In the Torah portion for this week, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being. After gaining the upper hand in the encounter, Jacob is given the new name of Yisrael, which we are told, means “you have striven with God and men, and have prevailed.” (Gen. 32:29). This then, is the meaning of the name “Israel”. Or is it? (warning-gobs of rabbis who give sermons about Jews being holy God-Wrestlers are about to get ticked off at me)
Dr Israel Knohl, chair of the Bible Department at the HebrewUniversity in Jerusalem asks, “What kind of blessing is this? That you are going to struggle?!” He points out that grammatically the explanation does not make sense, either. El (God) is the subject, and not the object of the phrase. He points out that the root s.r.h. is well attested and means “to rule over”. Therefore, he translates the name Israel to mean “God (El) is our ruler”.
According to Knohl, this makes perfect sense, in light of the fact that the nation of Israel, which is attested in the earliest sources as existing as early as 1200 bce,(you will have to trust me on this) was founded as a nation without an earthly king. In other words, early Israel was an experiment in rule under God, rather than under a human sovereign. Knohl further argues that early Israel was both an egalitarian and democratic society that avoided social division by insisting that all citizens were ruled by God alone. Ain’t no class warfare in ancient Israel.
It makes perfect sense, therefore, that the name Israel means “God is our ruler.”