How Jacob Became an Israelite
Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins, the sons of Isaac, son of Abraham. Neither Jacob nor Esau were born Israelites. The name had to be earned through the development of godly character, because a very important calling came with it—the right to rule the world. This divine right had been given to Adam and was passed down to his children. Since it was ultimately to rest upon the Messiah, this calling determined who would be the Messiah’s earthly lineage.
The Two Mandates of the Birthright
Since Esau had been born first and was the oldest son, he was legally the one who was to inherit the birthright of his father. That is, when Isaac was dead, the family property was to be his.
There was also a spiritual heritage—a calling—that the Bible links to this birthright. This calling came in two parts, both given in embryo form in Genesis 1:28,
28 And God blessed them; and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
Adam was called by God to “rule” the earth and “subdue” it. He was king by divine right, and so we call this the Dominion Mandate. This was not a calling to make it a Kingdom of Man, but to make it into the Kingdom of God.
The Garden of Eden was the embryo of God’s Kingdom, because it was relatively small. We do not know its dimensions, but it certainly did not cover the whole earth. It was small, because the population of that Kingdom was small. Thus, Adam and Eve were given a second mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.” This would serve to expand the Kingdom of God until it filled the whole earth with people who were in submission to the authority of God.
The Dominion Mandate and the Fruitfulness Mandate together formed the spiritual heritage of the birthright that was passed down from Adam to his descendants. After Adam died, the right to rule the earth passed down to the next birthright holder, the oldest son. Ultimately, it was given to Noah and then to his son, Shem. Shem lived to be 600 years old, and even outlived Abraham, to whom the birthright had been promised. And so Abraham never did receive the promise, because Shem outlived Abraham. The birthright was instead passed down to Abraham’s son, Isaac.
The Conflict Between Jacob and Esau
When Isaac had his twin sons, Jacob and Esau, a conflict arose over the birthright. Though Esau was the oldest son, it had been prophesied before their birth that “the older shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). As the years passed, Jacob believed this prophecy, but Esau did not. The problem came, however, when Jacob—whose name means “a supplanter”—did not have the patience or faith to let God work out the details. He thought God needed a helping hand.
One day when Esau came home extremely hungry from an unsuccessful hunting trip, Jacob refused to give him any food until he agreed to sell the birthright to him. One might argue that this was just “good business,” but the fact is, this was not a Christian way of doing business—especially not to one’s own brother. When Jacob purchased the birthright for a bowl of soup, this sale was unlawful, according to Leviticus 25:14,
14 If you make a sale, moreover, to your friend [Heb. amiyth, “an associate, neighbor”], or buy from your friend's hand, you shall not wrong [Heb. anah, “oppress, mistreat”] one another.
In the context of buying or selling, to mistreat or oppress means to take advantage of someone’s situation, buying something at a very low price from someone desperate to sell, or selling to a desperate person at a very high price. Unfortunately, modern capitalism calls such things “good business.” But the law above reveals to us the mind of God in such matters, and Paul says in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Jacob broke this moral law when he bought the birthright from Esau for a bowl of soup. Jacob would never have had enough money to purchase the birthright for a fair price, so he should have waited for God to give it to him.
Apparently, however, even in this early stage in history, the Dominion Mandate had already been separated from the Fruitfulness Mandate. The birthright that Esau sold to Jacob was only the Fruitfulness Mandate—of which we will have more to say later. After some time passed, Isaac became so sick that he thought he was going to die. Isaac then called for his son, Esau, and told him that he intended to give him the blessing of the Dominion Mandate. First, though, Esau was to go hunting and fix him a meal of venison.
But Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, heard Isaac’s words. She knew that Jacob was the one called of God to receive both of the divine mandates. So she dressed Jacob like Esau, making his hands and arms feel hairy like Esau’s. She also cooked some goat meat to give Isaac, and sent him to ask for the blessing. Isaac was nearly blind at that time (Gen. 27:1), so he could not recognize Jacob by sight. However, his hearing was not so impaired, and said in verse 22, “the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
Even so, Isaac was still suspicious, because we read in verse 23,
23 And he said, “Are you really my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”
Jacob deliberately lied to his father to make sure the prophecy did not fail. Some have argued that Jacob did a good thing, but the fact is, Jacob presumed that God was incapable of fulfilling His word and needed Jacob’s lie to help God. This was wrong.
