Israel – Jews – Hebrews: who are we?

Mount of olives.png

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:


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)



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 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 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)


The first Martyrs



In the book of Judges, Gideon is called to defeat the Midianites. His army is too big for that, so he is told to send many soldiers home:

And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel claim glory for itself against Me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and afraid, let him turn and depart at once from Mount Gilead.’” And twenty-two thousand of the people returned, and ten thousand remained. (Judges 7, 2-3)

This event happened near the spring of Harod, in the Jezreel valey. This place is more than 25 KM (15 miles) from Mount Gilead.

But the origin in Hebrew says something a little different. It is said to the people that are afraid to ‘go and watch from Mount Gilead’. In Hebrew the verb is “Yitzpor” (יִצְפֹּר) which means to ‘watch as a bird’.

So the people that were afraid were instructed to watch the battle from the mountain. Going 15 miles away may be too far to watch.

Moreover, Mount Gilead is where the Midianites came from. It does not make sense to send the people that are afraid out of their land to the land of the enemy.

How can we explain this?

The Hebrew meaning of Gilead

The Hebrew language in the Biblical times did not have vowel points. The vowel points were introduced into Hebrew only during the middle ages.

So if we take the Hebrew word ‘גלעד’ – Gil’ad, we can also pronounce it Gal’ed.

Both of those appear in the Bible with different meanings: Gil’ad is the name of the mountain ridge east to the Jordan river, whereas Gal’ed means a heap of stones.

Up on mount Gilboa – this is the mountain beneath which Spring of Harod flows – up on the mountain was found an ancient heap of stones – Gal’ed. Can this be the place where the people who were afraid were sent to watch? It is quite probable…



Another heap of stones

The word Gal’ed means a heap of stones, but literally it means a “heap of stones as witness”. ‘Gal’ is a heap of stones, ‘Ed’ is a witness.

This word is used in the bible when Jacob and Laban set a covenant:

44 “Now therefore, come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me”. 45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46 Then Jacob said to his brethren, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there on the heap. 47 Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha, but Jacob called it Gal’ed48 And Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore its name was called Gal’ed, 49 also Mizpah, because he said, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from another. (Genesis 31, 44-49)

Let’s read these verses carefully:

Laban and Jacob want to make a covenant. They need to make some physical witness for their covenant. What do they do?

  1. So first they put a pillar from a stone.
  2. Then they gather stones and build a heap of them
  3. Then they eat on the heap.
  4. Laban calls the heap: “Jegar Sahadutha” and Jacob calls it: “Gal’ed“.
  5. They proclaim that the heap is a witness between them
  6. They give it another name “Mizpah“, which means a point of watching.

One interesting point here is that the heap of stones is used as a witness for covenant, but also a place for watching. This is very much like our story with Gideon: The people that were afraid were sent to the place of watching which is also the witness heap of stones.



What is Jegar Sahadutha ?

Laban and Jacob call the heap the same name but each in his language. Jacob use Hebrew, therefore he calls it Gal’ed. Laban is Aramaic, and uses the Aramaic Language. Jegar Sahadutha in Aramaic is the same as Gal’ed in Hebrew: Jegar: heap of stones, Sahadutha – witness.

The Aramaic Language is very close to the Hebrew Language. Some parts in the Bible are written in Aramaic (chapters in Daniel and Ezra) and for the Hebrew reader are not very difficult to understand. Those two languages are Semitic languages.

Arabic is also a Semitic Language, but in a way not as close to Aramaic as Hebrew.

Still here, we find a word that is common to Aramaic and Arabic but not to Hebrew:

The word is ‘Sahaduta.

In Islam, the Arabic word Shahada is the testimony of a believer in his belief, that is said by each Muslim every day. From it was derived the word ‘Shahid‘ which means a person that manifests his belief. Today, Shahid means a person that kills himself with heretics to manifest his belief, but this is not the original meaning.

This concept is probably taken from Christianity, where the term Martyr, a Greek word that means the same thing, was used by the first christian believers much before Islam was founded.



We saw here that the physical witness  – a heap of stones – was very important in the ancient Biblical times.

The Arabic word Shahid, is close to the word Sahadutha from the Bible and has the same meaning: Witness. The concept of Shahid was not invented by Islam but existed in early Christianity as Martyr.

Many ideas that we see in Islam, were originated from the Bible and from Christianity,  But Islam gave them some twist.