Israel

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The name 'Israel' has at least four uses.

  • Nowadays the name 'Israel' most commonly refers to the Jewish republic established in 1948 in the former British mandate of Palestine. Situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and occupying a narrow corridor between the valley of the river Jordan and the sea, Israel is bordered by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the north-east, Jordan to the east, and Egypt to the south. Throughout its brief history the state of Israel has been in conflict with one or more of its Arab neighbours and has fought no fewer than four wars (in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973). The modern state of Israel, or its citizens, make claims with greater or lesser strength to be a descendant, revival, continuation of, or successor to, the ancient kingdom. It certainly privileges Jews against other inhabitants.
  • In the context of Ancient Middle Eastern History 'Israel' may sometimes refer to the kingdom which came into existence towards the end of the eleventh century BCE when the twelve Israelite tribes - see below - which had previously formed a loose confederacy, acknowledged the authority of a single ruler. The most famous of the Israelite rulers were David (c1040 - c970 BCE, ruled c1006 - c970), its second king, who greatly strengthened the kingdom and established Jerusalem as its capital, and Solomon (c1011 - c931, ruled c970 - c931), David's son, who succeeded him on the throne and was renowned for his wisdom. Unfortunately Solomon's son and successor Rehoboam did not inherit his father's wisdom and dealt harshly with the Israelites, who were already complaining about the heavy burden of taxation. (See II Chronicles ch. 10, especially v. 11: 'My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions'.) Rehoboam's oppressive rule led in c930 to the secession of ten of the twelve Israelite tribes, who formed a separate kingdom in the north of the country, leaving Rehoboam to rule over the other two tribes in the south.
  • The name 'Israel' may sometimes refer to this northern kingdom of the ten tribes by contrast with the southern kingdom of the two tribes, which was known as Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel lasted for two centuries until it was overcome by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, while the southern kingdom continued in existence until 586 when it was conquered by the Babylonians, who deported many of the nobility into exile in Babylon (see, e.g., Daniel and Susanna). Relations between the northern and southern kingdoms were rarely amicable.
  • The name 'Israel' was originally the name not of a country but of a person. It was applied to the Jewish patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, because he wrestled with, and obtained the blessing of, an angel: Genesis ch. 32, v. 28: 'And <the angel> said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed'. (The etymology of 'Israel' - in Hebrew יִשְׂרָאֵל, yisrael - is not certain: according to a widely held view, which reflects Genesis ch. 32, it comes from a root הרש, s-r-h, meaning 'to fight with or strive with' and אֵל, el, meaning 'God or the divine'.) Jacob had twelve sons, each of whom became the patriarch of one of the tribes of Israel. His descendants are sometimes referred to as the children of Israel or the Israelites, and it was this people that Moses led out of slavery in Egypt to the borders of the promised land of Canaan. From the fifth century BCE onwards, however, Jacob's descendants are more commonly referred to as Jews - see, e.g., Esther ch. 2, vv. 5-7: their name in Hebrew - יְהוּדִים, jehudim - comes from Judah, the southern kingdom, itself named after Jacob's son of that name.

The words Israelite and Israeli, which may be either nouns or adjectives, are not interchangeable. Israelite is used with reference to the descendants of Jacob and the ancient kingdoms of Israel - e.g., 'Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt' and 'David was an Israelite king' - while Israeli is used with reference to the modern state of Israel and its citizens - e.g., 'The Israeli prime minister is currently (2011) Binyamin Netanyahu' and 'Many Israelis view their Arab neighbours with suspicion'.