PEOPLE GET TICKED when we tag them with the wrong description.
“I am not a secretary. I am an administrative assistant to the president.”
They get ticked even when we’re right—when they are a secretary, by any sane definition. Yet they can also be an administrative assistant.
Both tags can mean the same thing.
Like Jews, Hebrews, and Israelites. Same thing, in general.
This is the Bible question of the week. It comes from Steve Grisetti, who wins a free book for bothering to email me the question. (You can win a free book, too, if I use your question in one of these Monday Q&A blogs.)
Here’s his question:
What’s the difference between Jews, Hebrews and Israelites? I know we tend to use those terms pretty interchangeably, when talking about God’s chosen people–but there must be a difference, right? Or is it like Christ and Messiah. It depends on what language you’re translating from.
All three words mean the same thing: people descended from Abraham, father of the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews.
The word choice isn’t a matter of language differences, as it is with “Christ,” the Greek word for the Hebrew “Messiah.”
It’s a matter of the moment in history. At least sometimes.
- Hebrews in the early centuries, after Abraham.
- Israelites when they had a country.
- Jews after they were exiled, a named plucked from the name of their nation: Judah. A person from Judah is a Ju. Let’s spell it Jew. Or spell it Jewdah. Either way, you get the idea.
Other times it doesn’t matter at all because the words can appear together and mean the same thing—like “American,” “Yankee,” “Yank.”
As the Bible tells it, the first person called a Hebrew was “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13).
Bible experts don’t know what the word means. The most popular guess is that the original Hebrew word ‘ibri comes from the root word ‘eber, a term that means “person who has crossed over.” As in, Abraham crossed over the Euphrates River to go to what is now Israel.
It’s just a guess.
What’s not a guess is that Abraham and his descendants were all called Hebrews during these early years:
“I was kidnapped from my homeland, the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15).
Folks started using this word to describe the kids of Jacob after God renamed him Israel:
“Your name will no longer be Jacob….From now on you will be called Israel,” (Genesis 32:28).
Jews gave that name to their nation: Israel.
After King Solomon’s nation of Israel split in two, Jews in the north took the name “Israel” for their kingdom, and they monopolized the tag “Israelites.” Jews in the south named their kingdom after the largest tribe there: Judah. The people became known as Judeans:
“Am I some Judean dog to be kicked around like this?” (2 Samuel 3:8).
After the last Jewish nation fell—Judah—the survivors deported to what is now Iraq got a nickname, just like American soldiers got called “Yanks.” Descendants of Abraham became Jews:
“The king should know that the Jews who came here to Jerusalem from Babylon are rebuilding this rebellious and evil city,” (Ezra 4:12).
In case you’re wondering how to irritate an editor of easy-reading Bible reference books, call Abe’s kids Jews all the time.
That’s what I do.
Editors want to call them Hebrews and Israelites, depending on the point in history that we’re talking about. But I push back, essentially saying, “Heck with that.”
What I presume when I’m writing is that my readers don’t know this history. But they do know about Jews. So they know that when I say the Jews (not the Hebrews) marched around Jericho, they know I’m talking about the ancestors of the race of people we today call Jews. I do not presume they know that Hebrews and Jews are the same race of people.
I don’t always win this battle with the editors. Sometimes there are bigger battles to fight, and I give them this particular victory.
But I don’t like it.
I like to start where I think my readers are. Not where someone else thinks they should be.
I’m a little picky that way.