Why Is Israel Called Israel?

A brief history of the tribe and of the word 'Israel,' and how the modern state almost came to be called something completely different. Hint: Who is Isaac Pernhoff?

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This week the State of Israel celebrates its 67th Independence Day, which is an apposite time to ask: How did Israel get its name?

This is actually three separate questions. What did the name Israel originally mean? How did the ancient Jewish people and their homeland come to be known as "Israel"? And how and why was this particular name chosen for the modern state?

The Israel Stele

“Israel” has been the name of an ethnic group in the Levant going back at least 3200 years, based on the first known mention of the name in the written record, which was in ancient Egypt.

That is a hieroglyphic inscription on the Merneptah Stele (also known as the "Israel Stele"). Dating from the late 13th century BCE, the inscription says that "Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more".

In any case, for all Pharaoh Merneptah's claim to have crushed the people called Israel, they did survive the Egyptian incursion into Canaan in the late 13th century BCE and would evolve into a consolidated Kingdom of Israel centered around the capital city, Samaria, during the first centuries of the first millennium BCE. But evidently the name Israel goes back more than 3200 years: how did this tribe get that name?

Based on the Bible itself, the ancient peoples of the Levant were generally named for their progenitors. For example, the smaller southern kingdom of Judah is named for Judah, the son of Jacob.

But the biblical explanation for the name of Israel is more complicated. The common ancestor of the Israelites was not a character named Israel, but Jacob (Ya'akov in Hebrew).

One night, Jacob was attacked by a celestial being. They wrestled all night, and in the morning, seeing he could not prevail, Jacob’s assailant agreed to bless Jacob in return for a truce, and gave him a new name: “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)

Thus Jacob was renamed Israel after he battled with God and won - but what does the name literally mean?

The verb 'isra'?

Theophoric names, consisting of the name of a deity and a verb, were common in the ancient Near East. (Examples still in use today include Jeremiah, "God exalts," Daniel and Jehoshaphat – both meaning "God judges", any number of names based on the Greek and Roman gods, and so on).

And while "Israel" is evidently a theophoric name, the Biblical account of the name's origin is hard to accept. For one thing, its description of how the name was conferred isn't how theophoric names worked.

According to the etymology based on the Biblical story, "isra" is a verb that describes Jacob's relationship with the deity El.

But the verb in theophoric names in the ancient Near East, and in ancient Israel in particular, should describe an attribute of the deity, not of the person. So, based on that rule, the verb isra probably described the god El in some way (who, 3,300 years ago, was not considered a sole god, but the head of the Canaanite pantheon).

The problem is that it isn’t clear what that rare verb isra means, and various scholars and translators do not agree.

The King James translation of the Bible for example, took the verb to derive from the root s-r-r and thus interpreted it “as a prince hast thou power,” or in other words, “rules like a prince”. Other scholars have suggested that the verb comes from the root y-sh-r, - meaning “straight” or “fair,” thus the name would mean something like “God is just.”

But the best answer is apparently that which the Bible itself gives in the Genesis verse above, that "isra" means “struggles,” or “fights.” But it isn't Jacob who is doing the struggling, it's God. By that interpretation, "Israel" means "God shall fight".

God on our side

But why would the ancient Israelites call themselves “God shall fight”?

Perhaps because they wanted to be known as a people whose God – remember, then, he was thought to be one of many deities - would indeed fight for them.

Supporting that argument, the Bible indicates that the ancient Israelites believed that God was fighting their battles with them, especially when they took the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle.

Meanwhile, with all due respect to Pharaoh Merneptah, the Kingdom of Israel actually came to an end over 2700 years ago, in 722 BCE, when Assyrian invaders lay waste to the capital city, Samaria – yet even this was not the end of the people of Israel.

The people of Judah + Israel

It seems that a large number of Israelite refugees fleeing the Assyrians moved from the powerful, advanced northern Kingdom of Israel into the smaller, more backward Kingdom of Judah (in the foothills of Jerusalem) after Samaria fell. These refugees brought with them the legends, myths, and scrolls of their destroyed kingdom. These were combined with those of Judah and were eventually molded into the Bible we know today.

The relations between ancient Israel and Judah are not clear; they were probably of the same ethnicity and spoke a similar proto-northwestern-Semitic dialect. It is known that after the fall of Israel, Judah experienced a great leap forward, in which the population more than doubled in two or three decades.

Over time, the Israelite texts and legends were merged with the oral lore of the Judahite people, resulting in an amalgamated history under which Judah and Israel had once been a single kingdom under the legendary Judahite kings Solomon and David; in any case, whether or not they originally were, the Israelites and Judahites became one people and their names came to be used interchangeably.

Thus two identities, Israelite and Judahite, once discrete, became synonymous.

While the Bible usually uses "Israel" to mean the northern kingdom, elsewhere the name is commonly used to refer to both Israel and Judah together, and less commonly, to Judah alone. Thus it is that Jews in the Diaspora refer to themselves as “Sons of Israel” and sometimes just Israel, in addition to the more common name Yehudim (“Jews”), which derives from the name of Judah, the southern kingdom.

Similarly, the land they left behind was often referred to as the "Land of Israel” (“Eretz Yisrael”) in addition to other names including Judah, and "Holy Land” (“Eretz HaKodesh”) .

How the modern state almost came to be named 'Tzabar'

As for the modern State of Israel, its beginnings lie in the 19th century, when the Jewish nationalist movement Zionism took shape. Members of the movement usually referred to the hoped-for nation to be formed in Palestine as “the Jewish State,” as it was called by Theodor Herzl (in German) - “Der Judenstaat.”

During the British Mandate, Palestine’s official name in Hebrew was “Eretz Yisrael.” That was the name that appeared in Hebrew (alongside "Palestine" in English and Arabic) on the local currency, stamps and official documents, lending the name "Israel" official status.

On May 14, 1948, a couple of days before the British rule over Palestine ended, the Jewish leadership in Palestine met in Tel Aviv. Presided over by David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel's first prime minister, the small group decided that a Jewish state would be declared independent on the day the British left.

Then the small band turned to discussing what to name the state.

According to the only source extant for the proceedings, an article by Palestine Post writer Moshe Brilliant, published a year later, at first the group wanted to go with the name Judah, the name of the ancient Jewish Kingdom. But this name was rejected, after some discussion, since most of historic Judah fell outside the borders of the nascent state according to the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine that was on the table at the time.

The group turned to other possible names - among them “Zion” and “Tzabar” (sabra) - but then someone suggested “Israel” and a vote was held. The name "Israel" won by 7 to 3.

As for who suggested the name, Brilliant says that it was Ben-Gurion himself. It is possible however that as he wrote a year after the event, he got this detail wrong. Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister, had been calling the future Jewish State “The State of Israel” in speeches at least since 1946, while Ben-Gurion was using “Medinat HaYehudim” (“The State of the Jews”), so it seems plausible that it was Sharett, not Ben-Gurion. (In an interview in 1965, Ben-Gurion was asked who suggested the name, and replied he didn’t remember).

Anyway, neither Ben-Gurion nor Sharett were first to call the nation "State of Israel” (“Medinat Yisrael”). That honor belongs to a rather obscure Jewish Galician writer named Isaac Pernhoff, who in response to Herzl’s utopian outline of the Jewish state “Altneuland,” published his own alternative view under the title “Shney Dimyonot” (“Two imaginings”). In this short 1896 article, Pernhoff predicted that the Jewish state in Palestine would be called “Medinat Yisrael” - the State of Israel. And so it was.