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Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel, from a synagogue wall in Jerusalem

The Israelites ()[1] were a Semitic people of the Ancient Near East, who inhabited part of Canaan during the tribal and monarchic periods (15th to 6th centuries BCE),[2][3][4][5][6] and lived in the region in smaller numbers after the fall of the monarchy. In the biblical narrative, the term "Israelites" refers to the direct descendants of the patriarch Jacob, who was also called Israel; historians use the term to refer to the historical populations of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah.[7] In the post-exilic period, beginning in the 5th century BCE, the two known remnants of the Israelite tribes came to be referred to as Jews and Samaritans, inhabiting the territories of Judea, Galilee and Samaria. Other terms sometimes used include the "Hebrews" and the "Twelve Tribes" (of Israel).

The Jews, which include the tribes of Judah, Simeon, Benjamin and partially Levi, are named after the southern Israelite Kingdom of Judah. The word "Jews" is found in Kings (16:6), Chronicles (I, 4:18), and in numerous passages in Jeremiah, Zechariah and the book of Esther.[8] The Samaritans, whose religious texts consist of the five books of the Samaritan Torah (but which does not contain the books comprising the Jewish Tanakh), do not refer to themselves as Jews, although they do regard themselves as Israelites, as per the Torah.

The Kingdom of Israel contained the remaining ten tribes, but following its conquest by Assyria, these were allegedly dispersed and lost to history, and henceforth known as the Ten Lost Tribes. Jewish tradition holds that Samaria was so named because the region's mountainous terrain was used to keep "Guard" (Shamer) for incoming enemy attack. According to Samaritan tradition, however, the Samaritan ethnonym is not derived from the region of Samaria, but from the fact that they were the "Guardians" (Shamerim) of the true Israelite religion. Thus, according to Samaritan tradition, the region was named Samaria after them, not vice versa. In Jewish Hebrew, the Samaritans are called Shomronim, while in Samaritan Hebrew they call themselves Shamerim.

In Judaism, an Israelite is, broadly speaking, a lay member of the Jewish ethnoreligious group, as opposed to the priestly orders of Kohanim and Levites. In texts of Jewish law such as the Mishnah and Gemara, the term יהודי (Yehudi), meaning Jew, is rarely used, and instead the ethnonym ישראלי (Yisraeli), or Israelite, is widely used to refer to Jews. Samaritans commonly refer to themselves and Jews collectively as Israelites, and describe themselves as the Israelite Samaritans.[9][10]


  • Etymology 1
  • Terminology 2
  • Historical Israelites 3
  • Biblical Israelites 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7


The Merneptah stele. While alternative translations exist, the majority of biblical archaeologists translate a set of hieroglyphs as "Israel", representing the first instance of the name Israel in the historical record.

The term "Israelite" is the English name for the descendants of the biblical patriarch Jacob in ancient times, which is derived from the Greek Ισραηλίτες,[11] which was used to translate the Biblical Hebrew term "b'nei yisrael", יִשְׂרָאֵל as either "sons of Israel" or "children of Israel". (Arabic: بَنِي إسرَائِيـل‎)[12]

The name "Israel" first appears in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 32:29. It refers to the renaming of Jacob, who, according to the Bible, wrestled with an angel, who gave him a blessing and renamed him "Israel" because he had "striven with God and with men, and have prevailed". The Hebrew Bible etymologizes the name as from yisra "to prevail over" or "to struggle/wrestle with", and el, "God, the divine".[13][14]

The name "Israel" first appears in non-biblical sources c. 1209 BCE, in an inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah. The inscription is very brief and says simply: "Israel is laid waste and his seed is not" (see below). The inscription refers to the nation, not to an individual.


In modern Hebrew, b'nei yisrael ("children of Israel") can denote the Jewish people at any time in history; it is typically used to emphasize Jewish religious identity. From the period of the Mishna (but probably used before that period) the term Yisrael ("an Israel") acquired an additional narrower meaning of Jews of legitimate birth other than Levites and Aaronite priests (kohanim). In modern Hebrew this contrasts with the term Yisraeli (English "Israeli"), a citizen of the modern State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

The term Hebrew has Eber as an eponymous ancestor. It is used synonymously with "Israelites", or as an ethnolinguistic term for historical speakers of the Hebrew language in general.

