Hebrews, Israelites, Jews

Written by Frank Jamerson.

The three words in the title are used in referring to the same people. We will notice the meaning of each description.

The term Hebrew is applied to Abram in Genesis 14:13. The etymology of the word is disputed. Some authorities think it originated with Eber (Gen. 10:21,24,25), others think the root meaning is “to cross over.” The latter idea may have been applied to Abram because he “passed over” from the other side of the river Euphrates. Whatever the reason, the descendants of Abraham became known as Hebrews (Gen. 39:14,17; 40:15; 41:12; 43:32).

The word Israel appears first in Genesis 32:28. After Jacob wrestled with the angel, his name was changed to Israel, which means “a prince of God,” or “ruling with God.” The name Israelite appears first in Exodus 9:7, when the plague that killed the cattle of the Egyptians did not kill the cattle of the Israelites. The name simply indicates that they were descendants of Israel, or Jacob.

The word Jew is said to have denoted “originally an inhabitant of Judah...but later the meaning was extended to embrace all descendants of Abraham…’Jews’ (always plural) is the familiar term for Israelites in the Gospels (esp. in Jn.)…” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). It appears first in 2 Kings 16:6 (KJV), where Resin, king of Syria “drove the Jews from Elath.” W.E. Vine says the name was first tribal -  to distinguish the Southern two tribes from the Northern ten, but after the captivity “was chiefly used to distinguish the race from Gentiles.”

One author suggested the following distinctions between the names. Hebrew, “the oldest of the three connotes the Israelitish or Jewish people of the distant past in respect to their race rather than their religion. We speak properly of the Hebrew race, the Hebrew language, Hebrew history and Hebrew literature. Israelite connotes the Hebrews as an organized political, religious and social group or nation. Jew is a popular substitute for both the others but places more emphasis on religion...The religious emphasis of Jew is illustrated by the fact that we hear of Gentiles becoming Jews, but not Israelites or Hebrews” (A Book About The Bible, by George Simpson, p. 248).

In the book of Romans, Paul said the Jew had the advantage of having been given the oracles of God (3:1,2). Here the term obviously applies to all the children of Israel who were brought out of Egypt. Later in the same book, Paul said his “kinsmen in the flesh” were “Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises” (9:3,4). The Gentiles were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). They were not partakers of the promises God made to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), nor partakers of “the Book of the Covenant” that Moses dedicated with the blood of animals (Ex. 24:7,8; Heb. 9:19). Paul said the bondwoman (Hagar) and the freewoman (Sarah) “are two covenants” (Gal. 4:24-26). Gentiles did not have the law (Rom. 2:14), but under Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28). Those who are “of faith are sons of Abraham (Gal. 3:6), and heirs of the promise that God made to bless all nations in the seed of Abraham   (Gal. 3:26-29).

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