[iz-ree-uh-lahyt, -rey-]

According to the Bible, the Israelites were the dominant group living in the Land of Israel. Originally they were descendents of twelve sons of Jacob and their families until they took up residence in the Land of Goshen at the invitation of Joseph. Josephe's two sons were added by Jacob to his own, increasing the number of tribes to thirteen during the journey through the wilderness to Sinai and to the time of the conquest of the Canaan territory under Joshua's leadership. After the conquestt the territory was divided among twelve tribes, with the tribe of Levi not having a portion of their own, but sharing in that of the other tribes. The tribes were united under King Saul, but later divided into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah until they were conquered by the Babylonians in 3183 H.C. (574 BCE) and taken into exile.

The term Israelite derives from Israel (Hebrew: ישראל (Standard Yisraʾel Tiberian Yiśrāʾēl)), the name given to the biblical patriarch Jacob after he struggled with an angel (). His descendants are called the House of Jacob, the Children of Israel, the People of Israel, or the Israelites.

The Hebrew Bible is mainly concerned with the Israelites. According to it, the Land of Israel (previously called Canaan) was promised to them by their God. Jerusalem was their capital, and the site of the temple at the center of their faith.

The Israelites became a major political power with the United Monarchy of Kings Saul, David and Solomon, from c. 1025 BCE. Zedekiah, king of Judah (597-586 BCE), is considered the last king from the house of David.


The terms Hebrews and Israelites usually describe the same people, claimed to be called Ebiru by the Ancient Egyptians until their conquest of the Land of Canaan, Evri, Ebri or Ivri until the formation of the United Monarchy. In the Torah the Israelites are most often referred to as the Children of Israel (B'nei Israel), and until the exile the collective name for the members of the various tribes was Am Yisrael, or the People of Israel, and by their tribal name when referring to specific affiliations, either territorial or communal. This was also used as an addition to the names of individuals, and persisted in some communities to medieval times. "Hebrew" as an adjective came into use in Europe derived from HaEbri (the Ebri) with "Jewish" being also used alternatively, derived from the abbreviated "Jew" from Yehuda or Jehuda. The Hebrew language is the language historically associated with the Israelites and Jews.

In the Qur'an there are forty-three specific references to "Banū Isrāīl" (meaning the Children of Israel). There is a Surah (chapter) in the Qur'an titled Bani Israel (Arabic: بني اسرائيل, "The Children of Israel"), alternatively known as ِAl-Isra (Arabic: سورة الإسراء, "The Night Journey"). This Surah was revealed in the last year before Hijrah and takes its name from . See Bani Israel (Quran sura). Also starting from verse 40 in Sura Al-Baqara (سورة البقرة "The Cow") is the story of "Bani Israel".

In addition, a Jew is any member of the Jewish faith or people, regardless of the historical period or ancestry.

The citizens of the modern State of Israel are called Israelis.


Jacob's sons

The organisation of the Israelites was based on the line of descent from Jacob's sons. Jacob had twelve sons and one daughter by his four wives and concubines:

Twelve Tribes

The Israelites were divided along patriarchal lines, each called a shevet or mateh in Hebrew meaning literally a "staff" or "rod". The term is conventionally translated as "tribe" in English, although the divisions were not small isolated distinct ethnic groups in the modern sense of the term, representing some 2 million people according to the Biblical account.

The number twelve is derived from the number of Jacob's sons by his wives and concubines. However, Jacob on arrival in Egypt and following a meeting with Joseph, adopted Joseph's two sons by his Egyptian wife Asenath, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own. Accordingly, on the apportionment of the Land, the descendants of the two children of Joseph were allotted shares.

Blessing were bestowed on the tribes by Jacob before his passing. ()

The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were recorded on the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (high priest). The tribe of Levi (and the sub-family of Kohanites (Kohanim)) was always considered to be a separate tribe and an integral part the Israelite people; though because of their priestly functions they did not share in the apportionment of the Land. Therefore, when the tribes are listed in reference to their receipt of land, as well as to their encampments during the forty years of wandering in the desert, the tribe of Joseph is replaced by those of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Some English speaking Jewish groups view the pronunciation, English transcription and Hebrew spelling of the tribal names to be extremely important. The transcriptions and spellings are as follows:

  • Reuben: ראובן, Standard Rəʾuven, Tiberian Rəʾûḇēn
  • Simeon: שמעון, Standard Šimʿon, Tiberian Šimʿôn
  • Levi: לוי, Standard Levi, Tiberian Lēwî (which did not share in the apportionment of the Land)
  • Judah: יהודה, Standard Yəhuda, Tiberian Yəhûḏāh
  • Dan: דן, Standard Dan, Tiberian Dān
  • Naphtali: נפתלי, Standard Naftali, Tiberian Nap̄tālî
  • Gad: גד, Standard Gad, Tiberian Gāḏ
  • Asher: אשר, Standard Ašer, Tiberian ʾĀšēr
  • Issachar: יששכר, Standard Yissaḫar, Tiberian Yiśśâḵār
  • Zebulun: זבולן, Standard Zəvúlun, Tiberian Zəḇûlun
  • Joseph: יוסף, Standard Yosef, Tiberian Yôsēp̄, containing the tribes:
    • Manasseh: מנשה, Standard Mənašše, Tiberian Mənaššeh, Samaritan Manatch
    • Ephraim: אפרים, Standard Efráyim, Tiberian ʾEp̄ráyim / ʾEp̄rāyim, Samaritan Afrime
  • Benjamin: בנימין, Standard Binyamin, Tiberian Binyāmîn

Camps following the exodus

Following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were divided into thirteen camps (Hebrew: machanot) according to importance with Levi in the center of the encampment around the Tabernacle and its furnishings surrounded by other tribes arranged in four groups: Judah, Issachar and Zebulun; Reuben, Simeon and Gad; Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin; Dan, Asher and Naphtali. Thus additionally Aaron and his descendants although descended from Levi were appointed as priests (kohanim) and came to be considered a separate division to the Levites.

