Monday, June 6, 2011

Origin of the Description "Jew"

Origin of the Appellation "Jew"

Written by Dr. Ed Gallagher

God's covenant people in the Old Testament typically bear the name "Sons of Israel" (600+ times), or, in some translations, "Israelites." They are occasionally also called Hebrews (Gen. 14:13; 39:14, 17; Exod. chs. 1-10), usually in contexts in which the Israelites are interacting with foreigners. The name "Hebrew" is of disputed origin, but it perhaps refers either to their descent from Eber (cf. Gen. 10:21ff.) or to Abraham's crossing the Euphrates River to travel from his homeland in Mesopotamia to the Promised Land of Canaan. The verb for "cross over" in Hebrew is abhar, so there might be a relationship between this word and the word "Hebrew."

The Old Testament also speaks of "Jews" in some later books, such as Esther (2:5; 3:6; etc.), Ezra (4:12; 5:1; etc.), and Nehemiah (2:16; etc.), but also 2 Kings (25:25), Jeremiah (32:12; 38:19; etc.), Daniel (3:8, 12), and Zechariah (8:23). The word translated "Jew" is Yehudi, which actually means "Judaean" or a person belonging to the people of Judah.

The prominence of this designation for God's covenant people in the later period of the Old Testament must be understood in the context of Israelite history. The Book of 1 Kings (ch. 12) narrates that following the death of Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel divided into two separate nations, with the northern nation retaining the name "Israel" and the southern nation taking the name "Judah". In fact, the new nation of Judah was composed almost entirely of the tribe of Judah, but the tribe of Benjamin also belonged to the southern nation (1 Kings 12:21, 23). The northern nation, Israel, was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC (cf. 2 Kings 17), leaving the southern nation, Judah, alone. Therefore, from 722 BC forward, the covenant people of God were strictly Judaeans, or Jews. They were taken captive by the Babylonians/Chaldeans led by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25), but they maintained their distinctiveness in captivity (see, e.g., Ezekiel), and were restored to their homeland when the Persians took over, led by Cyrus the Great (ca. 538 BC). But again, these were Judaeans (Jews), not all of Israel.

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