This is part of a series of posts looking at your questions about theology.
Question: What’s the difference between an Israelite and an Israeli? Why do I not find the word “Israeli” in the Bible?
Jeremy Jernigan – Executive Pastor
A couple of groups from Central spent the last few weeks exploring Israel. It is a profound experience on multiple levels, but at least two in particular. The first is the way it illuminates the Bible for you. It takes a 2D book and brings it to life in glorious, high-definition 3D. It’s like having an “aha” moment again and again as you see the things you’ve read about for years. The second way it’s profound is how the current tension over the land has shaped a world conflict that few people understand yet are affected by in numerous ways.
Which leads us to our question. It’s not a complicated answer, but it will hopefully open the conversation for you to consider this area in a new light. In a nutshell, Israelites refer to the Jews in the Old Testament, while Israelis refer to people with Israeli citizenship after 1948. A portion of Israelis today are not Jewish (about 25 percent), but it is important to also remember that Jewish Israelis have deep and historic connections to the land.
Let’s address the word Israelite first. If you go off the NIV English translation, we find the first use of Israelite in Genesis 32:32. In the NIV the word appears 746 times in the Old Testament and 20 times in the New Testament. Of those in the New Testament only once does it appear in the Gospels (John 1:47). The Apostle Peter provided a helpful summary of the way the Israelites fit into the narrative of Christ in Acts 3:12-26. Stephen—the first person to be martyred—does the same in Acts 7:2-53, as does the Apostle Paul in Acts 13:16-41.
Now, about the word Israeli: why does 1948 matter? That’s the year the British backed out of occupation of the region and Jews in the area declared themselves the nation of Israel through the support of the United Nations. The way this took place set in motion much of the conflict today on both sides. Many people think of the tension in this region as ancient, but I’m inclined to side with those who see it as just a bit older than 100 years. This is why you don’t find this word in the Bible. It’s a fascinating history and one that’s worth spending some time studying. If you’re interested, click here for a great link on resources such as books and videos.
Disclaimer: I’m providing you with my answer to these questions and what makes the most sense to me Biblically. There are numerous other Christians who would provide different answers. If you disagree with me, there’s no need to email me or any other staff member. I’m not making sweeping statements that define all views of Central and its leadership. The point is to create an environment where we go deeper in our understanding and experience with God. At the very least I invite you to consider thoughtfully the answers I give, even if they differ from your views. If you would like to talk through this post with someone, please email us at email@example.com.Click here for the photo credit on this post