What is the origin of the word Israel?

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The word “Israel” first appeared in the Bible when it was given to Jacob after his wrestling with a heavenly being. The heavenly stranger said to him, “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” (Genesis 32:28). The word Israel was applied to Jacob alone and it represented his spiritual victory over sin, through wrestling in prayer and claiming God’s grace.

Later on, Jacob had 12 sons who moved into Egypt. The descendants of these sons multiplied into the 12 tribes. This group was enslaved by the Egyptians until the time of Moses. God commanded Pharaoh through Moses to free His people saying, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn … Let my son go” (Exodus 4:22, 23). Now, the word Israel referred to Jacob’s descendants (Hosea 11:1).

In the New Testament, Jesus became the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). And the statements that once applied to the nation of Israel are now applied to Jesus Christ and His followers. For example, the Lord told the ancient Israelites, “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In the New Testament, Peter applies these exact words to the church: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9).

Paul told his Gentile converts, “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). And he added, “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Romans 9:6). That is, not all are part of God’s spiritual Israel who are of the literal nation of Israel. Paul continued: “That is, they which are the children of the flesh [physical descendants of Abraham], these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (v. 8).

Thus, one group is composed of literal Israelites “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3, 4). The other is “spiritual Israel,” composed of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ. The children of the flesh are only natural descendants of Abraham, but the children of the promise are counted as the true seed. Today, any person—Jew or Gentile—can become part of this spiritual nation through faith in Jesus Christ.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team


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