The Greek term Ioudaios (Jews) historically refers to members of the Tribe of Judah, which formed the nucleus of the kingdom of Judah.

The Samaritans, which claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (plus Levi through Aaron for kohens), are named after the Israelite Kingdom of Samaria, but the Jews, until modern times, have contested their claimed lineage, deeming them to have been conquered foreigners who were settled in the Land of Israel by the Assyrians, as was the typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities. Today, Jews and Samaritans both recognize each other as communities with an authentic Israelite origin.[15]

The terms "Jews" and "Samaritans" largely replaced the title "Children of Israel"[16] as the common used ethnonym for each respective community.

Historical Israelites

Landscape of Samaria in the territory of Ephraim
Landscape of the Galilee in the territory of Naphtali
Landscape of Judea near Jerusalem in the territory of Benjamin
Landscape of the Negev in the southern territory of Judah

Several theories exist proposing the origins of the Israelites in raiding groups, infiltrating nomads or emerging from indigenous Canaanites driven from the wealthier urban areas by poverty to seek their fortunes in the highland.[17] Various, ethnically distinct groups of itinerant nomads such as the Habiru and Shasu recorded in Egyptian texts as active in Edom and Canaan could have had links to the later Israelites, which does not exclude the possibility that the majority may have had their origins in Canaan proper. The name Yahweh, the god of the later Israelites, may indicate connections with the region of Mount Seir in Edom.[18]

The prevailing opinion today is that the Israelites, who eventually evolved into the modern Jews and Samaritans, are an outgrowth of the indigenous Canaanites who had resided in the area since the 8th millennium BCE.[19][20] The language of the Canaanites may perhaps be best described as an "archaic form of Hebrew, standing in much the same relationship to the Hebrew of the Old Testament as does the language of Chaucer to modern English. "The Canaanites were also the first people, as far as is known, to have used an alphabet.[21]

The name Israel first appears c. 1209 BCE, at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the very beginning of the period archaeologists and historians call Iron Age I, on the Merneptah Stele raised by the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah. The inscription is very brief

Plundered is Canaan with every evil,
Carried off is Ashkelon,
Seized upon is Gezer,
Yenocam is made as that which does not exist
Israel lies fallow, it has no seed;
Ḫurru has become a widow because of Egypt.[18]

As distinct from the cities named (Ashkelon, Gezer, Yenoam) which are written with a toponymic marker, Israel is written hieroglyphically with a demonymic determinative indicating that the reference is to a human group, variously located in central Palestine[18] or the highlands of Samaria.[22] Over the next two hundred years (the period of Iron Age I) the number of highland villages increased from 25 to over 300[20] and the settled population doubled to 40,000.[23] By the 10th century BCE a rudimentary state had emerged in the north-central highlands,[24] and in the 9th century this became a kingdom.[25] Settlement in the southern highlands was minimal from the 12th through the 10th centuries BCE, but a state began to emerge there in the 9th century,[26] and from 850 BCE onwards a series of inscriptions are evidence of a kingdom which its neighbours refer to as the "House of David."[27]

After the destruction of the Israelite kingdoms of Judah and Samaria in 586 BCE and 720 BCE respectively,[28][29] the concepts of Jew and Samaritan gradually replaced Judean and Israelite. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, the Hasmonean kingdom was established in present-day Israel, consisting of three regions which were Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee. In the pre-exilic first Temple period the political power of Judea was concentrated within the tribe of Judah, Samaria was dominated by the tribe of Ephraim and the House of Joseph, while the Galilee was associated with the tribe of Naphtali, the most eminent tribe of northern Israel.[30][31] At the time of the Kingdom of Samaria, the Galilee was populated by northern tribes of Israel, but following the Babylonian exile the region became Jewish. During the second Temple period relations between the Jews and Samaritans remained tense. In 120 BCE the Hasmonean king Yohanan Hyrcanos I destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, due to the resentment between the two groups over a disagreement of whether Mount Moriah in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim in Shechem was the actual site of the Aqedah, and the chosen place for the Holy Temple, a source of contention that had been growing since the two houses of the former united monarchy first split asunder in 930 BCE and which had finally exploded into warfare.[32][33] 190 years after the destruction of the Samaritan Temple and the surrounding area of Shechem, the Roman emperor Titus launched a military campaign to crush the Jewish revolt of 66 CE, which resulted in the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the subsequent exile of Jews from Judea and the Galilee in 135 CE following the Bar Kochba revolt.[34][35]

