Becoming Israel: Learning How to Prevail with God Through Covenants
By Steve Densley
The stories we find in Genesis 28-33 are rich with covenant imagery, from Isaac’s blessing that Jacob would receive the promises of the Abrahamic covenant in the first verses of chapter 28, to Jacob’s building of an altar in the last verse of chapter 33. In between, we find the dramatic stories of Jacob’s vision of the ladder to heaven and Jacob’s wrestle with God, both episodes that remind us of the temple.
As Jacob dreamed, in chapter 28, he saw a ladder, reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, perhaps delivering God’s messages to the men and women of the world and returning to report on their activities. Jacob also saw God, who renewed with him the covenant of his father and grandfather. As he awoke, he recognized that a place where such covenants are made is holy and said, “this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17). He then gave the place the name Beth-el, which means, “house of God.” (Gen. 28:19). In this house of God, Jacob received the blessings of Abraham and his father Isaac and was told, “the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 28:13-14).
Marion G. Romney taught us that “Jacob realized that the covenants he made with the Lord there were the rungs on the ladder that he himself would have to climb in order to obtain the promised blessings—blessings that would entitle him to enter heaven and associate with the Lord.” (Marion G. Romney, Temples—The Gates to Heaven, Ensign, March 1971.) Because of their faithfulness to their covenants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods” (D&C 132:37).
So it is with us. As we enter into covenants with God, we have set before us a ladder, more commonly referred to today as a covenant path, with instructions to guide us along the way so that we too may enter the gate of heaven and sit down upon thrones with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. With each covenant we make, we are taught what we need to do to become more Christlike. For example, we promise that we are willing to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, to always remember Him and keep his commandments. If we are faithful to these covenants, we are promised that we can always have God’s spirit to be with us. Similarly, Jacob was told by God, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest” (Gen. 28:15). It is also significant to note that the blessings of the covenant were not for Jacob alone. Rather, Jacob was told that “in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 28:14).
Like some of us when we were first baptized, Jacob strikes us as inexperienced and somewhat noncommittal at this point in his life. Like a child who has been attending sacrament meetings since birth, but did not recognize the presence of God’s spirit in the meeting, Jacob awakes from his dream with the realization that “the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.” Rather than unequivocally committing himself to God in that instant, he strikes a bargain with God and says,
If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee. (Gen. 28:20-22.)
We may sometimes feel as Jacob and want to see some tangible blessings before fully committing ourselves: “If I have enough food to eat and clothes to wear, then I will pay my tithing.” At this point in his life, although promised great blessings, Jacob seems to lack confidence that God’s blessings will come to fruition. In fact, his mother had earlier been promised that his older brother, Esau, would serve him, yet he and his mother tried to take matters into their own hands when first, Jacob tried to buy the birthright from Esau, and later when he and his mother sought to obtain a blessing from Isaac through deception.
With time and experience, we are able to participate in additional ordinances and enter into more covenants with God such as covenants to obey, to sacrifice, and to consecrate. With additional covenants come additional instructions and greater blessings.
Jacob, too, sought another blessing later in his life. By this time, rather than seeking to take the place of his brother, he sought to reconcile with him. In this state of humility, he was visited by a representative of the Lord. He engaged in a struggle with the man that was physical and painful, resulting in an injury to Jacob’s hip. While this struggle was described as wrestling, there seems to have been a spiritual component to it as well. In fact, it has been observed that this “wrestle” could as easily be described as an “embrace.” (Matthew Bowen, “‘And There Wrestled a Man with Him’ (Genesis 32:24): Enos’s Adaptations of the Onomastic Wordplay of Genesis,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 10 (2014): 156.)
After physically engaging with this emissary of God through the night, the man asks to leave. While earlier, Jacob expressed skepticism regarding whether God would bless him, and only a conditional willingness to sacrifice, he was now desperate to receive God’s blessing and willing to risk his physical safety to obtain it. He exclaimed, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Gen. 32:26).
As he stood, locked in an embrace with God’s representative, he was asked, “What is thy name?” After answering, “Jacob,” he was given a new name: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:28 NRSV). Jacob then received his blessing.
