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John Bimson

Israelite, Hebrew or Jew?

"From the emergence of an Israelite state under Saul, we find the land called "the land of Israel" (eg 1 Sam 13:19; 2Kings 5:2; 2 Chron 34:7; Ezek 7:2 etc). This should not be understood to mean "the land called Israel", for in the Old Testament period "Israel" was first and foremost the name of a people. It therefore means "the land of [the people] Israel". However, "Israel" also had a secondary and more restricted meaning; it was sometimes used as a name for the northern tribes (as distinct from Judah), and when the kingdom divided after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12), "Israel" became the name of the independent northern state.

The term "promised land" refers, of course, to God's promise to give the land of Canaan to Abraham's descendants (Gen 13:14-15; 15:18-21; 17:8). The expression "the Holy Land" has its origin in Zech 2:12, but did not become a common designation for the land until the Middle Ages. The land is, of course, no longer holy to the Jews alone, but also to Christians and Muslims.

It may also be useful to mention the correct use of names for the people to whom the land was given by God. If we follow Biblical precedent, it is certainly correct to call them "Hebrews" from Abraham onwards (see Gen 14:13). The origin and scope of this name is very much debated among Old Testament scholars, but the Old Testament itself implies some connection with Eber, Abraham's ancestor (Gen 10:21-31; 11:14-26). "Israel" was the new name given by God to Jacob, Abraham's grandson (Gen 32:28; 43:6, etc), and so the descendants of Jacob are "Israelites" or, collectively, "Israel". In Exo 3:18 and 5:1-3 "Hebrews" and "Israel" appear to be used as synonymous terms (though if "Hebrews" indicates the descendants of Eber, then Hebrews were, strictly speaking, a much wider group than the tribes of Israel). As already mentioned, "Israel" also has a secondary and more specific meaning in the Old Testament, since it can signify the northern tribes as distinct from Judah, especially after the division of the kingdom.

Although the terms "Hebrew" and "Israelite" continued in use into the New Testament period (eg Rom 9:4; 2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5), by then the term "Jew" was more commonly used. This originally referred to a member of the southern tribe of Judah (which is it's use in Jer 32:12; 34:9), but after the Babylonian Exile it came to replace "Israelite" as the most widely-used term for one of God's covenant people. This was because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were in fact members of the tribe of Judah, as the northern tribes ("Israel" in the narrow sense) had lost their identity after the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. The exceptions were chiefly members of the tribe of Benjamin (Ezra 1:5; Phil 3:5), which had been linked with Judah since the division of the kingdom. "Jew" and "Jewish" should not be used in the generally accepted sense when speaking of the period before the Exile."

John Bimson "The Compact Handbook of Old Testament Life" (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1988) pp. 7-8