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For citizens of the modern State of Israel, see Israelis. For other uses of "Israelite", see Israelites (disambiguation)
"Twelve Tribes of Israel" redirects here. For the Rastafari Mansion (branch), see Twelve Tribes of Israel (Rastafari).
Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel. From a synagogue wall in Jerusalem.

The Israelites (בני ישראל, Standard: Bnai Yisraʾel; Tiberian: Bnai Yiśrāʾēl; ISO 259-3 (Arabic: بني اسرائيل Bani Isra'il): Bnai Yiśraʾel, translated as "Children of Israel" or "Sons of Israel") were a Semitic Hebrew-speaking people of the Ancient Near East, who inhabited part of Canaan during the tribal and monarchic periods (15th to 6th centuries BCE).

The biblical term "Israelites", also known as the "Twelve Tribes" or "Children of Israel", means both the direct descendants of the patriarch Jacob as well as the historical populations of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah.1 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 and Galilee, and Samaria respectively.

The Jews, which includes the tribes of Judah, Simeon, Benjamin and partially Levi, are named after the Kingdom of Judah. This shift of ethnonym from "Israelites" to "Jews", although not contained in the Torah, is made explicit in the Book of Esther (4th century BCE),2 a book in the Ketuvim, the third section of the Jewish Tanakh. The Samaritans, whose religious texts consists 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 to be Israelites, as per the Torah.

Samaria contained the remaining ten tribes, but following the Kingdom of Israel's conquest by Assyria, these were allegedly dispersed and lost to history, and henceforth known as the Ten Lost Tribes. Jewish tradition holds that Samaria is named so 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.

The Samaritans claim to be the successors to the Kingdom of Israel, but the Jews contested that assertion, and deemed 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. Among Jews, the dispute was as to whether or not Samaritans, having been deemed foreign converts, were valid converts. Eventually it was determined that they were not.

The terms "Jews" and "Samaritans" largely replaced the title "Children of Israel"3 as the common used ethnonym for each respective community.

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.


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 word "Israelite" comes from Greek Ισραηλίτεςcitation needed and derives from the Biblical Hebrew word "Yisrael"(יִשְׂרָאֵל).citation needed The name Israel first appears 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".

The eponymous biblical patriarch of the Israelites is Jacob, who, according to the Bible, wrestled with God who gave him a blessing and renamed him "Israel" because he had "striven with God and with men, and have prevailed". (Genesis 32:24-32) The Hebrew Bible etymologizes the name as from yisra "to prevail over" or "to struggle/wrestle with", and el, "God, the divine".45 The name Hebrews is sometimes used synonymously with "Israelites".


See also: Hebrews

According to the Hebrew Bible, prior to a meeting with his brother Esau, the biblical patriarch Jacob wrestles an angel on the shores of the Jabbok river and is given the name Israel.45 Throughout the rest of the Torah, Jacob is referred to at times as both Jacob and Israel.

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 a member of the tribe of Judah, which formed the nucleus of the kingdom of Judah.

Historical Israelites

The prevailing opinion today is that the Israelites, who eventually evolved into modern Jews, are an outgrowth of the indigenous Canaanites who had resided in the area since the 8th millennium BCE.6 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, 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". The hieroglyph accompanying the name "Israel" indicates that it refers to a people, most probably located in the highlands of Samaria.7 Over the next two hundred years (the period of Iron Age I) the number of highland villages increased from 25 to over 3008 and the settled population doubled to 40,000.9 There is general agreement that the majority of the population living in these villages was of Canaanite origin.8 By the 10th century BCE a rudimentary state had emerged in the north-central highlands,10 and in the 9th century this became a kingdom. The kingdom was sometimes called Israel by its neighbours, but more frequently it was known as the "House (or Land) of Omri."11 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,12 and from 850 BCE onwards a series of inscriptions are evidence of a kingdom which its neighbours refer to as the "House of David."13

Biblical Israelites

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).14

The mothers of Jacob's sons are:

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. The god of Israel reveals his name to Moses, a Hebrew of the line of Levi; Moses leads the Israelites out of bondage and into the desert, where God gives them their laws and the Israelites agree to become his people. Nevertheless, the Israelites lack complete faith in God, and the generation which left Egypt is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Those events are memorialized in the Jewish and Samaritan holiday of Passover, as well as the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.14

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 God. Eventually the Israelites ask for a king, and God gives them Saul. David, the youngest (divinely favored) son of Jesse of Bethlehem would succeed Saul. Under David the Israelites establish the kingdom of God, and under David's son Solomon they build the Temple where God takes his earthly dwelling among them. On his death and reign of his son, Rehoboam, the kingdom is divided in two.

The kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are uniformly bad, permitting the worship of other gods and failing to enforce the worship of God alone, and so God eventually allows them to be conquered and dispersed among the peoples of the earth; in their place strangers settle the northern land. In Judah some kings are good and enforce the worship of God alone, but many are bad and permit other gods, even in the Temple itself, and at length God allows Judah to fall to her enemies, the people taken into captivity in Babylon, the land left empty and desolate, and the Temple itself destroyed.14

Yet despite these events God 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 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 community, bound by the Law and holding itself apart from all other peoples.14

See also


  1. ^ Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard (edsclarification needed), Israelite, in "Mercer dictionary of the Bible", p. 420
  2. ^ The people and the faith of the Bible by André Chouraqui, Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1975, p. 43 [1]
  3. ^ Settings of silver: an introduction to Judaism, Stephen M. Wylen, Paulist Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8091-3960-X, p. 59
  4. ^ a b Scherman, Rabbi Nosson (editor), The Chumash, The Artscroll Series, Mesorah Publications, LTD, 2006, pages 176–77
  5. ^ a b Kaplan, Aryeh, "Jewish Meditation", Schocken Books, New York, 1985, page 125
  6. ^ Tubb 1998, pp. 13–14
  7. ^ Grabbe 2008, p.75
  8. ^ a b McNutt 1999, p. 47.
  9. ^ McNutt 1999, p. 70.
  10. ^ Joffe pp.440 ff.
  11. ^ Davies, 1992, pp.63-64.
  12. ^ Joffe p.448-9.
  13. ^ Joffe p.450.
  14. ^ a b c d e The Jews in the time of Jesus: an introduction page 18 Stephen M. Wylen, Paulist Press, 1996, 215 pages, pp.18-20