Hebrew: ‘the one who sees God’; used for the twelve tribes, who trace their descent from Jacob, who was also called Israel (Gen. 32: 28). After the one kingdom of the twelve tribes was separated into north and south, the northern kingdom from 924 to 721 BCE is called Israel, as distinct from Judah. But the OT text is not entirely consistent. By a kind of nostalgia for the united kingdom of David and Solomon, even after the disruption we can read of the ‘people of Israel who were living in the towns of Judah’ (1 Kgs. 12: 17). After the northern kingdom has disappeared and many inhabitants have been deported to Assyria, the term ‘Israel’ can be applied to Judah (Ezek. 2: 3).
The people of Israel were foreigners in the land of Egypt according to the earliest traditions, and made their escape into Palestine. Whether this ‘exodus’ included the whole people or whether there were incursions by a few tribes at a time, with piecemeal settlement, is uncertain. But the biblical writers claim that the occupants of Canaan were barbaric and degenerate. This was the moral ground for their dispossession though one modern view describes the invasion as ethnic cleansing by indiscriminate massacre of another culture. However, the land was distributed among the twelve tribes of Israel who became a nation around the end of the first millennium. When David, who was at first king only of Judah (2 Sam. 2: 4), united his kingdom with Israel in the north (2 Sam. 5: 1–3), his dominion stretched from ‘Dan to Beersheba’.
The people of Israel believed themselves to be specially chosen by God to occupy this promised land. They also believed that they had been given the privilege of the Law (Torah) at Sinai. They were called to be a blessing to all the rest of the human race and the Torah was the compendium of instructions by which they would work out this vocation.
The divided monarchy was an era of rivalry and hostility among kinsfolk. Both kingdoms were weak, though under Omri and his three successors the north had a period (885–843 BCE) of prosperity, tempered by social injustices and conflict between Yahwism (championed by Elijah) and Baalism (supported by Queen Jezebel). Threats from Assyria ended with the conquest of the north by King Shalmaneser V in 721 BCE. Judah survived until the Exile and the deportations to Babylon in 597 and 586 BCE. In Babylon the Jews began to see their faith in the One God as a faith which should be propagated among other nations (Ezek. 39: 21). The fate of Israel (meaning here the exiles from Judah) will demonstrate the power and justice of the true God (Ezek. 37: 28; 38: 23). Other nations will be drawn to Israel (Isa. 45: 14).
Sadly, as the biblical historian passes his judgement, after the Return from Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple (520 BCE), the people of Israel failed to live according to the requirements of the Torah. The belief much later was that when at length they did so the ‘kingdom of God’ would have arrived. Various groups within Judaism held themselves to be the true Israel who might put the divine plan into effect. Such a group was the Qumran monastic community by the Dead Sea, who were organized into twelve tribes headed by twelve overseers—the very number being indicative of their claim to be the true Israel. The early Church, too, regarded itself as the true Israel, the legitimate descendants of Abraham, and inheritors of the covenant promises, with a vocation to be a blessing to mankind (Gal. 3: 8). The Jews were no longer in the true succession (Rom. 4: 13). The Church had become as it were the twelve tribes (Jas. 1: 1; Gal. 6: 16; 1 Pet. 2: 9) of the authentic Israel—a claim that was to afford additional ammunition for Christian anti-Semitism.