A New Name

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 20, 2002


Genesis 35:1-15 A new name for Jacob

Then God said to Jacob, "Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau."

So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had, and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem. Then they set out, and the terror of God fell upon the towns all around them so that no one pursued them.

Jacob and all the people with him came to Luz (that is, Bethel) in the land of Canaan. There he built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.

Now Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel. So it was named Allon Bacuth.

After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel." So he named him Israel.

And God said to him, "I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you." Then God went up from him at the place where he had talked with him.

Jacob set up a stone pillar at the place where God had talked with him, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.

Revelation 2:12-17 The letter to Pergamum

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:

These are the words of the one who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live--where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city--where Satan lives.

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To everyone who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give a white stone, and on the stone a new name will be written, known only to the one who receives it.

Arcana Coelestia #145 A new name

In the Bible, a name means the essence of a thing. Seeing something and calling it by name means recognizing its nature. . . . Being called by a new name means that a person's character will change.

Arcana Coelestia #2009.5 A new name

Being called by a new name means becoming another person. In other words, it means being created anew and reborn.


After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel." (Genesis 35:9, 10)

To everyone who overcomes, I will give . . . a white stone, and on the stone a new name will be written, known only to the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)

A new name. It has a certain appeal to it. Most of us have had our same old name for many, many years--ever since we were born, in fact. Of course, some of us--mostly those of the female persuasion--have changed our last names. And these days it has become fairly popular in some circles--again, mostly among women--to adopt a new first name as well. It is also a regular practice in certain cultures to be given a new name at the time adulthood is reached. And people who join certain religious and spiritual organizations are given new names to celebrate and symbolize the occasion.

Personally, I've never changed my name. Of course, I've been called a few names from time to time. But I have also, in my younger years, been given quite a few new names. Some of them stuck for a while. I'm talking about nicknames. I expect that most of us had various nicknames when we were younger. For some, it has become our regular name. Others are still called by a nickname among family members and close friends. And some nicknames have long since passed out of use, together with our younger years.

For me, the nickname that stuck the longest was "Hairy." That's spelled H-a-i-r-y. Those of you who have known me for a decade or more may not be surprised to hear that I was once called "Hairy." After all, I kept my long hair many years after it had gone out of style. In fact, two decades after the sixties were over, I still had that long, flowing mane.

But that's not why I got the nickname "Hairy." When I was a kid, half the young guys walking down the street had long hair. So long hair was nothing remarkable. In fact, I got the name one day in our neighborhood in Missouri when I was about seven or eight years old. I had just gotten the annual beginning-of-summer crew cut. As a joke, one of the teenage boys in the neighborhood greeted me with, "Hi, Hairy!" This made me so mad that I charged at him with fists flying--without, however, managing to inflict any damage. He and the other kids who were there thought this was so funny that they all started calling me "Hairy" just to get my goat. The name stuck, I got used to it, and it became my regular name among my brothers, sisters, and neighborhood friends for many years. Only later on, it was much more appropriate to my actual appearance!

So there's the story of my new name. But unless I grow my hair long again--or get a crew cut--you'll just have to stick with "Lee" for now.

The story is not entirely frivolous. Like the story of many nicknames, it illustrates something about the deeper meaning of names. A name, inwardly and spiritually speaking, represents the quality of the person or thing being named. In my case, the name "Hairy" was at first an ironic reference to my lack of hair, and later became appropriate to the large quantity of hair.

In the Bible, there are several stories of people receiving new names. Abram, of course, became Abraham when God renewed the covenant with him and predicted the miraculous birth of Isaac, who would inherit the covenant. At the same time, Abram's wife Sarai received the new name of Sarah (Genesis 17).

In our Old Testament story today, for the second time Abraham's grandson Jacob is given the new name of Israel. He had first gotten the name three chapters earlier, in the famous scene in which he wrestled with an angel--or with God, depending on how you read the story. As the story goes, the being Jacob wrestled with--who is identified only as "a man"--saw that he could not overpower Jacob, and said to him, "Let me go." Jacob, however, knowing that this was no ordinary mortal, insisted on receiving a blessing from him first. He was then given the new name "Israel," with this explanation: "You have struggled with God and with humans, and have prevailed" (Genesis 32:28). The name Israel can mean "he struggles with God." However, it can also mean that God struggles and prevails, which, I believe, goes to the deeper levels of meaning in the new name.

In fact, both Jacob's old name and his new one involve struggle. The name "Jacob" literally means "he grasps the heel." This was a reference to the way Jacob came out of his mother's womb, grasping the heel of his twin brother Esau, who was born just before him (Genesis 25:26). But "grasping the heel" is also a Hebrew idiom meaning one who deceives others, usurping their property and their position. Jacob was aptly named. In his young adult years he cheated both his brother Esau and his uncle Laban through shrewd dealing. He was a man who struggled for position in the world, not scrupling to climb on the heads of those who were not as sharp and ambitious as he was.

In fact, he sounds like a lot of people who make up our society today. In this materialistic world of ours, it is common for people to struggle for many years, even all their lives, for money, position, attractiveness, and pleasure. Television, radio, newspapers, and magazines--and now the Internet--are full of appeals to our desire for material possessions and power. And we spend billions each year in an attempt to satisfy these desires.

