Israelite, Hebrew or Jew?
the emergence of an Israelite state under Saul, we find the
land called "the land of Israel" (eg 1 Sam 13:19; 2Kings
5:2; 2 Chron 34:7; Ezek 7:2 etc). This should not be
understood to mean "the land called Israel", for in the Old
Testament period "Israel" was first and foremost the name of
a people. It therefore means "the land of [the people]
Israel". However, "Israel" also had a secondary and more
restricted meaning; it was sometimes used as a name for the
northern tribes (as distinct from Judah), and when the
kingdom divided after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12),
"Israel" became the name of the independent northern state.
The term "promised land" refers, of course, to God's promise
to give the land of Canaan to Abraham's descendants (Gen
13:14-15; 15:18-21; 17:8). The expression "the Holy Land"
has its origin in Zech 2:12, but did not become a common
designation for the land until the Middle Ages. The land is,
of course, no longer holy to the Jews alone, but also to
Christians and Muslims.
It may also be useful to mention the correct use of names
for the people to whom the land was given by God. If we
follow Biblical precedent, it is certainly correct to call
them "Hebrews" from Abraham onwards (see Gen 14:13). The
origin and scope of this name is very much debated among Old
Testament scholars, but the Old Testament itself implies
some connection with Eber, Abraham's ancestor (Gen 10:21-31;
11:14-26). "Israel" was the new name given by God to Jacob,
Abraham's grandson (Gen 32:28; 43:6, etc), and so the
descendants of Jacob are "Israelites" or, collectively,
"Israel". In Exo 3:18 and 5:1-3 "Hebrews" and "Israel"
appear to be used as synonymous terms (though if "Hebrews"
indicates the descendants of Eber, then Hebrews were,
strictly speaking, a much wider group than the tribes of
Israel). As already mentioned, "Israel" also has a secondary
and more specific meaning in the Old Testament, since it can
signify the northern tribes as distinct from Judah,
especially after the division of the kingdom.
Although the terms "Hebrew" and "Israelite" continued in use
into the New Testament period (eg Rom 9:4; 2 Cor 11:22; Phil
3:5), by then the term "Jew" was more commonly used. This
originally referred to a member of the southern tribe of
Judah (which is it's use in Jer 32:12; 34:9), but after the
Babylonian Exile it came to replace "Israelite" as the most
widely-used term for one of God's covenant people. This was
because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were in fact
members of the tribe of Judah, as the northern tribes
("Israel" in the narrow sense) had lost their identity after
the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. The exceptions were chiefly
members of the tribe of Benjamin (Ezra 1:5; Phil 3:5), which
had been linked with Judah since the division of the
kingdom. "Jew" and "Jewish" should not be used in the
generally accepted sense when speaking of the period before
"The Compact Handbook of Old Testament Life"
(Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1988)