II Kings 16:1-6 briefly summarizes one of the many wars between the Kingdom of Judah in the south and the Kingdom of Israel to its north. Appearing in this passage is the first occurrence of the word Jew in God's Word.
Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah, . . . king of Israel, came up to Jerusalem to make war; and they besieged Ahaz but could not overcome him. At that time Rezin king of Syria captured Elath for Syria, and drove the men of Judah from Elath. (verses 5-6)
The King James Version translates "men of Judah" with the single word Jews. During the military campaign outlined above, the Syrians captured the port city of Elath from Judah, driving the Jews out.
The term Jew usually refers to a person from the tribe of Judah. In fact, Jew is a shortened, or what semanticists call a "clipped," form of the word Judah. Strictly speaking, a Jew is genetically a member of the tribe of Judah; that is, the term Jew refers to a person who has descended from Jacob's son, Judah. The Jews make up one tribe of the children of Israel, the tribe of Judah, whose homeland was in the southern part of Canaan. The Jews, then, form only a subset of a much larger group of people, the children of Israel.
Of course, the Kingdom of Judah had in it individuals descended from the tribes Judah, Levi, and Benjamin. Today, Jews (for the most part) do not differentiate between these three tribes. A modern Jew, more likely than not, is descended from the tribe of Judah or the tribe of Benjamin or the tribe Levi—few, if any, know specifically from which tribe. Moreover, few even give the matter much thought, so irrelevant today have the tribes become as social and political entities.
The term Jew is not interchangeable with the term Israel. While all Jews are Israelites, not all Israelites are Jews!
There is an important distinction between them. Today, a Jew is an individual descended through one of three tribes. However, the term Israel has a number of broader meanings, all derived from the fact that Israel was the name God gave the patriarch Jacob.
- The word Israel can refer to a person. When used this way, it refers specifically to the patriarch Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel (see Genesis 32:28).
- The word Israel often refers to all the descendants of Jacob. Hence, "the children of Israel," a term much used in the Pentateuch, refers to individuals from all the tribes—literally, all the descendants of the man Jacob (Israel).
- After the fissure of the Davidic monarchy, the term Israel came to have a more specific national meaning. Used in this collective sense, Israel refers to those Israelites who were citizens of the Kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom.
- Often, the Scriptures use the word Israel in a specialized, limited way, where it refers only to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob, remember, began his blessing on the two boys with the statement, "Let my name be named upon them" (Genesis 48:16).
These differences are more than "shades of meaning" or nuances. Readers of God's Word need to keep a keen eye on both the words Jew and Israel, ensuring that they understand their proper meaning in context.