The Promise to Esau
When Esau returned with venison and discovered that Isaac had already blessed his brother, he was understandably very angry (Gen. 27:34). He asked if there was any blessing for him as well. Verses 39 and 40 say,
39 Then Isaac his father answered and said to him [Esau], “Behold, away from the fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling, and away from the dew of heaven from above.40 And by your sword you shall live, and your brother you shall serve; but it shall come about when you become restless [Heb., rood, “to tramp about; or to rule by trampling upon others”], that you shall break his yoke from your neck.”
Isaac knew that Jacob had obtained this blessing by fraud, and so he recognized that Esau would break Jacob’s “yoke” (dominion) over him at some point in history. In fact, if we study the divine law that was later given by Moses, we find that theft had to be repaid at least double (Exodus 22:1-4). And so, for Jacob to pay restitution to Esau for his theft, Jacob would have to give the Dominion Mandate back to Esau and allow God to disinherit Esau in His own way and time—without help from Jacob’s ability to lie.
In fact, because Jacob had bought the birthright (Fruitfulness Mandate) at an unfair price, taking advantage of Esau’s hunger in a way that God did not approve, Jacob would also have to pay restitution to Esau for that sin as well.
This, then, is the foundation of the struggle over the birthright. Let us see how God has judged Jacob and has made him repay Esau in full accordance with Isaac’s prophecy.
Jacob Named Israel
It is said that Esau lived by his muscles, and Jacob lived by his wits. Wit, however, can be used for either good or evil. Jacob used his wits to deceive Esau and even his own father. Because of this, he had to separate himself from his family and live with his uncle Laban in the land of Syria. He spent 20 years there, working for his uncle. Laban was a bit unscrupulous also, and changed Jacob’s wages ten times (Gen. 31:7). However, Jacob was still able to outwit his uncle and became wealthy at his uncle’s expense. Finally, Jacob left Syria to return to his father’s house in the land of Canaan (Palestine).
On his way home, he stopped at the brook Jabbok, where he heard that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 armed men. He was afraid, of course, and that night he went out to pray. It says in Gen. 32:24-28,
24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 And when he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; and the socket of Jacob’s thigh 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 until you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 And he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Jacob literally means “a heel-catcher,” that is, a supplanter, or deceiver.” Israel means “God rules.” Some think that Israel means “ruling with God,” as if to say that Jacob won this wrestling match with the angel. But no man is stronger than God. That was not the lesson, nor was it the reason God rewarded Jacob with a new name. Jacob prevailed by recognizing God in his adversary. When Jacob could see the face of God in Esau, God gave him a new name. The following day, armed with this awesome revelation, Jacob-Israel met Esau and said to him in Gen. 33:10, “I see your face as one sees the face of God.”
Dr. Bullinger writes in his notes on Gen. 32:28 in The Companion Bible, about the meaning of the name Israel:
“Israel = ‘God commands, orders, or rules’. Man attempts it, but always in the end, fails. Out of some forty Hebrew names compounded with ‘El’ or ‘Jah’, God is always the doer of what the verb means (cp. Dani-el, God judges).”
“prevailed = succeeded. He had contended for the birthright and succeeded (25:29-34). He had contended for the blessing and succeeded (27). He had contended with Laban and succeeded (31). He had contended with ‘men’ and succeeded. Now he contends with God—and fails. Hence his name was changed to Israel, God commands, to teach him the greatly needed lesson of dependence upon God.”
Like Jacob, we become Israelites by a change in our character. We must all learn the same lesson that Jacob learned. It is the lesson that we are not more powerful than God. It is the lesson that we should have faith in the sovereignty of God and not try to help Him fulfill His promises with a little help from the flesh. God does not need us to lie or defraud others, for whoever does these things is only a Jacobite and not an Israelite.
We see, then, that Jacob was not born an Israelite. He became an Israelite later in life after learning a very important lesson in the sovereignty of God. Hence, the term “Israel” was not a matter of genealogy, but a testimony of character. It was only later that Jacob-Israel’s descendants were called “Israelites,” to denote that they were physically descended from the man renamed Israel.
This original meaning is very important to our study of who is an Israelite.