Jacob limped away but was grateful to have received his blessing. The extent to which Jacob was willing to sacrifice is indicated in his words as he left the place of his struggle. “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Gen. 32:30). In other words, although Jacob feared for his life, he persevered with God and, in some sense, entered into His presence.
The name “Israel” can be translated in a variety of ways. As the footnote to verse 28 of the Latter-day Saint version of the scriptures indicates, it can mean “He perseveres (with) God; it may also mean, Let God prevail.” The concept here is that our encounters with God involve persevering, striving, wrestling, and a struggle with the end of prevailing. It seems that the word can be understood alternatively to mean that we can prevail as we strive with God, or that God prevails as He strives with us.
Jacob’s encounter with God, as he limped away, grateful to have survived, reminds me of Lucy’s question to Mr. Beaver in the Chronicles of Narnia when she asked of Aslan the Lion, who was a symbol of Christ: “Is he safe?” Mr. Beaver answered, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
As we strive to keep our covenants, as we endeavor to see God face to face upon our return to His presence, we may at times feel as though we have been injured and, like Jacob, lucky to have escaped with our lives. But as we wrestle, struggle, and persevere in seeking God, we would do well to remember the words of Cecil B. DeMille, director of the movie The Ten Commandments. “We cannot break the Ten Commandments. We can only break ourselves against them.” (Cecil B. DeMille, “Commencement Address” [Brigham Young University, May 31, 1957], 5; speeches.byu.edu.)
President Russell M. Nelson has said, “Being of Israel is not for the faint of heart. To receive all the blessings that God has in store for Abraham’s seed, we can each expect to be given our own unique ‘Abrahamic test.’ God will test us, as the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, by wrenching our very heartstrings.” (Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” General Conference, October, 2020: n. 18.) Regarding letting God prevail, President Nelson continued:
Are you willing to let God prevail in your life? Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life? Will you allow His words, His commandments, and His covenants to influence what you do each day? Will you allow His voice to take priority over any other? Are you willing to let whatever He needs you to do take precedence over every other ambition? Are you willing to have your will swallowed up in His?
Now, how does the Lord feel about people who will let God prevail? Nephi summed it up well: “[The Lord] loveth those who will have him to be their God. Behold, he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remember[s] the covenants which he [has] made.”
As we covenant that we are willing to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, the commandments we have been given, and the covenants we have made, are intended to bless us, help us, and instruct us in our struggle as we progress toward becoming more like Christ. As we are faithful to our covenants, and let God prevail, we will also prevail with God.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
 Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, wrote that Jacob’s adversary “etymologizes the name Yisra el, Israel, as ‘he strives with God.” In fact, names with the el ending generally make God the subject, not the object, of the verb in the name. This particular verb, sarah, is a rare one, and there is some question about its meaning. though an educated guess about the original sense of the name would be: ‘God will rule,” or perhaps, ‘God will prevail.”” (Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Volume 1: The Five Books of Moses (Torah) (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), 122 n. 29.)
Steve Densley, Jr. is a Utah attorney (J.D., Brigham Young University). He graduated with University Honors from BYU with a combined B.A./M.A. in public policy and political science. As an undergraduate, he was an assistant editor on the Pi Sigma Alpha Review. In law school, he was a member of the Law Review and the National Moot Court team. He has published articles in the Utah Bar Journal, the Journal of Law and Family Studies, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, and Meridian Magazine. He has been recognized in SuperLawyers Magazine as one of the Mountain States Rising Stars and has been listed numerous times in Utah Business Magazine as among the Utah Legal Elite. He is the Executive Vice President of The Interpreter Foundation. He was the Executive Vice President of FAIR from 2013-15, recipient of the John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award, and was a producer of FAIR’s podcast when it twice won the People’s Choice Award for Best Podcast in the Religion & Spirituality category. He is also an award-winning photographer and a certified travel agent. He served a Hmong-speaking mission in the California Sacramento Mission. He and his wife Heather are the parents of four children and have one granddaughter.