Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
the collective name of the twelve tribes descended from Jacob, whose name was also ‘Israel’ (Gen. 32:28; 35:10). In the Bible the people are called ‘the children of Israel’ (usually rendered ‘the people of Israel’ by the rsv) or simply ‘Israel.’ As a political designation ‘Israel’ refers either to the nation as a whole or, during the period of the Divided Monarchy (924-721 b.c.), to the Northern Kingdom in particular, as distinct from Judah, the Southern Kingdom.
The Origin of the Name:
According to biblical tradition ‘Israel’ was the name of the ancestor of the people as well as the people themselves. We might conclude from this that the patriarchal name was the retrojection onto a common ancestor of the collective name of the people, who were called ‘the children of Israel’ (kjv) just as the Ammonites were called ‘the children of Ammon’ or the Edomites ‘the children of Edom.’ Modern analysis, however, shows that Hebrew yisraÕel, ‘Israel,’ has the form of a personal name rather than a tribal or national name. It belongs to a well-known type of name and means ‘May God contend’ or possibly ‘May God rule.’ This suggests that the patriarchal name has historical priority.
In Gen. 32:28 Jacob is given the name ‘Israel’ after a struggle with a divine being on the bank of the Jabbok (the name 'Israel' being understood there to mean ‘he strives with God ’ [cf. Hos. 12:4]), and there is another account of Jacob’s renaming in Gen. 35:10. The ancestor of the Israelites, therefore, was known by two names, a fact that suggests to many scholars that two patriarchs lie behind the figure of Jacob-Israel. Traditions about an originally distinct ancestor named Israel, in other words, were merged with those about Jacob as a consequence of an early process of tribal affiliation. If this hypothesis is correct, it seems likely that the ‘Israel’ traditions belonged first to the people who occupied the central part of the country, i.e., the two half-tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh [cf. Gen. 48]) and the tribe of Benjamin. These people traced their origin to a common ancestor, Israel. After the formation of the larger tribal organization, Israel was identified with Jacob, the patriarch of another group, and the name ‘children of Israel’ was extended to apply to members of the new alliance as a whole.
The People of Israel:
The earliest occurrence of the name outside the Bible is in a hymn celebrating the victories of the Egyptian king Merneptah, composed about 1230 b.c. The poem, which lists numerous enemies defeated in Palestine, contains the boast that ‘Israel has perished: its seed is no more.’ In the Egyptian text ‘Israel’ is marked with the hieroglyphic determinative signifying ‘foreign people,’ not ‘foreign land.’ This is usually taken to mean that a group called Israel was present in Palestine at this time, but that they had not yet settled in the land and claimed territory for themselves.
Exactly what this group might have been, however, is impossible to determine. It is not likely that it was the fully developed twelve-tribe entity of biblical tradition. Although the Bible presents ‘all Israel’ as a unified people, comprising the ancestors of all later Israelites, who acted in concert from the earliest times, it is improbable that any such unification was achieved before the time of David. We should probably think of a small group of tribes that gradually evolved into a political unit of national scope.
This is not to say, however, that Israel had no formal organization before the establishment of the kingdom. The biblical account of the premonarchical period and the rise of kingship (thirteenth-eleventh centuries b.c.) suggests that the monarchy was imposed on some kind of antecedent tribal order, which modern scholars have attempted to reconstruct from the biblical evidence on the basis of analogies with other tribal organizations. The term ‘amphictyony,’ which properly refers to certain twelve-tribe groups in early Greece and Italy, has frequently been applied to premonarchical Israel on the basis of supposed parallels of structure and function. Evidence for many of the distinctive features of the Aegean institution, however, is lacking in the case of Israel, and most scholars now prefer to speak more generally of a tribal league or confederation. There are also better analogies available: intertribal associations united by treaties and bonds of kinship were characteristic of Near Eastern nomadic society, as attested, for example, by the Mari archive, which provides information about the nomadic tribes of northwestern Mesopotamia in the second millennium b.c.
Thus the ‘Israel’ of the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5), an ancient song celebrating a victory over the forces of Canaanite Hazor, was probably a loose confederation of tribes, perhaps ten in number (cf. vv. 14-18) and including some of the later tribes (Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar, Reuben, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, and the half-tribe Ephraim) along with others (Machir, Gilead). The account of Joshua’s covenant ceremony in Joshua 24 is often thought to preserve a memory of the establishment of this institution. It is impossible, however, to trace its history in the premonarchical period with any confidence. The various episodes of the book of Judges have been set in an ‘all Israel’ framework by their editors, as if the ancestors of all the later Israelites were involved in every event, but a reading of the stories themselves shows that originally they were strictly local in character. The most we can say is that some kind of intertribal organization called ‘Israel’ existed in Palestine from at least the last half of the thirteenth century b.c. until the time of the early monarchy, when the full twelve-tribe structure became the established ideal. Thereafter Israel’s memories of its own premonarchical history were interpreted in light of this ideal structure, which was reinforced by the development of a genealogical scheme linking the twelve tribes together in a tradition of common origin.
