The word "Israelite" derives from the Biblical Hebrew ישראל (Standard: Yisraʾel; Tiberian: Yiśrāʾēl). The Hebrew Bible etymologizes the name as from yisra "to prevail over", and el, "God, the divine". The ethnonym is attested as early as the 13th century BC in an Egyptian inscription. The eponymous biblical patriarch of the Israelites is Jacob, who was given the additional name "Israel" after wrestling with an angel. Jacob demands a blessing from the angel which he eventually receives, hence "prevailing over the divine." (Genesis 32:28-30)
The biblical term "Israelites" (or the Twelve Tribes or Children of Israel) means both a people, the descendants of the patriarch Jacob/Israel, and the historical population of the kingdom of Israel, or a follower of the God of Israel and Mosaic law. In Modern Hebrew usage, an Israelite is, broadly speaking, a lay member of the Jewish faith, as opposed to the priestly orders of Kohenim and Levites.
The name Hebrews is sometimes used synonymously with "Israelites". For the post-exilic period, beginning in the 5th century BCE, the remnants of the Israelites came to be referred to as Jews, named for the kingdom of Judah. This change is explicit in the Book of Esther (4th century BCE). It replaced the title children of Israel.
Israel was the name given to the biblical patriarch Jacob after wrestling with an angel on the shores of the Jabbok, prior to a meeting with his brother Esau. Jacob had an intense rivalry with Esau, and this confrontation with the angel bears special significance in the story of the Israelites. Throughout the rest of the Torah, Jacob is referred to at times as both Jacob and Israel, depending on which aspect of his character the text means to convey.
In modern Hebrew, B'nei Yisrael ("Children of Israel") can denote the Jewish people at any time in history; it is typically used to emphasize Jewish religious identity. From the period of the Mishna (but probably used before that period) the term Yisrael ("an Israel") acquired an additional narrower meaning of Jews of legitimate birth other than Levites and Aaronite priests (kohanim). In modern Hebrew this contrasts with the term Yisraeli, a citizen of the modern State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity (English "Israeli").
The term Jew historically refers to a member of the tribe of Judah, which formed the nucleus of the kingdom of Judah. The term Hebrew, perhaps related to the name of the Habiru nomads, has Eber as an eponymous biblical patriarch. It is used synonymously with "Israelites", or as an ethnolinguistic term of the historical speakers of the Hebrew language in general.
|ysrỉꜣr as attested in the Merneptah Stele |
The earliest mention of the name "Israel" is from the "victory stele" of Merneptah (r. 1213-1204 BCE), celebrating a campaign against Libya in 1208 BCE, and in an addendum lists ysrỉꜣr ("Israel") as among the polities defeated in Canaan. This ysri3r is accompanied with the hieroglyphic determiner for "foreign people", and is placed in the northern part of the central highlands, roughly consistent with the location of the later kingdom of Israel.
The archaeological record indicates that the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah emerged in the Early Iron Age from the Canaanite city-state culture of the Late Bronze Age, at the same time and in the same circumstances as the neighbouring states of Edom, Moab, Aram, and the Philistinian and Phoenician city-states. Throughout this formative period, (1200–1000 BCE), the highlands lack any sign of centralised authority; religiously, they lack any sign of temples, shrines, or centralised worship in general (although cult-objects associated with the Canaanite god El have been found); the pottery remains strongly in the local Late Bronze tradition; and the alphabet is early-Canaanite. The most commonly appealed to ethnic marker distinguishing Israelite villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones, although whether this can be taken as an ethnic marker remains a matter of dispute. Nevertheless, it is widely recognized that identification of the Israelites as a distinctive group is possible by means of archaeological evidence such as foodways, architecture, cultic practices, and material culture such as ceramics and large water pithoi.
The population of the central highlands during this same period was extremely sparse at the beginning, with some 25 villages and a population of about 12,000; by 1000 BC the number of villages had increased to 300 and the population to 55,000.
By c.850 BC inscriptions such as the Tel Dan stele and the Mesha stele indicate that a regionally important kingdom referred to by its neighbours as the House of Omri, after the ruling dynasty, and sometimes Samaria, after its capital, had emerged in the territory of the central highlands; there is no record of what this kingdom's own name for itself might have been, although in one Assyrian record the king is called "Ahab the Israelite." Records relating to Israel, in the sense of this northern kingdom, continue down to its destruction by the Assyrians towards the end of the 8th century.
