It is common to confuse Jews with Israelites today as almost all Jews live in Israel. And although all Jews are Israelites, all Israelites are not Jews. To explain the reason for this, it is important to specify the difference between being a Jew and an Israelite. Although both sets of groups fall under the group of Hebrews, there are some significant differences between the two. Hebrews, Israelites and Jews all belong to the nation that was chosen by God in the Old Testament.
Legend has it that Jacob, who was the son of Isaac and was also the promised son of Abraham had his name changed to Israel when he wrestled with a Holy man (sent by God). In simple words, the nation that grew from the descendants of the followers of Abraham and Isaac (and then Jacob aka Israel) later got to be known as Israel, and its people Israelites. Later when the nation divided, the people of the northern part kept the name Israelites whereas their Southern counterparts now became known as Judahs.
To clarify the difference between the two, let’s first take a look at the history of the two groups. The group of people who migrated and settled in what is now known as Palestinian hinterland sometime around the fourteenth century are normally referred to as Hebrews. After the death of King Solomon, there was a division in the commonwealth of Israel. This gave rise to a Northern kingdom that was comprised of ten main tribes which became Israel. Shechem was its first capital which was later replaced by Samaria which became the new permanent capital. Then there was the Southern Kingdom which consisted of the Judah, Benjamin as well as some other tribes which became known as the nation of Judah. Its capital remained in Jerusalem. Judah however was later captured by Babylon.
Although there are many conflicts and confusions regarding the facts, what is most commonly considered is the legend that there were two Hebrew kingdoms to start with. One of them, Israel, was the larger and more prosperous one and was north relative to the other, Judah. Judah was the southern kingdom and although gained power in the future, was smaller and less wealthy than Israel. The people of Judah were known as Judahs and that of Israel, Israelites. In the bible, there is reference to a united monarchy comprised of two kingdoms, together known as Israel sometime around the tenth century BC.
During the Babylonian Exile, power remained with the Judah kings as well as the Judah religious leaders. Judahism began to expand in Judah in the 7th Century BC and during the Babylonian Exile, became the national religion of the citizens. After being exiled to Babylon, and when they returned, these people became known as Jews. It is their descendants who are the Jews living today. The Bible however, called all these people Israelites; the native Judahites as well as the refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel.
The fact that the Bible uses a collective term to refer to both of these accounts for the fact that there is widespread confusion today between Judahs/Jews and Israelites. The two words are used interchangeably and although it is true that there is not much difference between the two today, history shows how the two groups evolved and were often up as each other’s rivals.
Summary of differences expressed in points
- Initially one nation-Israel-its people collectively known as Israelites or Hebrews; later divided into two nations, Israel and Judah, with the people then known as Israelites and Judahs respectively (Judahs are the same as Jews)
- Israel divided after the death of King Solomon; the northern part kept the name Israel, the Southern tribes became the nation of Judah
- Of the two, Israel (northern part) was larger and more prosperous
- During the Babylonian Exile, power remained with the Judah Kings and religious leaders despite the larger population and prosperity of Israel
- In the 7th Century (during the Babylonian Exile), Judahism expanded and became the national religion of the nation
- This was the time that the Judahs started being referred to as Jews (as known today)