When my wife got pregnant, we were debating what to call our new child. We threw around a lot of names. I was kind of thinking of Emily, but that kind of got tossed to the side when my cousin stole that name for her own daughter who was born several weeks before. (If you’re reading this Susan, I’m only joking). 🙂
Anyway, we settled on Yumi, which means “bearing fruit.” It comes from Galatians 5:22-23 which talks about the fruit of the Spirit, with our hope being that she would bear that kind of fruit in her life.
Names can be significant. They often reflect the hopes and dreams a parent has for their child. But sometimes they can have negative connotations too. That was the case for Jacob, and also his son Benjamin. Jacob’s name meant “Heel grasper” because when he and his twin brother Esau was born, he was holding on to Esau’s heel, trying to get a free ride out of his mother’s womb. But Jacob’s name also had the connotation of “deceiver.” And it reflected much of how Jacob’s life would turn out.
Benjamin was Jacob’s last son, and the younger of Rachel’s two sons. But she had a difficult childbirth, and minutes after her son was born, with her dying breath, she named him Ben-Oni, which meant “Son of my trouble.”
In both cases, Jacob’s and Ben-Oni’s names were changed. Jacob changed Ben-Oni’s name to “Benjamin” which meant “Son of my right hand.” Jacob refused to see Benjamin as the “son of my trouble,” even though his birth cost the life of Jacob’s beloved wife. Instead he saw his son as one who would always have a place of honor in the family. (To sit at a person’s right hand was considered to be in a place of honor).
God, on the other hand, changed Jacob’s name from “deceiver” to Israel. There are two actual meanings here. One is “He struggles with God.” And that is the meaning God assigns to it when he talked to Jacob in chapter 32. But here in chapter 35, it’s very possible that God’s assigning another meaning to the name. Israel can also mean, “Prince with God.” And it seems that this is the meaning God assigns here, as God blesses Israel and says, “From you, a nation and community of nations will come, and kings will be among your descendants.” (verse 11) This would also explain why God renames Jacob “Israel” twice.
So what does this mean for us? It means we that when we become Christians, we are no longer tied to our past, and more specifically, the mistakes of our past. We may have completely messed up our lives, but God doesn’t look to our past anymore. Instead, he only looks to our future and to what we can be.
And we are no longer bound by the way anyone, even our own parents feel, or have felt about us in the past. Some of us may have been named “stupid” or “worthless” by our parents or by the people around us. Some of us may have been named “a disappointment.” But when God looks at us, he says, “You are precious and honored in my sight.” (Isaiah 43:4). He loved us so much, that he sent his own Son as an exchange for us, that is, he sent Jesus to die on a cross to take the punishment for our sin.
So whatever your name may be, whatever names you have been given, whether you like your name or not, remember that God has a new name for you. A name that is no longer tied to your past, nor to the way people have looked at you in the past. He gives us a name that reflects the way he sees you and the future he has envisioned for you. As Jesus says in Revelation:
To him who overcomes…I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it. Revelation 2:17 (NIV)