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By: David Deschesne

Editor/Publisher, Fort Fairfield Journal, February 11, 2009, p. 9

The name Israel in the Bible does not refer to the geographical land mass known as the State of Israel located in the Mid-East today. Instead, it refers to the patriarch Jacob and all of his descendants.

After Noah and his family got through the flood, one of his sons, Shem, went on to form the lineage that ultimately brought Abraham on the scene. The name “Shem” is the root word for “Semitic” referring to all people who were descended from Shem (the term “anti-Semite” was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, an anti-Jewish propagandist in Germany, to describe hatred of the Jews. The term is a misnomer, since it is used with reference to Jews only rather than all Semites, including Arabs.1)

Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. The birthright of land and power God conferred to Abraham remained with Isaac.2 Later, Isaac and his wife, Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was born first, with Jacob coming out grabbing onto his heel.3 The name “Jacob” loosely means “heel catcher” to signify his grabbing at the heel of Esau at birth.

After they grew up, Esau entered into an agreement to sell his birthright to his father’s land (since he was the first born) to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Jacob obliged and the ownership of the birthright changed to him.4

Jacob then moved to Haran and proceeded to have children with his wives, Leah and Rachel and their respective handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah. Amongst those four women Jacob had twelve children; Gad, Asher, Reuben, Dinah, Judah, Simeon, Issachai, Levi, Zebulin, Dan, Naphtali, Ben-oni, and Joseph. He later adopted Joseph’s two children, Ephraim and Manasseh as his own.

On his way back home after spending nearly 20 years in Haran, Jacob had an occasion to wrestle with an extremely powerful adversary on a riverbank. Jacob, alone at the ford of Jabbok, discovered that the antagonist with whom he had struggled all night was no man but an angel, who begged to be released at daybreak. Jacob insisted on his first receiving a blessing, and the angel renamed him Yisra’el (Israel) “for you have striven with beings Divine and human.” Later, Jacob’s twelve sons were known as Bené Yisra’el, the “Children of Israel,” or more simply, as Israelites. The Land of Canaan also became known as Erets Yisra’el, the Land of Israel.5

It has been said that the angel who changed Jacob’s name to Israel was either God or messengers from God. Genesis 32:28 says Jacob “power with God and of men, and hast prevailed” (KJV). However, God is translated from the generic Hebrew plural “Elohim” which more closely means “divine beings” or “gods” and only sometimes means God in the singular. The Hebrew Torah translates that verse as “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”6 Jacob's new name, Israel, means “He will rule as ‘God.”7

Israel’s (Jacob’s) 12 children then went on to have their own families and are referred to in the Bible as the “Twelve Tribes of Israel.”

There are over 2,500 mentions of Israel in the Old and New Testaments and every mention signifies either the man, Israel (formerly Jacob) or his entire lineage on down through the ages (the House of Israel).

Those who are descended from Israel’s son, Judah had their name shortened to “Jew.” However, Jews are not the only Biblical Israelites because their patriarch, Judah was only one of twelve sons of Israel. All members of Israel’s extended family are then called “Israelites” and it is those who are being referred to in the Bible by that term. Some public school history books refer to Abraham as an “Israelite,” but that is incorrect, because he was not descended from Israel. Rather, he was Jacob/Israel’s grandfather.

The “Land of Israel” also known as Canaan refers to the birthright promised land that all of Israel’s descendants inherited through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Whenever “Israel” is mentioned in the Bible, it is confusing to today’s generation who thinks it means the geographical land mass known as the State or Country of Israel.

The current State of Israel was created in May 1948 by decree of the British government and United Nations. On the eve of the establishment of the new Jewish State, there was much discussion as to what name it should receive. One obvious suggestion was “Judah,” but in the end it was decided to call it “Israel.”8

While a country called Israel does exist today, and is inhabited by some who have descended from the Israelite tribe of Judah (Jews), in the Biblical context one must consider all of those descended from Israel (Jacob), not just Jews, when reading the Biblical terms “Israel” and “Israelite.” Therefore, the Promised Land was not dedicated solely to the Jews alone (though they were granted the power to rule the kingdom until Shiloh comes9), but to all descendants of the man who was once called Israel.



1. The New Encyclopedia of Judaism, ©The Jerusalem Publishing House, Ltd. p. 67)

2. Gen. 26:1-5

3. Gen. 25:24-26

4. Gen. 25:29-34

5. New Encyclopedia of Judaism, p. 401

6 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ©1981 Union of American Hebrew Congregations, W. Gunther Plaut, editor, p. 218

7. Strong’s #3474

8. New Encyclopedia of Judaism, p. 401

9. Genesis 49:10