As you know, I like to trace words through their etymologies. And these three words were a bit confusing to me. Most of the time, people use them interchangeably. And, I suppose, they have evolved in a way that they are interchangeable, depending on the context.
Reading the Bible
If you read the Bible at all, its important to know the difference between these three words, because they come up frequently. And if you use them interchangeably, they can cause confusion.
So, here’s the difference.
Of the three, I could figure out, “Israelite” pretty easy. It comes from the 12 tribes of Israel. If you remember, Jacob was one of the sons of Isaac. The other was Esau. They were twins, but Esau came out of the womb first. Therefore, Esau was the first born. But he made God angry because he sold his inheritance for a bowl of pottage.
After many adventures, Jacob, the same one that gave the name to “Jacob’s ladder”….
Jacob’s ladder? On one of his adventures, Jacob went into a strange land, the same way as Abraham, his grandfather before him and Isaac, his dad, also. Anyway, on one journey, he took a nap and dreamed that he had seen a ladder to heaven with angels climbing up and coming down.
Anyway, since the inheritance now belonged to Jacob, God renamed him and gave him the name, Israel. He became the Father of 12 sons who became the fathers of the 12 Tribes of Israel. These 12 Tribes later became the Nation of Israel. And all who are descended of the Patriarch, Israel, are rightly designated, Israelites.
I remember Judah, most notably, not because he is Jesus’ forefather. But because he took a roll in the hay with a prostitute. What?! I know that's surprising, huh? Shocking, more like it.
Warning. If you ever read the Bible to your kids, don’t go half-cocked reading uncharted territory. You’re likely to stumble unto some x-rated stuff that you don’t want children to hear until they are old enough to understand. Do a little research first. Really.
Anyway, if you want to read that little bit of juicy info, look up Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38.
Anyway, the word, “Jew”, gave me more trouble. When I first saw it, I thought it had something to do with “jewels”. The spelling threw me off. Especially, since a lot of jewelers are Jews. So, I didn’t associate it with Judah, at first. Jew vs Judah. The only thing in common is the “J”, right?
Until, one day, I saw a movie about Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. In that movie, they had a scene where the word, “Jew” was spelled, “Ju”. One of Israel’s 12 sons was named Judah. And, click, the lightbulb came on. Jew is short for Judah.
How or why the spelling was changed, don’t ask. I couldn’t find an answer. I don’t think anyone really knows.
Jesus was a Jew and an Israelite
So, we can say that Jesus was a Jew and an Israelite because He was descended of Judah and Judah was descended of Israel.
But, Jesus was not a Levite. Because He was not descended of Levi. Another of the 12 sons of Israel.
So, what about Hebrew?
This was the hardest one. Hebrew is a language that all Israelites spoke at one time. Where did it come from?
Apparently, Hebrew comes from the name of Abraham’s grandfather 6 times removed. His name was “Eber” and the word itself means “the region beyond”. Therefore, Eber must have been a nomad. Traveling from place to place. The name is very appropriate because Abraham became a nomad when God called him out of Ur to do His bidding. Abraham can therefore, rightly be called a Hebrew since he is descended of “Eber”. And so can the rest of the Israelites and Jews.
BUT, Arabs are supposedly descended of Ishmael. And Ishmael is a son of Abraham. So, Arabs can also be called Hebrews. And the Arab language is very closely related to the Hebrew.
Ironic, isn’t it? Jews and Arabs are always at war and they descend from the same Patriarch. But, it is prophecied in the Bible. The children of Ishmael would always be at war, with everyone.
Genesis 16:11 Then the Lord’s angel said to her: “You are now pregnant and shall bear a son; you shall name him Ishmael, For the Lord has heeded your affliction. 12 He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; Alongside all his kindred shall he encamp.”
What do you think? Has that prophecy come true?
So, we can say that all Jews are Israelites. But not all Israelites are Jews.
All Israelites are Hebrews. But not all Hebrews are Israelites.