Biblical Israelites

Model of the Mishkan constructed under the auspices of Moses, in Timna Park, Israel

The Israelite story begins with some of the culture heroes of the Jewish people, the Patriarchs. The Torah traces the Israelites to the patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham, who was renamed Israel after a mysterious incident in which he wrestles all night with God or an angel. Jacob's twelve sons (in order of birth), Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin, become the ancestors of twelve tribes, with the exception of Joseph, whose two sons Mannasseh and Ephraim, who were adopted by Jacob, become tribal eponyms (Genesis 48).[36]

The mothers of Jacob's sons are:

  • Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun
  • Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin
  • Bilhah (Rachel's maid): Dan, Naphtali
  • Zilpah (Leah's maid): Gad, Asher (Genesis 35:22–26)[36]

Jacob and his sons are forced by famine to go down into Egypt, although Joseph was already there, as he had been sold into slavery while young. When they arrive they and their families are 70 in number, but within four generations they have increased to 600,000 men of fighting age, and the Pharaoh of Egypt, alarmed, first enslaves them and then orders the death of all male Hebrew children. A woman from the tribe of Levi hides her child, places him in a woven basket, and sends him down the Nile river. He is named Mosheh, or Moses, by the Egyptians who find him. Being a Hebrew baby, they award a Hebrew woman the task of raising him, the mother of Moses volunteers, and the child and his mother are reunited.[37][38]

Depiction of the Israelite Menorah on the Arch of Titus being carried away to Rome

At the age of forty Moses murders an Egyptian, who he discovers beating a Hebrew to death, and escapes as a fugitive into the Sinai desert, where he is taken in by the Midianites and marries Zipporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro. When he is eighty years old, Moses is tending a herd of sheep in solitude on Mount Sinai when he sees a desert shrub that is burning but is not consumed. The God of Israel calls to Moses from the fire and reveals his name, Yahweh (from the Hebrew root word 'HWH' meaning to exist), and tells Moses that he is being sent to Pharaoh to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt.[39]

Yahweh tells Moses that if Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrews go to say to Pharaoh "Thus says Yahweh: Israel is my son, my first-born and I have said to you: Let my son go, that he may serve me, and you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay your son, your first-born". Moses returns to Egypt and tells Pharaoh that he must let the Hebrew slaves go free. Pharaoh refuses and Yahweh strikes the Egyptians with a series of horrific plagues, wonders, and catastrophes, after which Pharaoh relents and banishes the Hebrews from Egypt. Moses leads the Israelites out of bondage[40] toward the Red Sea, but Pharaoh changes his mind and arises to massacre the fleeing Hebrews. Pharaoh finds them by the sea shore and attempts to drive them into the ocean with his chariots and drown them.[41]

Map reconstructing how the Bible represents the united Kingdom of Israel

Yahweh causes the Red Sea to part and the Hebrews pass through on dry land into the Sinai. After the Israelites escape from the midst of the sea, Yahweh causes the ocean to close back in on the pursuing Egyptian army, drowning them to death. In the desert Yahweh feeds them with manna that accumulates on the ground with the morning dew. They are led by a column of cloud, which ignites at night and becomes a pillar of fire to illuminate the way, southward through the desert until they come to Mount Sinai. The twelve tribes of Israel encamp around the mountain, and on the third day Mount Sinai begins to smolder, then catches fire, and Yahweh speaks the Ten Commandments from the midst of the fire to all the Israelites, from the top of the mountain.[42]

Moses ascends biblical Mount Sinai and fasts for forty days while he writes down the Torah as Yahweh dictates, beginning with Bereshith and the creation of the universe and earth.[43][44] He is shown the design of the Mishkan and the Ark of the Covenant, which Bezalel is given the task of building. Moses descends from the mountain forty days later with the Sefer Torah he wrote, and with two rectangular lapis lazuli[45] tablets, into which Yahweh had carved the Ten Commandments in Paleo–Hebrew. In his absence, Aaron has constructed an image of Yahweh,[46] depicting him as a young Golden Calf, and has presented it to the Israelites, declaring "Behold O Israel, this is your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt". Moses smashes the two tablets and grinds the golden calf into dust, then throws the dust into a stream of water flowing out of Mount Sinai, and forces the Israelites to drink from it.[47]

