What is the difference between a Hebrew, an Israelite and a Jew?
The Bible refers to Hebrews, Israelites and Jews. It is important to understand that they do not all refer to the same group of people they are in fact 3 separate groups of people.. Not all Hebrews are Israelites and not all Israelites or Jews.
So let’s see how the Bible refers to each group and who they are.
The first time we come across the word Hebrew is in Genesis where Abram(Abraham) is called a Hebrew
Genesis 14:13 And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he dwelt in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner: and these were confederate with Abram.
The Hebrew word for Hebrew is עִבְרִי Ibri. Strongs definition states that this is derived from Eber and is used of his descendants.
Eber himself was a descendant of Shem.
Genesis 10: 21Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born.
In Genesis 11 we can see that Abraham was a descendent to Eber
Genesis 11: 10These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood: 11And Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.12And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah: 13And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.14And Salah lived thirty years, and begat Eber: 15And Salah lived after he begat Eber four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.16And Eber lived four and thirty years, and begat Peleg: 17And Eber lived after he begat Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters.18And Peleg lived thirty years, and begat Reu: 19And Peleg lived after he begat Reu two hundred and nine years, and begat sons and daughters.20And Reu lived two and thirty years, and begat Serug: 21And Reu lived after he begat Serug two hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters.22And Serug lived thirty years, and begat Nahor:23And Serug lived after he begat Nahor two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.24And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begat Terah: 25And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters.26And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran.
The Hebrew word for Eber is עֵבֵר eber and means region beyond.
Wherever the term Hebrew came from what we do know is that Abraham or Abram is referred to as being one.
As Abraham was a Hebrew ALL his children would also be Hebrews.
Abraham had a son, Ishmael, through Hagar:
Genesis 16: 15And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.
Abraham also had a son, Isaac, through Sarah:
Genesis 21: 2 For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. 3 And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.
Abraham would go on to have 6 more sons through Keturah:
Genesis 25: 1Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah. 2And she bare him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah.
All the children of Abraham were Hebrews. All the children of the children of Abraham would also be Hebrews.
Now Isaac had his own sons, twins, Esau and Jacob.
Genesis 25: 24And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau. 26And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob: and Isaac was threescore years old when she bare them.
So again both Esau and Jacob would have been Hebrews.
Genesis 35: 22And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve: 23The sons of Leah; Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun: 24The sons of Rachel; Joseph, and Benjamin: 25And the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid; Dan, and Naphtali: 26And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid; Gad, and Asher: these are the sons of Jacob, which were born to him in Padanaram.
All these sons are also Hebrews.
God changed Jacob’s name to Israel.
Genesis 35: 10And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel.
The sons of Jacob/Israel became the Israelites.
So while the sons of Esau, Jacob/Israel’s brother were Hebrews like the sons of Israel, only the sons of Israel were Israelites.
Esau became the father of the Edomites
Genesis 36:9 And these are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in mount Seir:
The Edomites would therefore also be classed as Hebrews but not Israelites.
Moses, was the son of a Hebrew woman
Exodus 2:6 And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children.
The brethren of Moses, his people, were also called Hebrews:
Exodus 2:11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.
Moses was a descendent of Israel through Levi:
Exodus 6: 14These be the heads of their fathers’ houses: The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel; Hanoch, and Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi: these be the families of Reuben. 15And the sons of Simeon; Jemuel, and Jamin, and Ohad, and Jachin, and Zohar, and Shaul the son of a Canaanitish woman: these are the families of Simeon. 16And these are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations; Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari: and the years of the life of Levi were an hundred thirty and seven years. 17The sons of Gershon; Libni, and Shimi, according to their families. 18And the sons of Kohath; Amram, and Izhar, and Hebron, and Uzziel: and the years of the life of Kohath were an hundred thirty and three years. 19And the sons of Merari; Mahali and Mushi: these are the families of Levi according to their generations. 20And Amram took him Jochebed his father’s sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses: and the years of the life of Amram were an hundred and thirty and seven years.
We know that the same people that are called Hebrews were the children of Israel
Exodus 6: 13And the LORD spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, and gave them a charge unto the children of Israel, and unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.
The first use of the word Israelite comes in Exodus during the plagues where the Hebrews, the children of Israel are referred to as Israelites:
Exodus 9:7 And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. And the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.
So the children of Jacob who is named Israel are the Israelites.
Israel would later become 2 separate nations when the Southern kingdom split from the Northern kingdom:
1 Kings 12: 16So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents.17But as for the children of Israel which dwelt in the cities of Judah, Rehoboam reigned over them. 18Then king Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was over the tribute; and all Israel stoned him with stones, that he died. Therefore king Rehoboam made speed to get him up to his chariot, to flee to Jerusalem. 19So Israel rebelled against the house of David unto this day.
The Northern Kingdom is known as the house of Israel and the southern kingdom the house of Judah.
It is prophesied that they will again unite.
Jeremiah 3:18 In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance unto your fathers.
The first use of the word Jew comes after the 2 Kingdoms had split and was used to refer to the southern kingdom of Israel.
2 Kings 16:6 At that time Rezin king of Syria recovered Elath to Syria, and drave the Jews from Elath: and the Syrians came to Elath, and dwelt there unto this day.
The term Jew does not include all Israelites. The Northern kingdom of Israel are not Jews.
So to recap, Hebrews are descendants of Eber, or at least Abraham. Israelites come from the lineage of Jacob/Israel and the Jews refer ONLY to the southern kingdom of Israel.