The Hebrew Meaning of the Name Israel

If you think the name Israel has some significant meaning in Hebrew, you are not wrong. In the Bible, when we talk about name meanings, they are more than just an identifying title. Names speak of character and destiny of a person, region, or people. 

Moses means drawn out – just like he was drawn out of water by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and then his life was used to draw Israel out of Egypt. Elijah means The Lord is my God – His life was marked by bold and uncompromising stands for the Lord. 

When God would change someone’s name, it was often a change in their life’s direction or calling. Abram (honored father) became Abraham (father of nations), and Sarai (leader) became Sarah (princess). Yet there is probably no more significant name change than that of Jacob.

Before His Name Was Israel

When Rebekah was giving birth to twins, she named him Jacob because he grabbed the heel of his brother. The Hebrew meaning of Jacob – or Yaakov in Hebrew – is “supplanter”. It derives from the word for “to seize the heel”, but figuratively it can mean “to trip up” or even “to deceive”.

Later, as Jacob and Esau were being blessed by their dying father Isaac, Jacob lived up to his name. This was what was said of Jacob from both Isaac and Esau, when Jacob pretended to be Esau to gain his father’s blessing:

And he [Isaac] said, ” Your brother came deceitfully and has taken away your blessing.” Then he [Esau] said, ” Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Gen 27:35-36)

As a result, Esau wanted to kill him. But with the help of Rebekah, Jacob quickly left town and headed east to find shelter with his relatives. 

ancient well in Israel

“Angel Encounters” of Jacob

Many years later, Jacob is returning to the land of his fathers with two large companies of his family and livestock. After sending everyone ahead of him at night, Jacob had an unexpected visitor that changed everything, including his name.

Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 

Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, ” I will not let you go unless you bless me.”….”  He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:24-29)

There are several fascinating aspects about this encounter, so let’s dive into the details. 

When Jacob’s Name Changed to Israel

First, who was Jacob wrestling? In this account in Genesis, a “man” wrestled him. Yet, in Hosea 12:4, it says he wrestled with an “angel”. But then, this man/angel himself, as He changed Jacob’s name, said that Jacob wrestled with God. 

Afterwards, Jacob names the place Peniel, because “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (Genesis 32:30). Here again, the name of the location actually gives us information on a person. 

So just to clarify- Jacob wrestled God but in the form of a man… yet, like an angel, brought a message from God to change Jacob’s name and character. This man/God sounds familiar…

Secondly, we aren’t sure what exactly happened. The word used for “wrestled” is a bit of a mystery verb in biblical Hebrew. It only appears twice in the Bible, in v24 and 25. The root is connected to dust particles, which could mean rolling in the dust. 

But when Hosea says Jacob wrestled an angel, he uses a different Hebrew word. In this case, it’s a word that means “to prevail” or “have power as a prince”. 

So, one could say, Genesis 32:24-25 says, this Man/God came to Jacob to “get dirty”, roll around the dust with him. Then, He gives him a new name and character, as one of prevailing power and influence with God. 

Do the actions of this Man/God sound familiar? 

dust blowing in the desert in Israel

Hebrew Meaning of Israel

Because of the different verbs used in Genesis and Hosea, that describe Jacob’s encounter, there are varying interpretations of the meaning of the name Israel. That is also probably because the English language doesn’t have comparable verbs.

Some scholars say Israel means “One who wrestles or struggles with God”. Others say, it is “One who strives or prevails with God”. And still others say, “Prince of God”. 

I think the correct answer is… yes. All of those elements can be found in Jacob’s experience of “wrestling” the Man/God who gave him his new name, Israel. The English language just fails to describe in a precise way the biblical Hebrew. 

The Name Israel Through the Ages

Since the days of the patriarchs, Israel became the family name. Regardless of the 12 tribal family lineages, if you were a descendant of Jacob, you were a part of the people of Israel. 

However, once the biblical kingdom was divided after the death of King Solomon, the terminology became a little more confusing. Now, we had the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. 

At times, prophecies were being spoken directly to the northern Kingdom of Israel rather than all the descendants of Jacob. This became even more misunderstood when both kingdoms were conquered and taken into exile.

While the prophets would still occasionally refer to all of Israel, meaning all the people of both kingdoms in exile, they became known more as the “people from the land of Judea”. It referred to people of the geographical region. And this is where we get the term “Jews” from. 

Jews are from land of Judea – of both Kingdoms, of 12 Tribes, descendants of Jacob/Israel. Sometimes, the term “Jewish” has been misunderstood to only mean the people from the tribe of Judah. Yet, in Esther 2:5 we see that Mordechai was called a Jew despite being from the tribe of Benjamin.