The Nation of Israel:
Sometime near the end of the first millennium b.c. Israel became a nation. The political ties that had bound the tribes together previously were routinized, and the group as a whole came to recognize the authority of a king. We should not, however, think of this transition as the replacement of the people Israel with the nation Israel. The concept of the people Israel, with its basis in kinship ties, remained as viable as ever during the monarchy and, indeed, provided the starting point for a new understanding of Israel after the fall of the state. During the period of the Israel and Judean monarchies (924-721 b.c.), therefore, Israel was both a people and a nation.
Saul’s Kingdom: Saul was Israel’s first king, and it was under his rule that the old tribal alliance became a nation (late eleventh century b.c.). He came from a prominent family in Gibeah of Benjamin (1 Sam. 9:1-2), and after demonstrating his military leadership by a victory over the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11), he was able to command the allegiance of a fairly extensive region in the central hills and Transjordan. We cannot be sure exactly how much territory Saul controlled, but the domains he passed on to his heir at his death included ‘Gilead and the Ashurites [so rsv, but probably read ‘Geshurites,’ inhabitants of northeastern Palestine in the region of the present-day Golan Heights] and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel’ (2 Sam. 2:9). In this case ‘all Israel’ is probably a summary reference to the preceding list of territories. In the time of Saul, then, ‘Israel’ was a state in central Palestine bounded on the west by the coastal plain and on the east by the Transjordanian plateau; it ran along both banks of the Jordan from the Jezreel Valley south to Benjamin.
The United Monarchy: Before David became king of Israel, he was king of his native Judah (2 Sam. 2:4). His former alliance to the house of Saul, however, gave him a claim to Saul’s throne, and eventually he united the two kingdoms under his rule (late eleventh century b.c.; 2 Sam. 5:1-3). It was the personal achievement of David, therefore, that joined Judah with Israel, creating the basis for the biblical view of a greater Israel encompassing both northern and southern Palestine. According to this view, which the biblical writers retrojected to the time of the conquest, Israel extended ‘from Dan to Beer-sheba,’ that is, from the southern wash of Mount Hermon in the north to the northern Negev in the south.
The Divided Monarchy: In fact, however, the historical Israel attained to the boundaries of the ideal Israel only for a brief period. The union of Israel and Judah did not survive the death of David’s son Solomon (924 b.c.). The northern tribes refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of the king in Jerusalem, and Judah was left as a separate state. Nor were the two kingdoms together as extensive as the United Kingdom that preceded them. For only two short periods, during the reigns of Omri and Ahab in the first half of the ninth century b.c. and Jeroboam II a century later, did Israel expand to its Davidic-Solomonic borders to the north and east.
This history accounts for the ambivalence of the use ‘Israel’ as a political designation in the historical books of the Bible. In the stories of the reigns of David and Solomon, when Israel and Judah were united under a single king, ‘Israel’ is often used to refer to the larger nation (2 Sam. 8:15; 1 Kings 4:1). In the same materials, however, it can be used to designate the northern tribes as distinct from Judah (2 Sam. 19:41). In the account of the Divided Monarchy in 1 and 2 Kings ‘Israel’ is ordinarily the Northern Kingdom as distinct from ‘Judah,’ the Southern Kingdom. Nevertheless, the ideal of a greater Israel persists in the literature after the account of the secession of the northern tribes, so that in 1 Kings 12:17, for example, we find reference to ‘the people of Israel who dwelt in the cities of Judah’ (1 Kings 12:17). Even before the fall of Samaria (721 b.c.), therefore, ‘Israel’ is sometimes used in reference to Judah (Isa. 1:3; 8:18), and after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom this usage becomes common (Ezek. 2:3).
The Idea of Israel:
‘Israel’ is not only an ethnic and political designation in the Bible; it is also a central theological term. The idea of Israel as the chosen people of God pervaded the religious thought not only of the ancient Israelite community but of early Judaism and Christianity as well. We can discern two major phases in the early development of this idea.
