Israel – Jews – Hebrews: who are we?

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We, Jewish people, are part of a very old nation.

The identification of this nation changed throughout time.

  • We are the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
  • Our land is called Israel, but it was Canaan in the past and also Judah
  • Our language is Hebrew
  • We are known in the world as Jews

Why is our identity so confusing?

Let’s try to explain all those terms:

Hebrews

This is the most ancient term. It was referred to Abraham before Israel existed.

“Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre” (Genesis 14:13)

The term “Hebrew” appears many times throughout the Bible and even in the New Testament there is the “Letter to the Hebrews”.

Today, We do not call ourselves “Hebrews” very often, but our language is called Hebrew, which denotes that it is a very ancient.

Where did this name come from?

Hebrew is the tongue of Eber, who is the forefather of many nations including Israel.

To Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan. (Genesis 10:25)

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Israel

Israel is the name that was given to Jacob after struggling with a mysterious man in Peniel. The name means “struggle with God”. Peniel, by the way, means “face of God”.

And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)

The name Israel is mentioned many times in the Bible with reference to the people (Children of Israel, tribes of Israel), the kingdom of Israel and also to God of Israel.

Today this is the name of our state: State of Israel.

The land, before the children of Israel had conquered it, was called Canaan after the people who lived in it.

Judah

Judah is the name of a tribe in Israel. The tribe of the forth son of Jacob/Israel

The kingdom of Israel was divided in the time of Rehoboam, son of King Solomon into two kingdoms: Israel, that was the big kingdom in the north of the country, and had ten tribes, and Judah, that was in the south of the land, and was Judah only (with Simeon and some of the Levites).

Now it came to pass when all Israel heard that Jeroboam had come back, they sent for him and called him to the congregation, and made him king over all Israel. There was none who followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only. (I Kings 12:20)

From here on, Israel and Judah are two distinct Kingdoms.

But note this: although the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel were foes most of the time, people of the kingdom of Judah are also children of Israel. But northern kingdom of Israel does not have part in Judah.

Many prophecies refer to Israel and Judah together.

In His days Judah will be saved, And Israel will dwell safely; Now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Jeremiah 23:6)

In many places in the Bible, the people of the northern kingdom of Israel are also called “Ephraim“. This may be to differ from “Israel” which include both the people of Judah and the people of the northern Kingdom.

Ephraim shall not envy Judah, And Judah shall not harass Ephraim (Isaiah 11:13)

Jews

Jews and Jewish are terms used to describe the people who once belonged to Judah.

Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylon and people were sent to exile in the first half of the 6th century BC. From this time on, the term “Jews” became the most common reference for our people. The term “Israelites” was rarely used.

Are we all Jews from the tribe of Judah only?

we do not know for sure. Certainly, we have among us people that came from the levites, but also Benjamin, Simeon and maybe other tribes as well.

Modern state of Israel

When the state of the Jews was founded, there was a question of how to call it.

The major suggestions were “Judah” and “Israel”, but also “Zion” and “state of the Hebrews”.

The name Judah made sense, as we are all Jews, which means we refer to Judah.

But there was a problems with this name: if we called it “Judah” it would not include the rest of the tribes of Israel, who, according to the prophecies of the Bible, should also return to their land.

Therefore the name “Israel” was chosen.

There is hope in your future, says the Lord,
That your children shall come back to their own border (Jeremiah 31:17)

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Author: Ran Silberman

I am a tour guide in Israel with a passion for the Bible. For many years I work in the software industry as a software consultant. I blog in http://ransilberman.blog

5 thoughts on “Israel – Jews – Hebrews: who are we?”

  1. Thanks Ran — agree with the others – concise and simple overview – nice recap.

    In reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians this week, Chap 3 Verse 5, he describes himself “circumcised on the 8th day; of the nation of Israel; from the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of all Hebrews ….”
    (Benjamin, who you clarified in the past, probably assimilated into Judah along with Simeon & the Levites, yet, Paul still claims Benjamin as his forefather 600+ years later)

    Paul was so clear relative to his tribal heritage & he knew this fact unequivocally, despite 630 years since Benjamin was dissolved & Judah sent to exile..

    What struck me is that we can barely go back 2-400 years to view ancestral genealogy with modern information systems & search tools to obtain records, yet, Paul was able to cite lineage over 600 years in an era of handwritten history and societal destruction via the battles. Wonder how he retained this knowledge…. very cool

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