Jacob is renamed Israel by God as explained in this passage:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”—Genesis 32:25-31 (NJPS)

I've always heard that Israel means "God struggles", but according to Wikipedia:

Commentators differ on the original literal meaning. Some say the name comes from the verb śarar ("to rule, be strong, have authority over"), thereby making the name mean "God rules" or "God judges". Other possible meanings include "the prince of God" (from the King James Version) or "El fights/struggles". "The Jewish Study Bible" of Oxford University Press says on page 68 "The scientific etymology of Israel is uncertain, a good guess being '[The God] El rules.'"

All of these possible meanings seem to work with the story to varying degrees. Strong's suggests another possibility that would put an ironic twist on the story: "God prevails". Jacob prevailed until the man he was wrestling with cheated (though I suppose there are no explicit rules against using miracles as wrestling moves). Then the man gives Jacob a name that will remind him that God will always prevail, yet he is also told that he (Jacob) struggled with God and prevailed.

In the original, would this be the sort of story where the meaning is purposely vague? The name Peniel is spelled out in detail, but the more central name in the story, Israel, can currently be interpreted several ways with slight nuances imparted to the narrative. Was this by design?

  • I ran across the Wikipedia entry while researching this answer. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 0:39
  • I get depressed when the question is the answer itself, because it becomes revealing that there is not further/much would/could I know about the subject other than what is already provided in the question.
    – Cynthia
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 10:33
  • In order to prevail, don't you have to struggle? I have a hard time believing that anything in the bible is vague -especially, purposely vague. In writing, vagueness is the mark of a wannabe, an amateur. It's also frowned upon in art. Specificity gives weight and meaning. There is nothing in nature that is vague so I can't see that YHWH gave vagueness to a name, especially to somebody like Jacob. I could be wrong, this is not my specialty, but it doesn't make sense to me. YHWH did struggle -throughout the scriptures- and in every single struggle, YHWH prevails. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 23:04
  • @JonEricson If you're interested i can show you that Elohim is God separated from his people because they don't understand him, and Israel is his people joined to God by the revelation. But I won't go to the effort since you generally hate that stuff lol Oh and the kingdom of heaven is teaching.. which brings them together ;)
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Dec 26, 2017 at 20:16
  • 1
    It is a folk etymology, same as with woman being called isha because of her having been allegedly taken from man, ish, earlier in the same book; in reality, the two terms are etymologically unrelated.
    – Lucian
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 12:25

2 Answers 2


The Hebrew word ישׂראל iysra’el; comes from two root words. The first is שׂרה sara,'to prevail' or have dominion. The second is אל ’el usually translated as God.

The idea is that the name reflects the wrestling that Jacob had with God. The only question before us is the 'prevailing' and 'wrestling unto prevail' God's over Jacob or Jacob's over God? Fortunately for us we need not guess as the scripture itself chooses:

Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28, ESV)

The only problem with this straight line approach of exegesis which would usually be congradulated is that the name is hard to accept as the notion of beating God seems against theology. However, I think there is a sense that all believers wrestle and prevail against God as explained here.

This is the view also held by Martin Luther on the subject:

But all men have sweated over the explanation of this word because it seems absurd that we are called lords and conquerors of God. And this is certainly true if we judge according to philosophy. But in the Spirit and in theology it is right and godly to say that God is conquered by us. (Luther, M. (1999). Luther's works, vol. 6: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 31-37 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) (Ge 32:28). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.)

  • 1
    @JonEricson - good pun on struggle. I think this was a fair comment so I put the horse before the cart and trimmed the cart down in size.
    – Mike
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 0:02

Quoting the answer above:

The Hebrew word ישׂראל iysra’el; comes from two root words. The first is שׂרה sara,'to prevail' or 'have dominion'. The second is אל ’el usually translated as God.


The problem isn't with the Hebrew, but with the English. What does 'striven with God' or 'have dominion with God' mean in English? In English it is ambiguous because with could mean along side of or against. Likewise שׂרה, often denoted 'strive' or 'have dominion' is also rather ambiguous in English.

Is it in Hebrew?

Less so.

How did one 'שׂרה' in Hebrew? A captain would exercise dominion over his soldiers, to marshal them, say to prepare them for battle. To bring them to order. Before he did this, they might be at ease scattered about camp, perhaps in their own tents; afterwards they'd be arrayed and ready and ordered. Yes, in some sense this was his will being exerted over others but it was a cooperative (along side of) effort.

The name ישׂראל iysra’el meaning to prevail with God, favored the sense of having dominion with him: meaning to 'rule with him' to help marshal the world. Doubt this?

Isa 49:6-7 - It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”


1 Peter 2:9 - But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

One more:

1 Cor 6:3 - Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!

In the new Covenant (Luke 10:17-20) Yehshua gave his followers his own authority and later said to them:

Matt 18:18 - Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Because all authority had been given to Yehshua (Matt 28:18) and his followers to be like him, authority had also been given to them.

ANSWER: No the name Israel was NOT intended to be ambiguous. It is in English, but it's meaning indicating that Israel was to assist YHWH in the reformation of the world is not ambiguous in Hebrew.

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