The name Israel (“he contended with God”) is conferred on Jacob by a divine messenger after their struggle at the Wadi Jabbok (Gen. 32.28; 35.10; Hos. 12.3). The twelve sons of Jacob and their tribal descendants are therefore called “the sons of Israel” (the Israelites; see Tribes of Israel). The earliest nonbiblical reference to Israel occurs on the inscription of Merneptah, king of Egypt (ca. 1200 BCE).

Israel remains the normal designation for the entire nation until the division of the kingdom in 924 BCE (1 Kings 12.1–20). Biblical authors term the ten northern tribes (i.e., the northern kingdom) Israel and the two southern tribes (i.e., the southern kingdom) Judah. Hence, after the northern kingdom falls (722 BCE) and only Judah remains, its residents are called Judahites or Judeans. (See Israel, History of; Judah, The Kingdom of.)

In the postexilic period the residents of Judah or Yehud are regularly called Jews, but Israel is also used. In postexilic writings (e.g., Chronicles) the term Israel can therefore denote Jacob, the united kingdom, the northern kingdom, Judah, or simply the descendants of Israel. In some cases, the meaning of Israel is, however, deliberately more restrictive (e.g., the returning exiles in Ezra 2.2, 70).

In rabbinic literature Israel refers to the Jewish people, and the land of Israel describes the country of the Israelite people. In the New Testament Israel can refer to the Jewish people (2 Cor. 3.12; Rom. 11.26) or to the church (Gal. 6.16).

Gary N. Knoppers