The earliest probable mention of the southern kingdom is on the Tel Dan stele (c.850 BCE), where, according to the scholarly consensus, the House of David is mentioned alongside the House of Omri together with the mention of the death of a king whose reconstructed name can be equated with the name of a king mentioned in the bible. There is no further archaeological evidence until Babylonian records refer to it (as Yehud, the Aramaic equivalent of Judah) at the very end of the 7th century. The archaeological record also indicates that Jerusalem, from being no more than a small village, underwent a period of sudden and substantial growth in the period immediately following the destruction of Israel, c.722 BCE.
Three major theories on how the group of people became to be known as the Israelites have been proposed:
Evidence for these theories comes from biblical as well as extrabiblical sources. However, none of the theories can completely account for all the data. The rapid conquest model was put forth by William Albright and George E. Wright in an effort to combine archeological evidence with biblical narrative. In general, this model follows the Joshua 1-12 story with the defining characteristic of unified tribes triumphing in military conquest. However, modern archeology and scholarship, has subsequently criticized this theory, especially since the Judges account show independent tribal action rather than a unified national identity.
In response to what is found in Judges, Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth advanced the gradual infiltration theory of Israelite emergence. They propose that instead of a rapid military conquest, a gradual infiltration of pastoral nomads from settled highlands eventually come to conflict with coastal areas. Eventually the individual tribes “unify” under charismatic leadership (such as Gideon or Deborah; Judges 4-6) and shared heritage and religious practice. George E. Mendenhall wrote that while plausible, the transformation of the nomadic existence to one of sedentary nature had nothing to do with the tribes of Israel.
Alternatively, as proposed by Mendenhall and defended by Norman K Gottwald, a peasant class revolted against the upper class upon hearing stories of similarly oppressed people who came out of Egypt. He suggests that the impetus for joining into a unified group of people was not only for egalitarian purposes but also for some measure of peace .. Extrabiblical evidence of the politically unstable environment is highlighted by the Amarna letters, which show city-states constantly warring with each other.
Tribes of Israel
The Torah traces the Israelites to the patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham, who was renamed Israel after a mystical incident in which he wrestles all night with an angel of God. Jacob's twelve sons (in order), Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin, become the ancestors of twelve tribes, with the exception of Joseph, whose two sons Mannasseh and Ephraim become tribal eponyms.
Jacob and his sons are forced by famine to go down into Egypt. When they arrive they and their families are 70 in number, but within four generations they have increased to 600,000 men of fighting age, and the Pharaoh of Egypt, alarmed, first enslaves them and then orders the death of all male Hebrew children. The God of Israel reveals his name to Moses, a Hebrew of the line of Levi; Moses leads the Israelites out of bondage and into the desert, where God gives them their laws and the Israelites agree to become his people. Nevertheless, the Israelites lack complete faith in God, and the generation which left Egypt is not permitted to enter the Promised Land.
Following the death of the generation of Moses a new generation, led by Joshua, enters Canaan and takes possession of the land in accordance with the curse placed upon Canaan by Noah. Yet even now the Israelites lack strength in God in the face of the peoples of the land, and periods of weakness and backsliding alternate with periods of resilience under a succession of Judges. Eventually the Israelites ask for a king, and God gives them Saul. David, the youngest (divinely favoured) son of Jesse of Bethlehem would succeed Saul. Under David the Israelites establish the kingdom of God, and under David's son Solomon they build the Temple where God takes his earthly dwelling among them. Yet Solomon sins by allowing his foreign wives to worship their own gods, and so on his death the kingdom is divided in two.
The kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are uniformly bad, permitting the worship of other gods and failing to enforce the worship of God alone, and so God eventually allows them to be conquered and dispersed among the peoples of the earth; in their place strangers settle the northern land. In Judah some kings are good and enforce the worship of God alone, but many are bad and permit other gods, even in the Temple itself, and at length God allows the Judah to fall to her enemies, the people taken into captivity in Babylon, the land left empty and desolate, and the Temple itself destroyed.
Yet despite these events God does not forget his people, but sends Cyrus, king of Persia as his messiah to deliver them from bondage. The Israelites are allowed to return to Judah and Benjamin, the Temple is rebuilt, the priestly orders restored, and the service of sacrifice resumed. Through the offices of the sage Ezra Israel is constituted as a holy community, holding itself apart from all other peoples, bound by the Law.