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.
Very nice answer, Steve! Thanks for clearing that up!
Stephen M. Miller
You’re welcome, Steve. The research I did for that post was helpful to me, too. I needed the refresher course.
it seems as if some writers are set to mis- educate. Here is the facts. Isaac had two sons. Esau and jacob. Esau is the father of edom. jacob is the father of the Hebrew Israelite. the hebrew language it has no J word or j sound. so how did the word jews came about? remember this; the letter J was not invented until the 16th century. Hebrew israelite is an etnic term. jews is a name taken on by those who took on to themselves the relegion called judiasm. any one can change or adopt themselves into any relegion. but they cannot change there ethnicity.!!!
Stephen M. Miller
I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. It sounds as though you want to take the “J” out of “Jews,” as though it’s not authentic to call the Jewish people “Jews.” If so, you’d probably need to take the “J” out of Jerusalem, Judea, and jeepers.
You mean to say that the ten lost tribes of Israel are not the United States and Great Britain? And that Bible Prophecy deals with the house of Israel and not the Jews? LOL This truth is stranger than fiction (because it is!) I was hoping you would slay that Dragon…
Stephen M. Miller
Hi, Wayne. It sounds like you have been getting into some pretty far out prophecy stuff. Outside my range of expertise, if I have any expertise. Clarify for me what Dragon you mean.
It’s called “British Israelism” and it was made popular by Herbert W. Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God.
Stephen M. Miller
I remember him well. He knew how to draw an audience. Might it be that he was one of those people who talk a lot about what little they know?
Ancient Indigenous Warrior
Stephen M. Miller
Thanks Ben. It looks like you’re a reader. I’m glad.
Pretty nice analysis. I also feel that beyond the historical aspect, there is the character of the identity.
‘Hebrews’ describes the nature of Abrahamites as a clan. As you say, Abraham’s appellation as ‘the Ivri’ denotes either or both his origins as having crossed the river (Euphrates) or his contrarian philosophical and spiritual outlook. Arguably, Ishmael and Esau were Hebrews until they married foreign women and founded their own independent clans. There is some technical discussion about who Jacob’s sons married and how they retained their identity.
Israel became a nation under law at Sinai, a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation (‘goy kadosh’, for those who profess offense at the term). An Israelite is a citizen of corporate Israel, and the term citizen (‘ezrach’) is a Biblical one, and many Biblical laws applies to a society under jurisdiction of those laws, in contrast with Islam. For example it would be religiously illegal for a Jew to shoot people in a gay club in Orlando, regardless of his understanding of God’s opinion on the matter. The nation/land/state/god was the holistic unit of the day, as seen in Judges 11, the story of Jephthah and his message to the Ammonites (‘Go complain to your god Chemosh, not us’).
‘Jews’ are the most constant and identifiable remnant of the Israelites and have become a generic term, since other Israelites from [the ‘lost tribes’ in] Africa, India, South America and other places have begun to surface. For example we call them ‘Ethiopian Jews’ although they seem to derive from the state and branch of Dan. As you stated, the term Jew meant a citizen of the lower kingdom of Judea, as is plainly seen as applied to Mordechai in the Book of Esther, who was personally a Benjamanite.
Wikipedia has it that the word Jew appears in the O.T. 74 times and Jews a couple more. I am surprised; I knew there were at least a few. When I Googled for this I discovered that there are many crackpot anti-semitic sources that strenuously try to distance and invalidate the Jewish people by alleging that Jews have nothing to do with Judah or Judea but there are mistranslations and misunderstandings etc. Oh well, so what else is new.