where does the word Jew come from?

HEBREW TRIBES: 3000+ YEARS AGO

According to the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), the Twelve Tribes of Israel were named after Jacob’s sons and grandsons. The tribes were as follows: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Benjamin, and Joseph (which later split into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh). Each tribe — save for the Levites, who were not allowed to be landowners (more on this later) — had its own territory within the Land of Israel.

We know for a fact that the Twelve Tribes were mentioned as early as the 7th century BCE. Some historians argue that the number 12 isn’t literal, but rather, that the People of Israel used it in their founding myth because the number 12 was of sacred and symbolic significance for the cultures of the region during that time period.

The story that all of the tribes descended from the same patriarch — Jacob, also known as Israel — is unlikely. One historian argues: “The stories of Jacob and his children, then, are not accounts of historical Bronze Age people. Rather, they tell us how much later Jews and Israelites understood themselves, their origins, and their relationship to the land, within the context of folktales that had evolved over time.” Historians also point out that it was common during the time period to ascribe “human” characteristics and names to entire tribes and clans. For example, the “Benjamin” mentioned in the Torah likely did not refer to a single person but was a metaphor for an entire tribe.

Another theory is that the names of the tribes did not originate from people but rather from the names of geographical regions, local deities, and ethnic origins. For instance, “Asher” was a Phoenician territory, whose name likely originated from the ancient Semitic goddess Asherah. Other tribes bear the names of ancient Canaanite sites, such as the “mountains of Naphtali.” Finally, other historians suggest that the story of the Twelve Tribes might’ve also originated from administrative divisions created under King David (1040 BCE - 970 BCE).

 

KINGDOM OF ISRAEL: 1047 BCE-930 BCE

According to the Tanakh AND archeological findings, at some point around 3000 years ago, a confederation of Israelite tribes (archeologically-speaking, of unknown number) came together to unite under a single state, known as the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel. Archeological evidence and genetic studies suggest that the Israelites did not take the region by force but actually emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes that had long inhabited the area and came together through the evolution of their spiritual, eventually monotheistic beliefs.

It’s important to note that during that time period, there was no distinction between a group’s tribal, ethnic, national, and/or religious identity. This continues to be true of other Indigenous Peoples today and is something major that Jews have in common with other Indigenous groups around the world.

The Kingdom of Israel was established in 1047 BCE. While there is archeological and historical debate regarding the grandiosity of the United Monarchy as depicted in the Torah, there is enough archeological evidence to assume that a centralized Israelite state existed during this time period.

 

930 BCE: KINGDOMS SPLIT

In 930 BCE, following the death of King Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel split into the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. According to the narrative in the Tanakh, the ten northern tribes refused to submit to his son, Rehoboam, after revolting against heavy taxes. From a historic perspective, this split was the result of tribal discord and political unrest.

The northern Kingdom of Israel comprised of the territories belonging to the tribes of Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar, Manasseh, Gad, Ephraim, Dan, and Reuben. The southern Kingdom of Judah comprised of the territories belonging to the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin.

 

722 BCE: ASSYRIAN EXILE

Between 740-722 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and expelled its inhabitants, both displacing them internally (i.e. from the northern Kingdom of Israel to the southern Kingdom of Judah), as well as taking captives with them outside of the Land of Israel. Many Levites, for example, survived the invasion by resettling in the Kingdom of Judah. The account of the Assyrian Captivity is verified by both Jewish and Assyrian sources. According to Assyrian sources, 27,290 Israelites were taken captive.

Samaritans, the closest ethnoreligious cousins to Jews, are descended from the survivors of the Assyrian conquest belonging to the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi (i.e. Samaritan Kohanim). The name “Samaritans” comes from “Samaria” (“Shomron” in Hebrew), the capital of the southern Kingdom of Israel. Following the Assyrian conquest, King Sargon II of Assyria turned the kingdom into the Assyrian province of Samerina.

For millennia, many religions — including Christianity — have speculated over the whereabouts of the “lost tribes,” meaning the tribes that were exiled from the Kingdom of Israel after the Neo-Assyrian invasion. Most historians, however, believe that these tribes long assimilated into and intermarried with the dominant populations and lost their original tribal identities.

 

KINGDOM OF JUDAH: 930-587 BCE

The term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE). In Hebrew, Jew is “Yehudi,” meaning someone from “Yehuda” (Judah).

In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah and displaced its residents, taking about 25% of Jews as captives. This account is verified by Jewish and Babylonian sources, as well as archeological excavations. Due to the political upheaval, deportations, and famine, archaeologist Avraham Faust calculates that only about 10% of the population survived in the Land of Israel. In 539 BCE, the Babylonians allowed Jews to return, though many stayed in Babylon.

Historians widely agree that the Torah — that is, the Five Books of Moses — were canonized during the Babylonian period. During the exilic period (587/6-539 BCE), the prominent and educated upper class that knew how to read and write was exiled to Babylon. Prior to the exile, Jewish culture and spiritual life was deeply centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. However, with the Temple destroyed and the Judeans displaced, the compilation of Torah texts allowed the exiled Jews to continue practicing their culture from afar.

In other words, the Torah was compiled as a sort of tribal charter to prevent assimilation into the Babylonian population, as had happened to the exiled Israelites in Assyria two centuries prior.

 

ISRAEL: ETYMOLOGY

The name “Israel” dates back to the period of the Torah and has been in use for at least 3000 years. The word “Israel” was used not only in Hebrew but also in other, now-extinct Canaanite languages, such as Ugaritic and Eblaite.

According to the Torah, “Israel” was the name ascribed to the Jewish patriarch Jacob after he wrestled with an angel. The word roughly translates to “one who wrestles with God.”

Jacob’s descendants were called Israelites, who then went on to establish the Kingdom of Israel (1047-930 BCE). If you will recall from an earlier slide, the narrative of the Tanakh tells that the Hebrew tribes were named after Jacob’s children.

The first known non-Biblical usage of “Israel” was found in an Egyptian inscription dating back to 1209 BCE. It refers to “Israel” as a people. The Quran and the Christian Bible both describe Jews as “the People of Israel” or “the Children of Israel.”

The term “Eretz Israel,” or Land of Israel, has long described the geographical area where the Israelites lived, though its borders are not clearly defined, changing throughout the millennia depending on who was in power. Records from the second century CE confirm that Jews continued to refer to what is now Israel-Palestine as “the Land of Israel,” even after the Romans changed its name from Judea to Syria-Palestina.

 

JEW, JUDAISM: ETYMOLOGY

To reiterate: the term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE), which was named after the Tribe of Judah. In Hebrew, Jew is “Yehudi,”meaning someone from “Yehuda” (Judah). Some Biblical scholars believe “Judah” translates to “thank God.”

The concept of “religion” is not a Jewish one. There is no exact equivalent to the word “religion” in Hebrew. The closest terms are “dat” (“law”) and “emuna” (“belief”). Virtually all Indigenous tribes have a spiritual framework specific to their tribe.

Indigenous tribes worldwide generally make no distinction between their tribal identity, peoplehood, and religious/spiritual practice. Their spirituality is an intrinsic part of who they are as a people. For Jews, it is no different.

The term Judaism — which originates not from Hebrew but from the Greek Ioudaismos — could be translated as “Jew-hood” or “the aggregate of all those characteristics that makes Judaeans Judaean (or Jews Jewish)."  To the Greeks, “Ioudaismos” was a Jewish equivalent to the term “Hellenismos,” which described Greek cultural norms, particularly in the context of the Greek colonization of Indigenous Peoples.

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