence of the word ‘Israel’ (yisrael) – יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל in the Hebrew Bible is found in this week’s Torah portion in Genesis 32:28. In this passage, the angel of the LORD confronts the patriarch Jacob at Peniel and changes his name: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” What does ‘Israel’ ( יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל <-) mean? First, note that the last two letters, אל, (El), is one of the names for God and occurs 6,581 times in the Hebrew T’nakh.  [The longer form of this word is אלוהים (Elohim) and occurs 2,602 times in the T’nakh.]

The first three Hebrew letters in the name, ישר are a bit more tricky, but the verse where it first occurs here in Genesis gives us a big clue. Let’s look at the Hebrew:

וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל׃ <-

I have highlighted in red the word  שָׂרִ֧יתָ – sah-ritah which means ‘power’.  The root of this word is שרה and The Complete Hebrew/English Dictionary by Alcalay gives the meaning as, ‘to struggle, strive, contend; to be a ruler”.  This verb is from the family (binyan) called lamed-hey and these verbs are tricky because the last letter, ה (hey) becomes a ת (tav) in certain conjugations making it hard to determine the root! If we put vowels on this root, we have the word, שָׂרָה (sah-rah) which we know as the English name, Sarah. Remember that Sarah’s name meant ‘princess’.  The masculine equivalent is שָׂרָ (sar) which means ‘prince’. 

The first letter in the name, the letter י (yod) is the prefix that denotes the future tense masculine singular for verbs, thus changing the meaning given by Alcalay above to ‘he will struggle’, “he will strive”, “he will be a ruler”. When this meaning is paired with God’s name, El,  we see that ישראל means ‘he will strive with God’ and ‘he will rule’.  Which is exactly what the heavenly messenger told Jacob when He changed his name to Israel!

A few verses later in this same Torah portion, Jacob returns to Bethel, where he first started out from 20 years prior and had the dream about the ladder. Here he builds an altar and worships God.  God, in turn, reconfirms the covenant with Jacob and tells him clearly that He is changing Jacob’s name: “And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel.” – Gen. 35:10 Now we know for a fact that the “man” that Jacob wrestled with was not an ordinary man, but was sent from God.  He was either an angel, or maybe the Angel of the Lord.  Many speculate that He was a theophany – a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.  The main point is that God is the one who was changing Jacob’s name to Israel.

  

We have looked at the literal etymology, however, the Bible often embeds several layers of meanings into passages and I want to point out a few other meanings that may be present here.  Perhaps another Hebrew play on words is intended in the name יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל 

The English/Hebrew Dictionary by Segal/Dagut for modern Hebrew, defines the root ישר as “straight; level; honest; upright.” The Strong’s number for (ישר) is #3477 and occurs 161 times in the T’nakh. In Jeremiah 31:9, it is in the phrase translated as, “straight way, wherein they shall not stumble.”  In Deut. 12:25, it is in the phrase translated as, “right in the sight of the LORD.”  Now, if we combine the meaning of ישר with אל we see that יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל could also mean ‘one who is straight and upright with God.’ 

 

When Jacob asked the Angel of the Lord for a blessing (Gen. 32:26), He, in turn, asked Jacob to state his name: Jacob –  (יַעֲקֹב ). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon gives several meanings for the root עקב – ‘heel, footprint, hinderpart’. We know from Genesis 25:26 that Jacob received his name to start with because he was holding his brother Esau’s heel as the two were born.  Interestingly enough, this root is used for the first time in the Hebrew T’nakh in Genesis 3:15 stating that Satan would bruise the Messiah’s heel.  The also also means to follow at the heel or from the rear (to be a follower as opposed as the leader). Finally, it can mean to overreach or to supplant and Jacob did eventually supplant Esau for the right of the firstborn.

 

The Angel permanently disabled Jacob’s thigh (ie, the strongest part of his body), so that he walked with a limp from that day until his death. (Gen. 32:31-32) So perhaps this second meaning is that God changed Jacob’s nature from that of a supplanter (ie, one who fights by his own power and ways and means) into a man who was straight and upright with God.  Only God can do this in us and for us! It is interesting that the writer of Hebrews wrote about Jacob in Hebrews chapter 11 – the ‘honor roll of faith’ (and one of my favorite chapters in the Bible) and mentions him as still limping (ie, still leaning upon his staff and worshipping God), at his death. So this change that God made to Jacob was permanent! God had to diminish Jacob’s natural strength so that he would lean upon God’s supernatural strength! And thus I think the name change indicates Jacob’s transition from relying upon his own strength, to relying upon the strength of God Almighty. May we each allow the Lord to change us so that we rely on Him and not ourselves and only then can He use us to be a blessing to others.