The apostle Paul, in Romans 9:6 makes a very curious statement: “For they are not all Israel who are Israel.” Wait! What?! Let’s read that again slowly. “For… they… are… not… all… Israel… who… are… Israel.” Ok, I know you’re already thinking it, so I will go ahead and ask it, “What on earth does that mean?!” (Now I see why Peter himself said, “in [Paul’s] letters…are some things hard to understand.” See 2 Peter 3:16.)
Truly, out of context, Paul’s statement – “not all Israel…are Israel” – sounds like the kind of nonsensical, double-talk that you might hear from a cloudy-minded Cheech and Chong. (Cheech: “Hey, Chong, not all brownies are brownies, right, maaaan?” Chong: “Yeaaaaah, maaan.”) On the contrary, when Paul wrote this statement he was not confused or fuzzy-minded in the least bit. In fact, he wrote these words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and was being very deliberate in his usage.
Understood in its context, Paul’s statement is actually a witty, and brilliant play-on-words that provides a helpful distinction between, what you might call, ethnic and spiritual Israel. His argument is as follows: just because you were born into the people of God (ethnic Israel – i.e. Jews) that does not automatically make you born again into the people of God (spiritual Israel – i.e. believers). Some first century Jews were taking a false sense of comfort in their Jewishness and were banking on it as their “ticket to heaven.” Paul was attempting to argue, as John 1 reminds us, true believers are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
It is easy to see why a statement like this might be confusing. If your brain doesn’t hurt just yet, get ready…it’s about to. Paul’s usage of the same word Israel (referring to two groups) is just barely scratching the surface. From Genesis to Revelation there are at least seven different “Israels” mentioned. (There may technically be more, but this is a start.) That is, there are at least seven different ways that the word “Israel” is used.
In English, the word “set” has (according to the Oxford Dictionary) 464 different meanings. You can “set the table,” play a “set of tennis,” or 462 other “set-ish” things. The key to knowing which “set” is intended, is the context. The same is true, in the Bible, with the word Israel. When you come across the word “Israel” in your reading, you should not instantly assume that it is referring to the 12 tribes, descended from Abraham. It might be. Then again, it might not be.
So, what are these different uses of “Israel?” And, how do we keep them straight? I’m glad you asked. Here’s a brief crash course in “Israel 101.”
Israel: The Person
Before Israel was a group of people, Israel was a single person, namely Jacob (son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham). Today if you want to change your name if you have wrestle with the long lines at the DMV and Social Security Administration. In Jacob’s day, you merely had to wrestle with the angel of the Lord. (Granted, I’m not sure which one would be harder. Haha!)
In Genesis 32, in the midst of their full-body, WWF smack-down match, the angel asks, “What is your name?” and Jacob responds. Verse 28, then, states, “He (the angel) said, ‘You name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed’.” (The word Israel means “he who strives/struggles with God.”) This use of Israel, as a single person (Jacob), is mainly found in the book of Genesis.
Israel: The People
From that moment forward, Jacob/Israel becomes the figurehead for his descendants. He had 12 boy children, who became known as the “sons of Israel (i.e. Jacob).” These men had their own children and they become the “12 tribes of Israel.” Other synonyms for this ethnic offspring of Jacob are: the Hebrews, the Jews, or the Israelites. This use of “Israel,” as the descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob, is the most common use of the word “Israel.” The first such use comes from Genesis 49:7, however, it is used throughout the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
Israel: The Land
After the people of Israel were released from Egypt and wandered in the desert they eventually settled in a place. The dirt, grass, hills and rocks upon which the people settled (which God originally promised to Abraham), also became known, in time, as Israel. Usually, this use of Israel (as a place) is more specifically referred to as “the land of Israel.” You can find this use of Israel on the maps in the back of your Bible. The first mention of the “land of Israel” appears in 1 Samuel 13:19, but it most commonly appears in the books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ezekiel. (This land, by the way, is what much of the fighting in the Middle East is about. It’s crazy to think that a land mass, barely the size of Rhode Island, is ground zero from some of the hottest, deadliest, meanest wars and acts of terrorism in history. We do, indeed, need to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”)
Israel: The Northern Tribes
After David and Solomon ruled over the people and land of Israel, the 12 tribes had a civil war and, in about 930BC, split into two groups: 10 of them in the north and 2 of them in the south. The 2 southern tribes became known as Judah. The 10 northern tribes retained the name “Israel.” (Another synonym for these 10 tribes is Ephraim.) The 10 tribes and 2 tribes were, sometimes, allies with each other but sometimes enemies. Ultimately, petty rivalries, jealousies and a string of wicked kings within the 10 tribes, led them into captivity (722 BC.) This use of Israel is found in King, Chronicles, as well as several prophets.
Israel: The Southern Tribes
Even though the southern tribes were most commonly called Judah, there are a few obscure Old Testament passages where they are also referred to as Israel. (See Isaiah 5:7, 8:18, and Jeremiah 10:1). This reference to the Southern Tribes as Israel, happened after the Northern Kingdom fell. Such use is rare and found mainly within the Major Prophets.
Israel: All the People of God
We finally come to the New Testament. In the New Testament, we find Israel referred to as a person (Jacob), people (Hebrews/Jews), and a land. (It is hardly, if ever, referred to as the 10 or 2 tribes in the New Testament.) However, there is yet one more use to be explored.
As mentioned previously, Paul referred to “not all Israel as Israel” in Romans 9. Without opening a “can of Dispensational/Covenantal worms,” there are some instances, in the New Testament, where Israel is used as a reference to all the true, believing people of God, including the church.
As explained earlier, Paul’s argument in Romans 9, is that being an ethnic Israelite does not make you a true Israelite (i.e. believer). Elsewhere, Paul argues that “it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” (Gal 3:7) In Galatians 6:15, Paul states that, “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision…” he then blessed, “the Israel of God” (which, in its context, refers to the church.) Again, there are, no doubt, finer points of theological debate wrapped up into this New Testament usage, but I think it is quite clear that Israel can also refer to all, true believers (Jews and Gentiles alike.)
So, what does all of this mean?
1) Be careful when you come across the word “Israel” and determine which one is in view.
2) The next time you see a bumper sticker, T-shirt, or hear someone adamantly state, “I support Israel!” – maybe you could politely ask them, “Not all Israel is Israel…so, which one do you mean?”