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.