This arrangement was not however a permanent order of the tribes, and in the chapter 1 of Numbers, the order is given as: Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. The order is changed yet again in chapter 2 when the three tribes with Judah at their lead take the leading place in the column's order of travel.

The division of the land

Moses assigned territories to Reuben, Gad and a portion of Manasseh on land east of the Jordan which they had requested (Numbers 32:5). Joshua assigned territories to Judah, Ephraim and the rest of Manasseh on land west of the Jordan which they had conquered. The tribe of Manasseh thus came to be divided into two parts by the Jordan each part referred to as a half-tribe (chatzi-shevet) of Manasseh, the part lying east of the Jordan being referred to as the half-tribe of Manasseh in Gilead. Following the conquest of the remainder of Canaan, Joshua assigned territories to Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Issacher, Naphtali, Simeon and Zebulun. The land of Judah was considered too large for that tribe alone and Simeon was assigned a portion within the land of Judah instead of its own territory in the newly conquered land. Because the Levites, and kohanim (descendants of Aaron) priests played a special religious role of service at the Tabernacle to the people they were not given their own territories, but were instead assigned cities to live in within the other territories. Dan was assigned territory lying between Ephraim and Manasseh but was later displaced and subsequently settled in territory to the north of Naphtali.

After leaving Egypt, the Israelites incorporated many other populations into their society, during the conquest of Canaan in particular, but also during the period of the Judges and the united Kingdom.

Israelite kingdoms

The Kingdom of Judah consisted of Judah, Simeon, Benjamin, and the parts of Levi within those lands, while the Kingdom of Israel contained Reuben, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Manasseh, Ephraim, and the remainder of Levi.

The Israelites became a major political power with the United Monarchy of Kings Saul, David and Solomon, from c. 1025 BCE.

The Kingdom of Israel was conquered in the 720s BC, by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V and then under Sargon II, who, after conquering the land, destroyed Samaria, its capital, and, deported most of the occupants into exile, with the southernmost tribe - Benjamin - managing to survive by joining the Kingdom of Judah; Assyrian chronicles of the time report that only a small number of people were deported. Assyrian policy was for the deportees to be scattered, and assimilated into the Assyrian empire, and, as a result of this policy, the deported tribes lost their cultural identity, becoming traditionally known as the Ten Lost Tribes. Other defeated peoples of the Empire were in turn settled in the land.

Zedekiah, king of Judah (597-586 BCE), is considered the last king from the house of David. In 586 BC, he was toppled by Babylon, who ransacked Jerusalem, killed his heirs before his eyes, gouged out the king's eyes ensuring that would be the last thing he saw, and then deported the population into the Babylonian Captivity. Even after the elite was allowed to return from exile after some fifty years, the country was to remain a part of the Persian Empire as long as it existed.

Genetic evidence of common descent

Patrilineal descent can be documented by analysis of the Y-chromosome, passed from father to son. Of the many variants, or haplogroups, of the Y-chromosome, haplogroups J1 and J2, both originating from the Middle East, are the most common among Jewish men.

  • J2 is found in 23% of Ashkenazi Jews and 29% of Sephardi Jews. It is equally common among Muslim Kurds, Northern Iraqis, Modern Turks, Greeks, Italians, and Lebanese. J2 is thought to have originated in the Northern Levant.
  • J1 is found in 19.0% of Ashkenazim and 11.9% of Sephardim. It is more common among Arab populations, especially Arab Bedouins. J1 is believed to originate from the Southern Levant or Egypt approximately 10,000 - 15,000 years ago.
  • A variant of J1 and J2, called the Cohen Modal Haplotype, is found in a high proportion (about 65%) of Jewish males with the surname Kohen or its variants, less frequently among other Jews (25%) and other Middle-Eastern people (22% or less). Kohanim claim descent from Aaron, brother of Moses and the first priest of the temple. Aaron was from the house of Levi, the third son of Jacob.

Thus, genetic evidences support a levantine patrilineal descent for a small portion of Jews, which may represents descent from one of the Israelite tribes. The discovery of the Cohen Modal Haplotype gives more weight to the Biblical and priestly claim of descent from a unique ancestor, namely Aaron , and also provides an objective test of claims of Israelite origin, as for example with the Lemba people.

Note, however, that several Kohen families carry other Y-chromosome variants. Note also that the CMH gene pattern is found in populations not know to be related to Israelites .

Archeology of Israelites

There has been a great deal of interest among archaeologists and lay people as to whether the archaeological evidence in this period confirms or denies the historical accounts in the Hebrew Bible or whether archaeology should be expected to confirm every detail. A wide spectrum of opinions exist on the subject.

Certain groups of Jews in other parts of South Asia are sometimes referred to as Benai Israel.

See also

References and notes

External links

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