Israel in Hebrew

What Happened to the Jews of Israel Then?

In the last 1800 years, siting the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the people, Christian theologians wrongly assumed that God was finished with Israel. Many have taught that God had rejected the Israelites and was now replacing Israel with the church. 

The religious scholars couldn’t explain all the prophetic biblical promises to Israel that didn’t seem to come true. So they developed this false doctrine that all the promises to Israel have been passed on to the church as the “new Israel”.

However, both the Old and New Testament writings completely disagree with this. Paul also told the Romans, in chapters 9-11, to avoid this specific lie that God is finished with Israel. And what many theologians didn’t foresee was the rebirth of Israel in its ancestral land. 

If the modern state of Israel has shown us anything, it is that God is demonstrating that He has not forgotten His promises. He is fulfilling the words of these same prophets in our day, just as He said He would.  

Why Was the Modern State Called Israel? 

In May 1948, as independence was quietly discussed among the Jewish leaders, the question arose of what to call this new state. “Judea” and “Zion” were both considered as state names. But many agreed those names related to specific locations in the territory rather than the whole nation. 

How would their citizens be recognized differently than Jews in other parts of the world? And would their Arab citizens be called Judeans, too? Or Zionists? 

Under the pressure around the declaration of independence, the name of “Israel” was chosen unenthusiastically, but nevertheless by the majority. They simply felt there wasn’t a better idea at the time. Some even said the name Israel sounded the best when used in different titles – People of Israel, Israeli government, Israeli Army, etc.

Jewish Quarter tiled sign in Israel

Why Does it Matter that They Chose the Name Israel?

The amazing part of this decision, made by secular men, was that it is the perfect name to reflect what God has been doing over the years. It tied in the family’s biblical history, the ancient connection to the land, their everlasting covenant with God, and their prophesied future! 

God was fulfilling His promises – up to that day, on that day, and ever since. The name Israel, given to Jacob almost 4000 years ago, covers it all. It connects the physical, spiritual, territorial, relational, emotional and covenantal components of who the people of Israel are. 

Israel’s Future According to the Bible 

Even while Israel was in exile in Assyria and Babylon, God had not forgotten their name, the name of their land, nor His promises to restore them both. God told Ezekiel (Ez 36:6) to prophesy, but not to the people – prophesy to the actual land of Israel! 

Through Ezekiel, God goes on to promise one of the most profound prophetic destinies we see in the Bible. It connects the future people and nation of Israel to their ancient physical land of Israel. 

God promised to the physical land, that although it was desolate and empty, when the people of Israel return, it will physically respond to Israeli sovereignty. It would return to life under its rightful God given ownership. 

But you, O mountains of Israel, you will put forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel; for they will soon come. ‘For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you will be cultivated and sown. ‘I will multiply men on you, all the house of Israel, all of it; and the cities will be inhabited and the waste places will be rebuilt. ‘I will multiply on you man and beast; and they will increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as you were formerly and will treat you better than at the first. Thus you will know that I am the LORD. ‘Yes, I will cause men — My people Israel — to walk on you and possess you, so that you will become their inheritance and never again bereave them of children.’ (Ezekiel 36:8-12)

The Name of Israel at Play Today

2600 years after God made this promise through Ezekiel, this exact thing happened in the most astonishing and amazing of ways. Israel was reestablished in 1948. The Jewish people are back in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

These verifiable facts alone are proof that God has not forgotten or replaced Israel. And it was my honor to visually document this foretold revival and reunion between the people and their land in my best selling then/now photo book, Israel Rising.

From the time that Jacob received new destiny after rolling in the dust with the unnamed Man/God in this land, God has had a clear plan. He has preserved Jacob’s descendants, He is restoring His promised land to them, and His promises in Scriptures are unfolding before our eyes.

Some nations call it a disaster. Others call it miraculous. God has had the same name for it all along: ISRAEL.

All Israel Will Be Saved: Free PDF Download

The New Testament says that all Israel will be saved. How is that possible and what certainty do we have that it will come to pass?


Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Doug Hershey
Doug Hershey shares from a perspective of historian and storyteller. He is the author of the best-selling book ISRAEL RISING. His new online video course, "10 Prophecies Fulfilled in Our Lifetime" connects bible prophecy with its fulfillments in Israel today. Doug is the founder of Ezra Adventures, a travel and education company, specializing in exclusive customized small group travel throughout Israel and the Middle East. For more info, go to DougHershey.co or keep up with Doug Hershey, Author on FB, IG and Youtube.
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