First, there was the concept of Israel as the people chosen to live in the promised land. Fundamental to this concept was the notion that the land inhabited by the Israelite nation belonged to God. It was his land, and he chose one people to live in it to the exclusion of all others. This concept receives its primary articulation in the Hexateuchal narrative, i.e., the story that extends from Genesis through Joshua. There we are told that God summoned Abram to Canaan, promising that his descendants would take possession of the land and become a great nation there. From the twelve sons of Abram’s grandson Jacob, whose name was also Israel, were descended twelve tribes. These ‘children of Israel’ became enslaved in Egypt, but God rescued them, guided them through the desert, and brought them into Canaan. They conquered the land, eliminating its previous inhabitants, and settled in it, growing eventually into the great nation promised to Abram. This concept of Israel seems to have been a basic component of the theology of the pre-exilic community. Its most conspicuous feature is the centrality of the land.
Second was the concept of Israel as the people chosen to receive the Torah. This concept is expressed in the same biblical narrative, but in this case the climax of the story is the gift of the Torah at Sinai rather than the conquest of the land. In other words, our attention here is upon the Tetrateuchal narrative, i.e., the story that extends from Genesis through Numbers, and, more specifically, upon the Priestly materials (‘P’) within that narrative. God (Elohim, as he is usually called in this part of the story) is the universal creator, and it was his will that his human creatures should be blessed (Gen. 1:28). Because of their inclination towards error, however, it seemed impossible for human beings to live safely in the divinely created world. They tended to pervert the blessing into a curse. The divine solution was the election of one people through whom the other ‘families of the earth’ could receive their blessing (cf. Gen. 12:3). God would give this people a set of instructions by which it would be possible for them to live safely in the world and receive the divine blessing as intended. This, then, was the reason for the call of Abram. From his grandson Jacob or Israel, the children of Israel were descended. After their escape from Egypt, they came to Mount Sinai, where God gave them the rules by which they were to lead their lives. This concept of Israel probably reflects the theology of the exilic (mid-sixth century b.c.) and postexilic (late sixth century and later) communities. Emphasis on the land, the chief characteristic of the pre-exilic concept (pre-586 b.c.), has been replaced by emphasis on the Torah.
Exilic and Postexilic Literature:
A related idea, which receives its first clear expression in exilic literature, conceives of Israel as a vehicle by which the other nations would come to recognize and acknowledge the greatness of God. In the oracles of Ezekiel, for example, God explains his dealings with Israel as a means of vindicating himself in the sight of the nations (Ezek. 36:22-23). Israel, he says, will suffer the calamity of exile, ‘and all the nations shall see my judgment which I have executed’ (39:21; cf. v. 23). Also, however, Israel will be resanctified, and ‘the nations will know that I the Lord sanctify Israel’ (37:28; cf. 36:36). In short, God’s purpose in the destruction and restoration of Israel is to demonstrate his justice and power to the nations. ‘So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord’ (38:23).
The same idea is expressed in Deutero-Isaiah’s presentation of Israel as ‘witnesses’ to the incomparability of God (Isa. 43:10, 12; 44:8). Eventually, we are told, the other nations will come to Israel in supplication, saying, ‘God is with you only, and there is no other, no god besides him’ (45:14). This passage is sometimes cited as evidence that Deutero-Isaiah understood Israel to have a ‘mission to the Gentiles,’ whereby other nations were to be converted to the worship of God. The result envisioned, however, seems not to be the universal worship of God but rather the universal recognition of God’s uniqueness. Accordingly, Israel’s role is that of a witness, not a missionary.
In later Judaism the biblical concept of Israel as a people chosen by God to receive the Torah was combined with the apocalyptic expectation of the advent of the universal rule of God. The belief was that only when Israel was truly living according to the precepts of the Torah could the kingdom of God arrive. Apocalyptic groups dissented from the authority of those in power in Jerusalem, whom they regarded as corrupt and illegitimate. They believed themselves to be the true Israel and structured their lives accordingly in the conviction that by doing so they would make possible the final realization of the divine plan.
One such group was the Essene community at Qumran. They understood themselves as the ‘precious cornerstone’ of Isa. 28:16, laid by God as ‘a sure foundation’ (1QS 8.7-8). Their community organization into twelve tribes led by twelve tribal chiefs (1QSa 1.27-2.1), including both laity and priests, shows that they regarded themselves as the true Israel.
The Early Church:
Likewise the early church, which also emerged from apocalyptic Judaism, understood itself as the legitimate heir to the ancient promises. Paul argued that the Jews had forfeited these promises, which had come to Abraham through faith, not the law (Rom. 4:13). Because ‘it is men of faith who are the [true] sons of Abraham’ (Gal. 3:7), Christians, not Jews, could now claim to be descended from the Israelite patriarchs. The church was, in fact, ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’ (James 1:1). It follows that the early Christian community, like the Qumran community, regarded itself as the true Israel, that is, ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16). Appropriating for the church language applicable to ancient Israel, the author of the First Letter of Peter addressed his audience as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ (1 Pet. 2:9).
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer