Most Bible believers can tell you Israel is both the name of a person and a nation. But what most don’t realize is that the term ‘Israel’ can refer to seven different entities in the Bible! And if we don’t know which ‘Israel’ is in play we’ll become hopelessly confused. Throw in the state of Israel today and it gets even more complicated. So let me try and sort them out as best I can.
In general, the seven ‘Israels’ found in the Bible will always fall into one of three categories: a person, a nation, or part of a nation.
As a person, Israel would be Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes that eventually became the nation that bore his name. God had changed his name from Jacob to Israel, which loosely means “he who prevails with God and overcomes,” after he survived a wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord (Gen. 35:10). However, Israel as a person can also be Yeshua, for he is the “seed” who inherits all the promises (Gal. 3:16).
As a nation, Israel would be the whole nation of twelve tribes.
But where it gets tricky is when Israel stands for just part of the nation, because there are four ways to understand a partial Israel.
First, it could be the name of the ten-tribe kingdom that formed after Solomon’s united nation split into the two kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
Secondly, it could be referring to the two-tribe southern kingdom of Judah which took sole possession of the title after the northern kingdom was exiled among the nations. The descendants of Judah became known as “the Jews” after they were deported to Babylon. When they returned to the land they became the Israel we encounter in the New Testament. It is mostly their descendants who’ve returned again to establish today’s Jewish state.
Thirdly, ‘Israel in part’ can be understood as the Israel within Israel. This Israel represents just the chosen descendants (like Jacob), who Paul distinguished in Romans 9 from those physical offspring who were not chosen (like Esau).
Finally, Paul calls the body of Messiah “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), which shows the ecclesia is the continuation of chosen Israel, but now under the New Covenant. This verse, along with Revelation 7:4, are the only two times in the NT (out of 79 references to Israel) where the followers of Yeshua are clearly addressed as Israel. I think the reason God kept references to the ecclesia being Israel to a minimum was He didn’t want us to think we had replaced the Jewish nation. Which, as we know, the institutional church tried to do anyway.
The fact is, the Jews retained sole possession to the title ‘Israel’ even though they rejected Yeshua as Messiah. Didn’t Paul tell us “a partial hardening has happened to Israel [meaning the Jewish people], until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in?” (Rom. 11:25). However, in the next sentence he informs us that when all the “Gentiles” come in, that “all Israel will be saved.” Here the name “Israel’ has been expanded to mean the whole nation – not just the Jews!
I believe there is a day coming, and coming soon, when all the confusion over who or what is Israel will suddenly disappear. The whole world will see the Israel of God revealed in glory as both one nation and one person in Messiah!
Brian Hennessy is the author of Valley of the Steeples, available at: ketchpublishing/BrianHennessyBooks.htm