The biblical stories of the patriarch Jacob preserve two accounts of his name change to Israel: Genesis 32:23-33 and Genesis 35:9-15. Unfortunately these two traditions do not agree on when and where this name change occurred, at Penuel before Jacob enters Canaan or at Bethel after he has entered Canaan. Both Penuel and Bethel were important northern towns and each one perhaps sought to traditionally align itself with stories about its founding patriarch Jacob.
The version in Genesis 32:23-33 is from the Elohist and is a continuation of the Elohist text in Genesis 31-32. It is the story of Jacob’s strange encounter with a “man-god” from whom he wrestles, physically, a blessing as he is returning to Canaan. “Your name won’t be called ‘Jacob’ anymore but ‘Israel,’ because you have struggled with god and with men and have prevailed” (32:29). Given E’s penchant for its use of El (e.g., Gen 33:20, 35:7) and given the names Penuel and Israel, the god with whom Jacob struggles is most likely to be associated with El. This version of the story also displays folklore themes, one of which is that of a troll or god guarding the passage of a river ford. This story’s origin probably lies in the archaic past and might have even existed in different forms to different cultures.
This account is additionally particular in its rendition of four etiological tales, that is the explanation of the origin of these four things: 1) the place’s name, Penuel, which means “face of El,”—”because I have seen god face-to-face and my life has been delivered”— 2) the explanation of the bizarre dietary custom of why the Hebrews do not eat the thigh muscle on the hip socket, 3) an explanation of the river ford, Jabbok, from Jacob, and 4) an explanation of why Jacob’s name was changed. This etiological tale most probably gets associated with Penuel in the northern Elohist tradition because of the city’s close relationship to Jeroboam I. It was initially the capital of the northern kingdom, until the founding of Shechem, which is Jacob’s next stop on his itinerary on his way to Bethel, another ancient cultic site associated with Jeroboam and the north.
The other version in Genesis 35:9-15 exhibits features belonging to the Priestly tradition and has been identified as such by textual critics. In this telling of the same story Jacob’s name change occurs at Bethel and during an encounter with, explicitly, El Shaddai. “Your name will not be called Jacob anymore, but rather Israel will be your name” (35:10). This Priestly version continues with its trademark characteristics. “And God said to him, ” I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a community of nations will be from you, and kings will come out from your hips. And the land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I’ll give it to you, and I’ll give the land to your seed after you” (35:11-12). In other words, this covenantal promise text was penned by the same author who wrote the other covenantal promise passages—all of which exhibit these same features (e.g., Gen 17:1-14, 28:1-5, 48:3-4; Ex 6:2-8). These are staple features of the Priestly writer.
In early posts (#24, #28, #40, etc.) it was suggested that the Priestly writer, writing centuries after the Elohist and Yahwist traditions were recorded down, and writing to and for an exilic community, was actually rewriting these earlier traditions to better suit the needs of the community for which he wrote and reshaping them to better aligned with his priestly guild’s theological agenda. In other words it is quite probable that the Priestly writer rewrote this older Elohist tale in order to: 1) suppress the archaic folklore theme of Jacob wrestling with a man-god who lived under a river ford, 2) link his name change to the specific event of receiving the Abrahamic covenantal promise, and 3) highlight the cultic center of Bethel, which lies inside the borders of Canaan.
This Priestly composition once existed independent of these earlier traditions and most likely sought to rewrite and replace them. However, due to an even later editorial endeavor to safeguard all of Israel’s traditions, this Priestly text was inserted piecemeal into the JE compilation and as such has left behind this and numerous other contradictions.