Most of the people of national Israel were not truly Israel.
In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God and prevails, and thus God changes his name to Israel. The nation that then blossomed from the sons of Jacob became known as “Israel,” and that is the name given to the national ethnic group of the Hebrews to this day. They were and are called the nation of Israel.
But most of the people of national, ethnic Israel were not truly Israel.
Why do I say that?
For the purposes of this article, I am not going to review the clear teaching of the apostle Paul in Romans 9-11, where he says, “They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel (Romans 9:6).” Reviewing Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 would conclusively answer the question, but we don’t have time for that now. Nor am I going to cover the myriad examples in the Old Testament where the passage or text uses the word “Israel,” but the context or the teaching of the passage cannot possibly support a reference to national, ethnic Israel. That study would also be conclusive, but again, we don’t have time for that study now.
So why do I say that most of the people of national, ethnic Israel are not truly Israel? Simply put, it is because they do not deserve the name.
In Genesis 32:24, we find a man sitting alone by the ford of the Jabbok. The man has come from a far country with wives and children and flocks and herds and possessions, but he has sent them all away from him and new the man is left utterly alone in the gathering gloom of the night. “And a man wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the day (Genesis 32:24).” When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he said to him, “What is your name?” “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (“he strives with God”), for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed (32:27-28).” The man whose name means “he cheats” had received a new name because he had wrestled with God and had prevailed. Jacob would not let the Man go unless He blessed him. Jacob was finally free of his cursed name. Although he now walked with a limp, Jacob could say that he had seen God face to face, and yet his life had been delivered (32:30-31).
My point is that Jacob was called “Israel” because he had striven with God. Israel means “he strives with God,” so the one who carries the name must also deserve the name. National, ethnic Israel had few who had figuratively wrestled with God all night.
True Israel is made up of those who, like Jacob, have had some point in their life when they have figuratively been left alone at the ford of the Jabbok. Everything else has been sent across the stream and the person is left alone to wrestle with God all night. Then, when the day has finally dawned, the person emerges, blessed by God with a new name, and limping on their thigh. This is what it means to carry the name “Israel.” In the Bible, the elect are often called Israel because they are those who have wrestled with God and prevailed. SDG rmb 12/02/2020