MembersWhen Did “Goy” Become a Dirty Word?

How did this Hebrew word in the Bible end up the familiar unsavory Jewish word describing all non-Jews? The answer to this riddle goes to the core of Jewish identity

An Orthodox man looks on at secular Israelis, some of whom may not be Jewish by Orthodox definitions, thus making them "goyim."
An Orthodox man looks on at secular Israelis, some of whom may not be Jewish by Orthodox definitions, thus making them "goyim." Photo: Miram Alster/Flash90

The very idea that a single word is used to signify all peoples, be they Egyptians, Edomites, Romans or French, is unique in the world’s lexicon. Dividing the world into just two kinds of people – Jews and non-Jews – no matter their national or religious affiliation, is unheard of.

The Hebrew Goyim (Gentiles) as representing all non-Jews is not found in the Hebrew Bible. God promises Abraham to become a “Goy Gadol” (‘great nation’ Gen. 12). The Hebrew Bible distinguishes between the Goyim; Canaanites, Egyptians, Ammonites, Moabites and so forth, and relates to each people group accordingly. It is from Paul the Apostle in the New Testament that we first find the world divided into just two people groups – Jews and Gentiles (Goyim).

In the Hebrew Bible non-Israelis are not all grouped into one. There is the stranger (ger) who lives among the Children of Israel, and they are treated differently than the foreigner (nochri) who lives in distant lands. Although the ger was not considered a Jew, and was not required to...

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