Category: What are the different names for the Israelites, and what do they mean?


The Hebrews are peoples descended from Abraham. The origin of the word Hebrew is thought to come from the proper name “Eber,” listed in Genesis 10:24 as the great-grandson of Shem and an ancestor of Abraham. Another etymology traces the original root word back to the phrase “from the other side”—in that case, Hebrew would be a word designating an “immigrant,” which Abraham certainly was (Genesis 12:1, 4–5).

From Shem, through Arpachshad and Shelah, came Eber, the eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews; and Eber’s descendant, through Peleg, Reu, Sereg, and Nahor, was Terah, the father of Abram and his brothers Nahor and Haran. It becomes clear that, if “Hebrews” are “descendants of Eber,” then others besides those of Abraham’s line could possibly be included (see Genesis 11:10–26).

Today, a “Hebrew” is usually thought of as any member of a group of ancient people who traced their lineage from Abraham though Isaac and Jacob. And that is how the Bible uses the term. In fact, Abraham is the first person called a “Hebrew” in the Bible (Genesis 14:13). After 400 years in Egypt, the Hebrews were recognizable as a distinct people group (Exodus 1:19). The Philistines in Canaan used the term “Hebrews” (2 Samuel 29:3); Jonah identified himself as “a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9); and, hundreds of years later, Paul was still using the same identification (Philippians 3:5).

Abraham’s grandson Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” (Genesis 35:10), so Jacob and his descendants could be called the first “Israelites.” Jacob’s fourth son was named “Judah,” and his descendants were called “Judahites” or “Judeans.” Later, the name “Judean” was shortened to “Jew.”

Technically, Jews are Israelite Hebrews from the region of Judea—they come from Abraham (a Hebrew) and Jacob (an Israelite), through Judah (a Jew); thus, strictly speaking, all Israelite Hebrews are not Jews. After Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms: in the Northern Kingdom were the “non-Jewish” Hebrew Israelites (descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through ten of his sons); and in the Southern Kingdom were the “Jewish” Hebrew Israelites (descendants of Jacob’s other two sons who lived in Judea). This represents a very narrow definition of terms, however. In common usage, Jews, Israelites, and Hebrews are all words referring to God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Israelites are the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel in Genesis 32:28. From then on, his sons and other descendants were called “sons of Israel” or “Israelites.”

Jacob (or Israel) had twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israelites. Most properly, any member of one of the tribes of Israel was called an “Israelite.” We see this usage of Israelite often in the Old Testament (e.g., Exodus 5:19; Leviticus 24:10; Nehemiah 9:2). The word Israelite is found several more times in the New Testament: Jesus calls Nathanael an “Israelite” in John 1:47, and Paul calls himself an “Israelite” in Romans 11:1.

The word Israelite is often used synonymously with the terms Hebrew and Jew. There are some technical differences separating these words, but, for the most part, such interchanging of terms is acceptable. We sometimes refer to the Israelites or Jews as “God’s chosen people.” This appellation is directly tied to the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3.

The Israelites were also the recipients of other covenants with God: the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19—24), the Palestinian (or Land) Covenant (Deuteronomy 29:1–29), the Davidic Covenant (1 Chronicles 17:11–14), and the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31, 33). The New Covenant was extended, by the grace of God, to include anyone—Jew and Gentile alike—who has faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 10:12).

In the New Testament, the word Israelite takes on another connotation that has to do with one’s spiritual condition. Jesus called Nathanael an Israelite “indeed” (John 1:47). Years later, Jesus met with Zacchaeus, who was an Israelite by birth, and said about him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). We combine this with Paul’s teaching that “those who have faith are children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7) to conclude that salvation is not based on physical lineage but on faith in the Messiah. There is a difference between an Israelite by birth (without faith) and an Israelite “indeed” (possessing the faith of Abraham). Nicodemus, an Israelite leader, had to be born again (John 3:3).

God promised to bless the Israelites as they kept the Law of Moses. Through the years, God has used the Israelites in amazing ways, as Paul summarizes, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4–5, ESV). God also promised that all mankind would be blessed through Abraham’s lineage (Genesis 12:3). Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this universal blessing.

The Jewish people are referred to by many different names in the Bible. They are called Israelites, Jews, Hebrews, children of Abraham, Daughter Zion, God’s chosen people, etc.

One of the most common names for the Jewish people in the Bible is “Israelites.” This title was used in the same sense that American citizens are referred to as “Americans.” The Israelites were citizens of Israel. However, the origin of the word Israel is found in connection with Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. After wrestling all night with an angel, Jacob was given the name “Israel,” meaning “one who wrestles with God.” Jacob’s descendants included 12 sons, who became the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel.

A second common name for the Jewish people is “Jews.” The word Jew comes from the term Judah, the leading tribe of Israel. A Jew was, literally, “one from the land of Judah,” although the word later came to be applied to any Israelite, regardless of the tribe to which he belonged. The first occurrence of the word Jew in the Old Testament is in Esther 2:5 where Mordecai is called “Mordecai the Jew.”

Another common name for the Jewish people is “Hebrews.” The first mention of a “Hebrew” in the Bible is Genesis 14:13 where Abraham is called “Abram the Hebrew.” Many believe “Hebrew” in this context is related to Eber, an ancestor of Abraham mentioned in Genesis 11:14–16. Regardless of the term’s meaning, its original connection is with Abraham as founder of the Jewish people.

The Jewish people are also referred to as “sons of Abraham” or “children of Abraham.” The apostle Paul addressed the Jews in Antioch using this term in Acts 13:26 (see also Romans 9:7). “Children of Abraham,” of course, highlights the relationship between Abraham and the Jewish people. Jesus and Paul both called upon Jews not only to be children of Abraham by birth, but to imitate the faith of Abraham (John 8:39–40; Romans 4).

“Daughter Zion” is found in many prophetic books and is a poetic reference to the nation of Israel. Often, the passages containing “Daughter Zion” or “daughter of Zion” deal with the redemption and salvation of the remnant of Israel, especially in the context of the coming of the Messiah (Zephaniah 3:14; Lamentations 4:22; Micah 4:8; Zechariah 9:9; Isaiah 52:2).

In the Old Testament, “God’s chosen people” is another name for the Israelites (1 Kings 3:8; Isaiah 47:6; 65:9). This term underscores the fact that the Jews have had a special purpose and calling, from the time of Abraham to the time of the Messiah, and they will again figure into God’s plan for the future. “You are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).

God promised a blessing to all the people of the world through the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3). Jesus Christ, of the tribe of Judah, was born in Bethlehem and resided in Nazareth of Galilee. In Him we have all been blessed.