The name Israel in the Bible
Israel is the name given to Jacob during his encounter with the Angel of God at the river Jabbok (Genesis 32:28). His older twin brother's name is Esau, his parents are Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 25), and his grandparents are Abraham and Sarah. The nation of Israel came from four matriarchs — Leah and her servant Zilpah, Leah's sister Rachel and her servant Bilhah — and their twelve sons would become the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel:
- Israel's first born son is Reuben (Genesis 29:32). His mother is Leah. Reuben forfeits his station of first-born son when he sleeps with Bilhah, the mother of his two half-brothers Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 35:22).
- Israel's second son is Simeon, also with Leah (Genesis 29:33). Simeon forfeits his prominence when he and his brother Levi revenge the rape of their sister Dinah by Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite (Genesis 34), by killing every male living in the city of Hamor.
- Israel's third son is Levi, also with Leah (29:34). He also forfeits his prominence, along with his brother Simeon.
- Israel's fourth son is Judah (29:35). Due to the crimes of his three older brothers, Judah rises to prominence. The land of Judah is central to Israel, and the capital of Israel, Jerusalem, was situated in Judah. King David was from Judah, and Joseph, the father-by-law of Jesus was from Judah as well. By the time of Jesus, the name Judah has been applied to the Roman province of Judea, and the Israelites who made it out of the Babylonian exile became collectively known as Jews, meaning those of Judea.
- The fifth son of Israel is Dan (30:6). His mother is Bilhah, the servant of Rachel (30:4).
- The sixth son of Israel is Naphtali, also with Bilhah (30:8).
- Israel's seventh son is Gad (30:11). Gad's mother is Zilpah, the servant of Leah (30:9).
- Israel's eighth son is Asher (30:13). Asher's mother is Zilpah as well.
- Israel's ninth son is Issachar, Leah's fifth son (30:18).
- Israel's tenth son is Zebulun, Leah's sixth son (30:20).
- Israel's eleventh child is a girl. Her name is Dinah and her mother is Leah (30:21).
- Israel's eleventh son is Joseph. His mother is Rachel (30:24). In time, the tribe of Joseph breaches in two sub-tribes, named after Joseph's two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Their mother's name is Asenath (Genesis 41:50-52).
- Israel's twelfth son is Ben-oni or Benjamin (Genesis 35:18).
The name Israel appears also frequently in the New Testament, 68 times in 12 of the 27 books (all four Gospels, Acts, the Pauline epistles and Revelation). In Greek Israel is spelled Ισραηλ, and the ethnonym Israelite in Greek is spelled Ισραηλιτης. The latter appears 9 times.
Etymology of the name Israel
The meaning of the name Israel is not clear, but yet it's huge. The meaning of Israel is not singular and distinct, but consists of many nuances and facets and bulges with theological significance.
The second part of our name appears to be related to the verb שרה I (sara I):
However, even though Genesis 32:28 uses the enigmatic verb שרה — which is assumed to mean to struggle but which might something else entirely — it's by no means certain that this verb is etymologically linked to our name Israel. When we say, "we named him Bob because that seemed like a good idea," we certainly don't mean to say that the name Bob means "good idea."
The first part of the name Israel looks a lot like the verb שרה that explains this name, but this apparent link is possibly a mere case of word-play. In fact, the name Israel may have more to do with the verb ישר (yashar), meaning to be upright. Note that the difference between the letter שׂ (sin) as found in the name ישׂראל (Israel) and the letter שׁ (shin) as found in the verb ישׁר (yashar) didn't exist in Biblical times and as it was invented more than a thousand years after the Bible was written:
For a meaning of the name Israel, NOBSE Study Bible Name List, BDB Theological Dictionary and Alfred Jones (Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names) unanimously go with the verb שרה of which the meaning is unsure. Undeterred, NOBSE reads God Strives, and BDB proposes El Persisteth or El Persevereth.
Alfred Jones figures that the mysterious verb שרה might very well mean "to be princely," and assumes that the name Israel consists of a future form of this verb, which hence would mean to become princely. And so Jones interprets the name Israel with He Will Be Prince With God.
Here at Abarim Publications, our contention is that the mystery verb שרה doesn't mean struggle at all, but rather reflects a worthiness to govern a nation. At the Jabbok, Jacob became the world's first godly king and his nation was Israel; God's (Vicarious) Governor.