Map of the twelve tribes of Israel (before the move of Dan to the north), based on the Book of Joshua

Moses ascends Mount Sinai for a second time and Yahweh

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  1. ^ "Israelite". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. ^ Finkelstein, Israel. "Ethnicity and origin of the Iron I settlers in the Highlands of Canaan: Can the real Israel stand up?." The Biblical archaeologist 59.4 (1996): 198-212.
  3. ^ Finkelstein, Israel. The archaeology of the Israelite settlement. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1988.
  4. ^ Finkelstein, Israel, and Nadav Naʼaman, eds. From nomadism to monarchy: archaeological and historical aspects of early Israel. Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1994.
  5. ^ Finkelstein, Israel. "The archaeology of the United Monarchy: an alternative view." Levant 28.1 (1996): 177-187.
  6. ^ Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts. Simon and Schuster, 2002.
  7. ^ Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard (eds ]), Israelite, in "Mercer dictionary of the Bible", p. 420
  8. ^ The people and the faith of the Bible by André Chouraqui, Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1975, p. 43 [2]
  9. ^ Yesaahq ben 'Aamraam. Samaritan Exegesis: A Compilation Of Writings From The Samaritans. 2013. ISBN 1482770814. Benyamim Tsedaka, at 1:24
  10. ^ John Bowman. Samaritan Documents Relating to Their History, Religion and Life (Pittsburgh Original Texts and Translations Series No. 2). 1977. ISBN 0915138271
  11. ^ Strong's Exhaustive Concordance G2474
  12. ^ Brown Drivers Briggs H3478
  13. ^ Scherman, Rabbi Nosson (editor), The Chumash, The Artscroll Series, Mesorah Publications, LTD, 2006, pages 176–77
  14. ^ Kaplan, Aryeh, "Jewish Meditation", Schocken Books, New York, 1985, page 125
  15. ^ "Homepage of A.B Institute of Samaritan Studies". Retrieved March 27, 2015. 
  16. ^ Settings of silver: an introduction to Judaism, Stephen M. Wylen, Paulist Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8091-3960-X, p. 59
  17. ^ Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster 2002, p. 104.
  18. ^ a b c K. van der Toorn,Family Religion in Babylonia, Ugarit and Israel: Continuity and Changes in the Forms of Religious Life, BRILL 1996 pp. 181, 282.
  19. ^ Tubb 1998, pp. 13–14
  20. ^ a b McNutt 1999, p. 63.
  21. ^ "Canaan". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 27, 2015. 
  22. ^ Grabbe 2008, p.75
  23. ^ McNutt 1999, p. 70.
  24. ^ Joffe pp.440 ff.
  25. ^ Davies, 1992, pp.63–64.
  26. ^ Joffe p.448–9.
  27. ^ Joffe p. 450.
  28. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2001, The Bible Unearthed p. 221.
  29. ^  
  30. ^ Sefer Devariam Pereq לד, ב; Deuteronomy 34, 2, Sefer Yehoshua Pereq כ, ז; Joshua 20, 7, Sefer Yehoshua Pereq כא, לב; Joshua 21, 32, Sefer Melakhim Beth Pereq טו, כט; Second Kings 15, 29, Sefer Devrei Ha Yamim Aleph Pereq ו, סא; First Chronicles 6, 76
  31. ^ See File:12 Tribes of Israel Map.svg
  32. ^
  33. ^ Y. Magen. "The Gathering at the President's House". Israel Antiquities Authority. Retrieved March 27, 2015. 
  34. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.7.2. Josephus, War of the Jews II.8.11, II.13.7, II.14.4, II.14.5
  35. ^ "The Diaspora". Jewish Virtual Library. ; "The Bar-Kokhba Revolt". Jewish Virtual Library. 
  36. ^ a b c d e page 18The Jews in the time of Jesus: an introduction Stephen M. Wylen, Paulist Press, 1996, 215 pages, pp.18-20
  37. ^ Bereshith, Genesis
  38. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 1 and 2
  39. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 3 and 4
  40. ^ . Oxford World's Classics, 1999.The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian PoemsEnglish translation of the papyrus. A translation also in R. B. Parkinson,
  41. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 5 through 15
  42. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 15, 19, and 20
  43. ^ Bereshith; Genesis 1
  44. ^ The Hidden Face of God: Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth by Gerald L. Schroeder Ph.D. (May 9, 2002)
  45. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 24
  46. ^ Tehillim; Psalms 106, 19-20
  47. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 21 through 32
  48. ^ Shemoth; Exodus, 34, 6-7
  49. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 34
  50. ^ Wayiqra; Leviticus 26
  51. ^ Shemoth; Exodus 35 through 40, Wayiqra; Leviticus, Bamidhbar; Numbers, Devariam; Deuteronomy
  52. ^ Devariam; Deuteronomy 28 and 29 and 30
  53. ^ Devariam; Deuteronomy
  54. ^ Yehoshua; Joshua, Shoftim; Judges, Shmuel; Samuel, Melakhim; Kings
  55. ^ Melakhim; Kings, Divrei HaYamim; Chronicles
  56. ^ Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah


