Israel as a Person, People, and Place

Israel is a Hebrew personal name. It first appears in the Hebrew Bible when the patriarch Jacob is given the name after wrestling with a man at Penuel. The name Israel is also used collectively in the Bible to denote God’s chosen people, the descendants of Jacob, as well as the geographical region God grants to his chosen people.

Who is known as Israel?

Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, is given the name Israel in Gen 32. Alone in the wilderness, Jacob is beset by a man with whom he wrestles throughout the night. Jacob tells the man he will not let him go until he blesses Jacob, and the man replies that he shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (yisra’el), because “you struggled [sarita] with God [‘elohim] and with humans and have prevailed.” The Hebrew roots for “struggle” (srh) and the name of God (el) seemingly combine to form Jacob’s new name, Israel. Jacob’s new name is reiterated by God in Gen 35:10 when he tells Jacob, “no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” Both names are used interchangeably from this point in the text.

Following the death of Jacob, the name Israel passes on to his descendants who form the twelve tribes of Israel. At that point, we find the designations “Israelite,” “sons of Israel” (bene yisra’el), and “house of Israel” (beit yisra’el) used to describe God’s chosen people. The name Israelis apt not only for describing the wrestling match between God and Jacob, but also the unique relationship the Israelites have with their God. The Israelites actively engage in dialogue and confrontation with God throughout the Hebrew Bible, and many of the biblical stories are born out of their struggle with God.

Where is Israel?

The name Israel is also used to describe the geographical region promised to Abraham and his descendants in Gen 15: “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” Following the Exodus from Egypt the Israelites conquer and settle in a small area of this land (Num 34) before expanding their reach in the books of Joshua and Judges.

The limits of the territory of the land of Israel fluctuate throughout the Hebrew Bible. While the borders are described in detail in Num 34, the settled areas are also referred to several times as “from Dan to Beersheba” (Judg 20:1, 1Sam 3:20, 1Kgs 4:25) and “from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt” (1Kgs 8:65, 1Chr 13:5). During the reign of King David, the twelve tribes united to form the “Kingdom of Israel” with Jerusalem as its capital. The united monarchy dissolved during the reign of David’s grandson Rehoboam when the ten northern tribes rebelled and created a new kingdom. This northern kingdom continued to be called the “Kingdom of Israel” or Samaria. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to Rehoboam and formed the “Kingdom of Judah” in the south. At this point, Israel came to refer exclusively to the people of the northern kingdom while Judah was the preferred label for the people of the southern kingdom. The two kingdoms existed independently from each other until both were conquered by larger empires. Despite the centuries of occupation and exile that followed, the Hebrew Bible continued to emphasize that Israel in its broadest sense was still the promised land of God’s chosen people.


  • MA student, Carleton University

    Shannon Helm is an MA student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Her research interests include women in the Hebrew Bible, biblical authorship, and ancient Israelite archaeology, with a specific focus on Iron Age I.