The use of the word Israel is complicated in the Hebrew Bible because its meaning varies throughout the unfolding story that this collection of texts narrates. This post will briefly consider four key meanings of the term Israel. The next post returns to some specific issues mentioned in this post in a little more detail.
Jacob become Israel
The word Israel is first encountered in the biblical narrative when Jacob is renamed Israel in Genesis 32:28. In this story it is Yahweh, in the form of a sparring partner who does the renaming—the name Israel is thought to mean ‘he struggles with God’. Jacob is the father of many sons, who the book of Genesis explains are the founders of the tribes of Israel. We meet Jacob’s fourth son Judah in the next post. For now we note that it seems apposite that Jacob as Israel is the father of the tribes of the people of Israel.
The Tribes of Israel
During the first three of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges and Samuel) the tribes of Israel emerge from a forty-year wandering in the desert to conqueror the Promised Land. Their leader Joshua heads up this conquest—an event which raises difficult questions because of the genocidal activities described. The book of Judges deals with ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of the events which surround the tribes of Israel. In this context, Israel refers to the collection of tribes. It means something closer to a people than a geographical nation. These people are also fragmented. This is clear in the stories which unfold in the book of Judges: the various episodes tend to be local, concerning a single tribe and are not in chronological. Some editorial is at work, as an effort has been made to be selective, so as to ensure that each tribe gets a mention. The events of the Book of Samuel move the story into a new phase as the people press God to have a king like the other nations (see I Samuel 8:5). It is here we see the move from Israel meaning ‘a people’ to ‘a nation’. This meaning takes a new turn further on in the story after God permits them to have a king.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel
Under the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon we see a period known as the united monarchy. This state of affairs was unfortunately short lived, lasting only 75 years. The death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) provided enough of a power vacuum for the relatively newly formed nation of Israel to become two nations. This is where matters become confusing in that the Northern Kingdom becomes known as Israel whilst the Southern Kingdom was known as Judah. It is in this time that the term Israel took on the very specific meaning of a nation, but no longer the nation of all of God’s people.
The people of Israel
This new state of affairs was also only temporary although it lasted rather longer than 75 years. Both of the new nations were to suffer military defeat and exile as we saw some posts ago. The Northern Kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 BCE when Samaria, its capital city, was destroyed by the Assyrians. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, suffered a similar fate in 586 BCE. After the restoration of the nation (as people returned from exile), the Hebrew Bible uses the term Israel in a new way. The words Israel and Judah are now both used. The word Israel tends to refer to the people of Judah and the word Judah refers to what is a province within wider empires.