See also

Yet despite these events Yahweh does not forget his people, but sends Cyrus, king of Persia to deliver them from bondage. The Israelites are allowed to return to Judah and Benjamin, the Holy Temple is rebuilt, the priestly orders restored, and the service of sacrifice resumed. Through the offices of the sage Ezra, Israel is constituted as a holy nation, bound by the Torah and holding itself apart from all other peoples.[36][56]

The kings of the northern Kingdom of Samaria are uniformly bad, permitting the worship of other gods and failing to enforce the worship of Yahweh alone, and so Yahweh eventually allows them to be conquered and dispersed among the peoples of the earth; and strangers rule over their remnant in the northern land. In Judah some kings are good and enforce the worship of Yahweh alone, but many are bad and permit other gods, even in the Holy Temple itself, and at length Yahweh allows Judah to fall to her enemies, the people taken into captivity in Babylon, the land left empty and desolate, and the Holy Temple itself destroyed.[36][55]

Forty years after the Exodus, following the death of the generation of Moses, a new generation, led by Joshua, enters Canaan and takes possession of the land in accordance with the promise made to Abraham by Yahweh. Land is allocated to the tribes by lottery. Eventually the Israelites ask for a king, and Yahweh gives them Saul. David, the youngest (divinely favored) son of Jesse of Bethlehem would succeed Saul. Under David the Israelites establish the united monarchy, and under David's son Solomon they construct the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, using the 400-year-old materials of the Mishkan, where Yahweh continues to tabernacle himself among them. On the death of Solomon and reign of his son, Rehoboam, the kingdom is divided in two.[54]

Before Moses dies he gives a speech to the Israelites where he paraphrases a summary of the mizwoth given to them by Yahweh, and recites a prophetic song called the Ha'azinu. Moses prophesies that if the Israelites disobey the Torah, Yahweh will cause a global exile in addition to the minor one prophesied earlier at Mount Sinai, but at the end of days Yahweh will gather them back to Israel from among the nations when they turn back to the Torah with zeal.[52] The events of the Israelite exodus and their sojourn in the Sinai are memorialized in the Jewish and Samaritan festivals of Passover and Sukkoth, and the giving of the Torah in the Jewish celebration of Shavuoth.[36][53]

Moses descends Mount Sinai and the Israelites agree to be the chosen people of Yahweh and follow all the laws of the Torah. Moses prophesies if they forsake the Torah, Yahweh will exile them for the total number of years they did not observe the shmita.[50] Bezael constructs the Ark of the Covenant and the Mishkan, where the presence of Yahweh dwells on earth in the Holy of Holies, above the Ark of the Covenant, which houses the Ten Commandments. Moses sends spies to scout out the Land of Canaan, and the Israelites are commanded to go up and conquer the land, but they refuse, due to their fear of warfare and violence. In response, Yahweh condemns the entire generation, including Moses, who is condemned for striking the rock at Meribah, to exile and death in the Sinai desert.[51]

[49] Moses then fasts for another forty days while Yahweh carves the Ten Commandments into a second set of stone tablets. After the tablets are completed, light emanates from the face of Moses for the rest of his life, causing him to wear a veil so he does not frighten people.[48]

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