Shakespeare’s Romeo asks, “What’s in a name?” and answers, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet are, of course, forbidden lovers, and only because of their family names. In the end, as we all know, their names do not smell as sweet as roses, but rather fill the air with the rotting stench of hatred and death.
A rose by any other name? It is a beautiful, romantic sentiment, but Shakespeare’s story reminds us of the enormous destructive and dehumanizing power of names.
“What’s in a name?” Perhaps Shakespeare’s Romeo should ask the biblical Jacob.
The name “Jacob” means “heel” (as in “he’s a heel,” and not just the heel of a foot, although, you might recall, that is a part of Jacob’s story too); it means “cheater,” “trickster.”
There is a lot in Jacob’s name. He is far from the most likable of our biblical heroes. He is, in fact, quite despicable.
Jacob ruthlessly tricks his old and senile father, Isaac.
He deviously took everything from his ever-so-slightly elder twin brother, Esau.
Eventually, after being deceived and hustled by his uncle-slash-double-father-in-law Laban for almost two decades, Jacob even managed to swindle him too.
By every measure, Jacob was a greedy, self-centered and unscrupulous liar, cheater and trickster. He was a heel to the Nth degree.
Romeo, oh Romeo – there is the depth of an ocean in a name.
At long last, Jacob has a day of reckoning with his past. He and his two wives (his cousins, the sisters Leah and Rachel), his concubines and his children finally leave his father-in-law Laban’s land behind and begin traveling toward a showdown with Esau.
Jacob is anxious and fears the justifiable wrath of his brother. So, he sends the family away, and that night, while all alone, a man (not Esau) comes upon Jacob. They start fighting.
Jacob’s hip gets knocked out of joint. As the man tries to get away, Jacob holds onto him, as he once held onto Esau’s heel coming out of the womb, and he demands a blessing from this stranger.
The stranger asks, “What’s your name?”
“Jacob!” he answers.
“No, not anymore,” says the man, who then renames him Israel, which means he wrestled with God and endured. The one named Cheater, Trickster, Heel is now named God-Grappler, Ruled by God.
The newly christened Israel in turn gives a name to where this wrestling match occurs because names mean something. He calls it “Peniel,” (which means God’s face) because he saw God face to face and lived to tell the story.
And so, Jacob becomes Israel, and he walks with a limp the rest of his life as a reminder to him and to everyone else that God now rules over him.
His 12 children and their offspring become known as the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the foundation of a new nation.
The renaming of “Jacob” to “Israel” reflects God’s redeeming work in this world.
Many historians and scholars are describing these present days in which we live as America’s “day of reckoning” with its past.
As a proverbial White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, I believe they are right. Our story certainly has parallels with Jacob’s, with our over four centuries of lying, stealing, deceiving and murdering to get whatever we wanted from whomever had what we wanted.
Consider the plentiful Indigenous peoples who lived throughout this land. Or, the Spanish-speakers who inhabited so much of that land west of the Mississippi River.
And, the Africans whom we kidnapped from their own lands, then bought, sold and beat without mercy, forcing them to do all the long, hard labor to build (for our benefit) the wealthiest nation on earth.
We then erected statues, designed flags and named places to remind ourselves and all others of our blasphemous belief that God created us superior to everyone else.
Today, those statues and flags are coming down. Places and buildings are getting new names.
I find great hope, for the living of these days, in the ancient Jacob-to-Israel story from Genesis.
As I am learning to listen to and live with my African American sisters and brothers; as I am encountering Christ in the Spanish-speaking women, men and children; and, as Christ is meeting me in the Indigenous peoples who are still here, this great story encourages and reassures me.
It reminds me of the words from the great hymn: “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
Cheater? Trickster? Heel? Not anymore. Ruled by God.
I suspect God is wrestling with us Jacobs of the world once again.
God is saving us, and everyone else, from our destructive sins of the past. God is creating something new yet again. God’s will continues working itself out on earth as it is in heaven.
And, because there is oh so very much in a name, God’s redeeming work is still often reflected in the renaming of people, places and things.
In the name of Christ, who is all and in all, may it be so.
Pastor of University Baptist Church in Starkville, Mississippi, and the author of five books, including A Rabbi & a Preacher Go to a Pride Parade.