QUESTION: I find it very confusing that the names of people seem to change with each chapter in Genesis. Why is this? I ask cause I have a hard time with the whole identity thing at times cause i was given up at 12. I woke up one day and was known as a totally different person. Do you think the people of the bible found it hard to have God change their names? Why would God one day wake up and decide to change someone’s identity?
ANSWER: I can understand why having your name changed due to abandonment could make you feel like your identity was being stripped. And you are right that your name does make a person feel connected to who they are. But if you look at the times that God renames people, it’s very good that God changes names, because he’s trying to replace a deficient identity with a much better one.
So for example, Abram means exalted father. But after God blesses Abram in Gen 17, he is called Abraham – “father of many”. Because he has been called by God to a much, much bigger calling than merely having a great household with many riches and servants. He is told that through him ALL the nations will be blessed. So in renaming him, God raises his purpose, and calls him into a life that’s so much bigger than he could have ever imagined.
He wasn’t destroying his identity, so much as moving him into his TRUE identity. But that identity was not something he could have known outside of relationship with God. He couldn’t just pick a new name for himself. It has to be given by God. For God knows all our secrets and hidden potentials and he knows what only HE can do with us.
So he’s an expert in taking what is small and limited in us, and expanding it wildly. Then he gives us that new identity, and amazing things happen.
It’s true, Abraham resists his new name from God. But that just indicates how attached we can be to an old person, disappointing and disappointed, yet familiar. We’re limited by our past and can’t imagine the power of God and what he can do in us, through us. Just think, for the man who has no kids, his given name is a bitter irony: Exalted father, childless!! God steps in and says, not just you’ll have a son, but you’ll be the father of MANY NATIONS!! More than he could ask or imagine. That’s the power of God’s grace in renaming us in Christ.
Jacob’s name change is also like this, only more drastic. Jacob means, “one who grasps the heel” – metaphorically this meant, deceiver, or usurper. The guy who trips other people up. And that’s who he had been up to the name change. He makes his way in life by being sneaky. By telling lies. By being smarter than the next guy and cunningly outwitting his opponents. Trying to stay one step ahead of his manipulations, with his Father, his older brother, Esau, and his father in law, Laban.
When God calls him back to his homeland, he has to face all his lies and trickery. He probably doesn’t want to go, but he’s burned his bridges with Laban – and learned what it is to be on the receiving end of deception. So he goes back humbled. But he’s terrified. He gave Esau good reason to want him dead, and Esau had the means to do it, and had made the threat.
On the way home, he separates his family and belongings into two camps to protect them, he sends gifts on ahead to placate his brother. But he has no peace.
That night, he meets God. The Angel of Yahweh (some think this was a pre-incarnation of Jesus himself) wrestles with him. This is so profound! Jacob has tried to get what God was willing to give him all along – by his own means. Deceiving and struggling with others to get the blessing that God would give him freely.
So now he literally wrestles with the Angelic figure, and in the process God wounds him. But Jacob, desperate and insecure still, asks for a blessing – knowing somehow he is having a divine encounter. And the Angel first asks him his name. Why? The name Jacob is not just a name – it’s a confession! To name his old name is to confess who he WAS – a deceiver, “the one who grasps the heel”. That’s not who you will be, God is trying to tell him, but I can’t bless you until you can say it and see it – Jacob.
And then, God gives him his new name, his God-identity: Israel – “the one who wrestles with God”. For Jacob wasn’t to be the man who gets what he wants by back-channels. He is to be the man who gets the blessing by being in the face of God, fighting there, pouring out his strength before God, and not being satisfied with anything less than God’s touch, God’s way, even if it wounds him.
He had been “Jacob”, trying to get God’s blessing avoiding pain, now he is Israel not avoiding the pain by cleverness or deception, but struggling with God in the open, and blessing follows. The Bible says, he leaves that encounter limping, but the “sun shone down on him”. The clouds have lifted, he knows who he is.
I hope you can see just how beautiful this name changing business is. Peter was Simon… and Simon was particularly loud and impetuous, rash and impulsive. And despite that natural wiring for flakiness, which got him into a lot of trouble, Jesus sees the gifting for leadership, for faith and courage – and so nicknames him “Rock”. Peter.
In a sense, the Gospel renames ALL of us. In older Christian traditions, now unfortunately lost, Christians would often get renamed at baptism, and you’d never hear their old name again. What a great way to think about coming out of darkness of sin, into the light of grace. You get a new identity in Christ, no longer unloved, now loved. No longer alone, now adopted. No longer sinner, now “Christian” – literally “little Christ”. Rev 2:17 says it like this:
“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
So maybe ask yourself, what was my old name (identity) and what is my new name in Jesus? God might surprise you with his answer.