Our old name is "Jacob." When we are focused primarily on the things this world has to offer, our lives are a struggle. We grasp the heel of others, trying to use them to pull ourselves up to a higher position. We engage in the tricks of the trade--whatever our trade happens to be--in order to get ahead. And we feel a certain pleasure, however momentary, whenever we achieve one of our physical, material, or social goals. We are Jacob, climbing a ladder not to heaven, but to a higher position in this world. And this struggle can occupy our entire lifetime if we allow it to do so.

Yet eventually, we find that a life of seeking material possessions, pleasures, and power does not satisfy. We continually set new goals, assuring ourselves that when we achieve this one, we will finally be happy. And then, when we achieve it, our happiness quickly fades, like a flower that blooms and is gone. We may be stuck in this cycle for many years. Setting yet another goal, struggling to achieve it, and finding that we are no happier than we were before. It begins to feel more like a rat race than a challenge. Life gets old and stale.

When we finally begin to realize that the material goals we have set for ourselves will never satisfy, can never satisfy, this is when God is waiting for us, offering us a new and deeper struggle--and a new name to go along with it. This is when we can finally begin to struggle, not for the temporary pleasures of this world, which quickly fade and crumble into dust, but for the deeper joys of the spirit that God is continually offering to those who are willing to turn their lives inward and upward, and to put out the deeper effort needed to prevail in the higher struggle of life. This is when we are given the new name of Israel.

Though life is still a struggle--and will be, perhaps, for as long as we live on this earth--we are now struggling, not for the temporary and ultimately disappointing pleasures of this world, but for the eternal joys that come as we develop our deeper, and truly human, self--as we allow ourselves to be formed into an image and likeness of God.

Unlike the material goals that we reach, only to have them fall to pieces in our hands, each new goal achieved in our spiritual struggle brings us greater happiness and new joy that is not temporary, but stays with us day after day, week after week, and year after year. As we overcome the inner obstacles in our path, the result is a closer and deeper relationship with our loved ones, greater peace and harmony within ourselves as we make our way through the outer turbulence of life, and a growing sense of the abiding presence of the Lord God deep within, continually pouring new love, new insight, and new life into us.

As we feel this transformation taking place within us, we will realize the meaning of the new name that the Lord has bestowed upon us. Swedenborg expresses the nature of this new name, this deeper life, in Apocalypse Explained #148:

And on the stone a new name will be written, known only to the one who receives it means an experience of deeper life unknown to all but those who have felt it. This follows from the meaning of a name as the character of our experience. In this passage, it refers to what it is like to experience a deeper life, since it says, "a new name, known only to the one who receives it."

If we are not living a deeper life, we have no idea at all what this deeper life is all about. We are living a deeper life when we love the Lord; and we cannot love the Lord unless we recognize the divine nature in his humanity. Loving the Lord also means living according to his teachings. The deeper life is a spiritual life, which the angels of heaven have. But superficial life is a materialistic life, which is the kind of life everyone who is not in heaven has.

When we live according to the Lord's teachings, and recognize the divine nature in his humanity, our deeper mind is opened, and we become spiritual. But when we do not live in this way, and do not accept the Lord, we remain materialistic. The experience of deeper, spiritual life is unknown to us if we do not have heavenly love.

As long as we are in our "Jacob" phase, we have no idea of the greater adventures and deeper satisfactions that lie ahead of us when we are ready to give up purely material pursuits, and turn our lives toward the higher work to which God is calling us. We think that life would have no meaning if we weren't always seeking more money, more beauty, more physical pleasure, more power, more something. And yet, as necessary as the basics of physical life are to us while we are here on earth, our life truly begins only when we set our goals on higher things, and see material things for what they are: tools to achieve the greater work of God.

For those who have never ventured into the higher realm of love, truth, and spiritual beauty, all of these things will seem not only vague, but completely boring. But for those of us who have taken even the first steps into the new life that the Lord offers us, our old, material pursuits will never satisfy us again. Of course, we will still enjoy the pleasures of this world. But our true satisfaction will come from achievements that are measured not in money or position, but in new insights gained and put to work in our lives, and especially in love given and received. These will be our new goals. And every one that we achieve will bring us more fully into the joy and inner peace that the Lord gives us. This is the deeper, spiritual life unknown to those who remain focused on material goals.

Yet Swedenborg offers us another, even deeper thought in explaining the new name. He writes, "We are living a deeper life when we love the Lord; and we cannot love the Lord unless we recognize the divine nature in his humanity." The new, deeper, and more fulfilling relationships with the people around us are a wonderful gift that comes with the new name that the Lord gives us. However, we do not gain its deepest joys until we realize that the Lord our God is intensely, humanly, personally with us. Until we, as Christians, realize that the Lord Jesus Christ loves us--loves each one of us, loves me, loves you powerfully, fully, deeply, and intimately, we cannot know the full joy and peace of the spirit.

God is not some distant, detached being who created us and then left us alone. No, the Lord our God is with us here and now, ready to love us, to guide us, to give us an inner peace and joy that we cannot possibly conceive of until we open ourselves up to the Lord's presence within and around us. This, my friends, is a struggle supremely worth engaging in!

"To everyone who overcomes, I will give . . . a white stone, and on the stone a new name will be written, known only to the one who receives it."


Music: God Grant Us Peace
2002 Bruce De Boer
used with permission