Are Jacob and Israel the same person or the same nation? Why did God change his name?
A Kingdom Divided
It’s easy to get confused over names, especially when it comes to Jacob and Israel. Sometimes they are used interchangeably, but at other times, it is specific to a person or a nation, and even more specific to some tribes in Israel. I’ll explain that latter, but for now, we need to look at the nation of Israel after the time of King David and King Solomon. After King Solomon’s death, Rehoboam began to reign, but when he levied extremely heavy taxes on the nation, ten of the tribes of Israel rebelled and began their own nation. This nation was called the Northern Kingdom or Israel, and Israel’s first king was Jeroboam. This came after the revolt of the ten Israelite tribes who rebelled against Rehoboam. When the united monarchy came to an end, “Jeroboam the son of Nebat, an Ephraimite of Zeredah, a servant of Solomon, whose mother’s name was Zeruah, a widow, also lifted up his hand against the king” (1 Kings 15:26). Rehoboam became king over what was left of the nation after the departure of the Ten Tribes of Israel, but Judah was no weakling because it included the powerful Tribe of Judah, but also the Tribe of Benjamin, and the Levites, however, many of the Ten Tribes who still wanted to follow the Lord left the Northern Kingdom and joined with what is now known as Judah. This is where the name Jew came from. It referred to the Southern Kingdom or the nation of Judah.
Israel verses Judah
It’s hard to imagine that brother would fight against brother, and even to the point of blood, but that’s exactly what happened when Israel divided into two separate kingdoms. Scripture tells us that “there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life” (I Kings 15:6). In fact, this war continued for generations, and as a result, “there was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel all their days” (1 Kings 15:16). Even “Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and built Ramah, that he might permit no one to go out or come in to Asa king of Judah.” (1 Kings 15:17). The Northern Kingdom (Israel) intermarried, and as always happens, this led the nation into idolatry. It wouldn’t be long before they completely fall way from the laws and decrees of God. It would get so evil that would even sacrifice children in the fire (Jer 7:30-31)! When a person or nation gives itself up to sinful depravity, God gives them up to their own depravity (Rom 1:24), and their end is worse than their beginning. It wouldn’t be long before Israel would be taken captive by the Assyrians. What was left in Samaria, or in the Northern Kingdom, were a few Israelites who intermarried with other pagan people. These people of mixed races would come to be known as half-breeds…or the Samaritans. As a result, the Jews would forever despise the Samaritans, and this hatred still existed during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus once said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Matt 12:25), and even though He was referring the dark kingdom of Satan, the truth still stands. A house divided is bound to collapse, and collapse it did. Israel was the first to go, but when Judah later fell into Idolatry, they too went into captivity, but their captivity was to the Babylonians. The point of much of this is this: Jacob’s name would later be changed to Israel, so sometimes God refers to Jacob as the Tribes of Israel. The way we can tell the difference is to look at the context of the book and chapter.
Wrestling with God
When Jacob wrestled all night with a man…perhaps the pre-incarnate Christ, “the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him” (Gen 32:25). Of course the man could have easily pinned Jacob, but perhaps God wanted to see if Jacob was going to give up or persevere until he could go no longer. The latter happened, and as a result, God said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:28). Some translations state the Israel means “He strives with God,” or “He perseveres.” I wonder how many of us have struggled or wrestled with God? I know I have, but it was usually wrestling to have my will over God’s will, but as it happens, God’s will prevails. And so it was that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, but Jacob and Israel can sometimes refer to the same person…and sometimes to the nation of Israel, meaning all twelve tribes. Context is always the way to determine who or what nation or person is being referred to when God mentions Jacob in Scripture.
God has not given up on His people. Once again, He is gathering His chosen people, but only those who choose Christ will be entering the kingdom. Even today, few who live in the nation of Israel believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. They might think of Him as a wise teacher or good man, but they don’t yet accept the fact that Jesus is God, or He is their Messiah, but truly He is the “I AM” and the One Who will again gather His people. The time is coming when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14), but obviously, that time is not now, however it is inevitable. God Himself has said, that “as I live…all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD” (Num 14:21), and “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before [God]” (Psalm 22:27). That includes Israel or Jacob, and of course, us, and we shall all behold the glory of God.
Here is some related reading for you: What Are the Twelve Tribes of Israel? 
Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.