Epithets of Israel

James Sanders
Crane, Texas

Someone has well observed that names are really things. They certainly are influences impressions are made and opinions shaped by them. "A good name is better than precious ointment" (Eccl. 7:1a). Names are important. In the Scriptures they often emphasize facts of a memorial or doctrinal nature. The nation of Israel, which the Lord separated, is called by at least three (3) different epithets. These reflect eventful crises in the history of Israel.


The epithet, Hebrew, is a subtle allusion to the call of Abraham (Gen. 15:7). Hebrew is formed on the verb 'avar: "pass over, through, by, pass on." A Hebrew is literally one from beyond from the other side, from beyond the Euphrates River.1 The Lord called Abraham while he was yet beyond the Euphrates-in Ur of the Chaldees (Acts 7:2-4). Hence, we read in the OT: "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel . . . Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan  (Josh. 24:2, 3; NASB).2

Abraham was called a Hebrew because he was a stranger to Canaan-he was from beyond the River Euphrates. His descendants were likewise referred to as Hebrews; they were strangers to a new land. The word, Hebrew, reflected the call of Abraham by the Lord. It was a constant reminder to the Jew that God had separated him from among the nations. The epithet of Hebrew served to preserve the faith and uniqueness of Israel.


Israelite is really a combination of two separate words: (1) Sarah: "persist, persevere." and (2) el: "God." Israel (or sarah-El) literally means "God or El persisteth or persevereth." 3 The name is a direct reference to Jacob's encounter with the angel at Penuel (Gen. 32:22-32). It was here that Jacob wrestled with an angel and overcame him by his weeping and supplication unto the Lord (Gen. 32:24-32; Cp. Hos. 12:4,5). As a result, Jacob was blessed and his name changed to Israel: "God persisteth or persevereth." The wrestling with the angel came as a reply to a prayer of Jacob for protection (Gen. 32:9-13)4 Israel was the Lord's way of telling Jacob that his prayer had been heard with Jacob.

The name later was extended as a patronymic to the descendants of Jacob. 5 The nation itself was known as Israel. Ironically, the, nation which God had promised Abraham was not called after his name but after that of Ills grandson, Jacob. The reason is at once apparent. "Children of Israel" or "house of Jacob" are the totality of the seed of promise. Both the Edomites and Israelites were the children of Isaac. And likewise, the Ishmaelites-equally with the Israelites-were the offspring of Abraham. But the twelve tribes who called themselves Israel were all descendants of Jacob; they were the only descendants. 6 Israel alone represented the totality of promise.

The significance of Israel is paramount: God would persevere with the nation as He had with its founder. The epithet, Israel, was a reassuring term to every Jew. The Lord would not forget His people.


Jew is derived from the name Judah: -praised or object of praise-7 Leah, his mother, explained his name by saying, "Now will I praise the Lord" (Gen. 29:35). Jacob in issuing his final blessings to his sons, decreed: "Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise" (Gen. 49:8). Praise or object of praise is the meaning of Judah.

Jew is but an abbreviated form of Judah. The epithet was first applied to the inhabitants of Judah alone (2 Kgs. 16:6). Those who were the inhabitants of Judah were called Jews. Later the term was extended to embrace all the descendants of Abraham (Est. 3:6). The term is still so used today; but praise is no longer attached to the word. Because of disobedience (as the Lord had warned), Jew has become a hiss and byword among the nations (Deut. 28:37).

The name which once stood for praise now stands for contempt and shame.


1. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), pp. 716, 720. Hereafter cited as BDB. All transliterations mine.

2. River or The River in the OT is to be identified with the River Euphrates. The New English Bible trans: "Abraham from beside the Euphrates.

3. BDB, p. 975.

4. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, Vol. 1, trns. James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wrn. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, n.d. 1, p. 300.

5. William Gesenius. Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, trns. Samuel Prideauz Tregelles (Grand Rapids: Wrn. B. Ierdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 004.

6. James Oscar Boyd, . "Jacob" The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), III, P. 1549.

7. BDB, p. 397

April 5, 1973