Many assume the modern State of Israel by itself comprises the descendants of the ancient Israelites. How did this idea originate, and is it correct?
The creation of a Jewish homeland named the State of Israel in 1948 was a small yet important world event.
The State of Israel against all odds
This new entity was immediately at risk of being strangled at birth, as the armies of several Arab countries swept in to destroy the fledgling nation. The world watched in awe as the Jews bravely stood their ground and, against all odds, prevailed.
In 1967 in the Six-Day War Israeli forces captured the entire Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank of the Jordan (including East Jerusalem) from the Kingdom of Jordan.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War Israel prevailed again after suffering a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. Israeli forces even crossed the Suez Canal into Africa and encircled the Egyptian army.
1976 Entebbe rescue mission
In 1976 the world watched in awe as Israel, in Operation Thunderbolt, flew commandos 4,000 kilometers to the Entebbe airport in Uganda in central Africa. There they rescued over 100 hostages (mostly Israeli citizens) from a hijacked airliner and killed all the hijackers.
The State of Israel truly presents a “David versus Goliath” image, seemingly blessed by God with a victory in every major war it has fought. Enemy nations have learned the hard way not to mess with the State of Israel.
When the Bible prophesies about Israel, does it always mean the State of Israel?
Many who take the Bible seriously seem to have decided to look no further than the State of Israel to identify the descendants of ancient Israel—the Israel of the Old Testament—in the modern world. It appears to be standard practice now to assume that biblical prophecies about Israel in the “latter days” apply to this plucky little Jewish state in the Middle East.
But is this assumption correct?
Who or what is “Israel”?
The patriarch Jacob had his name changed to Israel by God (Genesis 32). Over several generations, his 12 sons’ descendants grew into 13 tribes. Why 13? Because Jacob adopted Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of his son Joseph (Genesis 48:5).
Depending on the context, “Israel” in Scripture can refer to:
- The man Jacob (Israel).
- The original 12 tribes.
- The 13 tribes (with Joseph replaced by his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh).
- The 10 tribes of the later northern kingdom of Israel (after it broke away from the southern kingdom of Judah).
- The two birthright tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, since Jacob (Israel) said, “Let my name be named upon them” (Genesis 48:16).
- Rarely, the tribe or land of Judah (for example, Ezekiel 8:1, 12; Acts 5:21; see “Ezekiel” for more on this).
Prophecies where “Israel” refers to either the 10 tribes or the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh automatically exclude the tribe of Judah (the Jews). This shows how important it is to examine the context of prophecies referring to Israel.
What is a tribe?
Describing the descendants of each of the 12 (or 13) progeny of Jacob (Israel) as a tribe obscures the true size of the populations they grew into.
At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, each tribe numbered in the tens or hundreds of thousands. If each tribe had moved away from the others and had been independent with its own leader, then it would have been right to refer to each of them as a nation. But because they migrated together, united under Moses and then Joshua and later a king, they have been referred to as tribes within the overall nation of Israel.
Population of the State of Israel today compared to prophecies
The State of Israel today has a population of just over 9 million, of which 6.7 million are Jews. (There are more Jews living in other countries than in the State of Israel.) The total population of the State of Israel is approximately 0.1 percent of the world population.
But consider the following:
- Egypt was one of the early great nations of antiquity. Yet we read in Exodus 1:9 that the tribes of Israel came to outnumber the Egyptians, such was their rapid population growth. After the Israelites left Egypt, Moses took a census that suggested a population of about 3 to 5 million. With a population of 3 to 5 million about 3,400 years ago, natural growth alone suggests that the tribes of Israel should be one of the major population groups today, with a population in the hundreds of millions.
- In Genesis 22 we read of God’s promise to Abraham—that God would multiply his descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore. These promises were handed down to Abraham’s son Isaac and then to Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel). This promise of multiplication shows that their population would greatly increase over time.
- Centuries later the prophet Hosea predicted the end of the 10-tribe northern kingdom of Israel (Hosea 1:4), but that afterward they would experience a population explosion: “The children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered” (verse 10).
What about the other tribes of Israel?
The current paradigm—that the Jews are the only tribe of Israel remaining—assumes that all the other tribes have disappeared. But is this true?
In Genesis 49 we read of the fate of each tribe in the latter days—our time. Note that every tribe will still be in existence in our time and will be strong and prosperous.
We read in Matthew 19:28 that when the 12 disciples asked Jesus what their reward might be, He stated that at His return they would sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel. This requires that all 12 tribes be in existence at the time of Christ’s return and also be sizable enough to be worthy of being ruled over by a holy apostle. This also requires that all tribes be in existence today.
In Revelation 7:4-8 we also read of 144,000 saints (12,000 from each of 12 tribes of Israel) being sealed for protection immediately prior to Christ’s return. Once again, this shows all tribes present at the end time—not just the Jews of the tribe of Judah.
According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the total number of Jews in the world is currently about 15.2 million. Considering that Hitler killed 6 million Jews during his reign of terror, it is likely that the Jews are numerically one of the smallest tribes of Israel today. But even if each of the tribes today averaged just 15 million in population, all of the tribes together would total 195 million (13 times 15 million)—not an insignificant portion of the earth’s inhabitants.
So why, then, do so many preachers, video producers and prophecy book writers apply end-time prophecies about Israel solely to the little Jewish state?
It appears that many have been heavily influenced by the choice made by the Jews in 1948 to name their new country “Israel.”
Because of this choice of a name, many people think no further than the little Jewish state when thinking about the end-time biblical prophecies about Israel.
Why did the Jews call their new country the State of Israel?
The simple answer is that they were focused on the creation of a homeland—a self-governing state. The name was not considered important until it became urgent to address it. In November 1947 the UN adopted the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine that recommended the creation of both Jewish and Arab states. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was declared.
The name of the new country, however, was not decided on until just two days before it became a nation.
According to historian Martin Kramer, Jewish leaders considered the following names:
- Judea: This may seem like the obvious choice and, indeed, was what U.S. President Truman, his advisers and many others were expecting. However, there were three critical problems with this name. First, most of the old Judean territory was to be in Palestinian Arab hands, according to the partition plan. Second, Arab residents of a new Judean state would object to being called by the name and would vehemently fight against it. Third, naming the country Judea when most of its traditional territory was in Arab hands could imply an expansionist aim of the Jews to capture the rest of the old Judean territory and annex it.
- Zion: There were also three similar objections for this name. First, Mount Zion would be in the Arab state, according to the partition plan. Second, Arab residents would be even more incensed to be labeled Zionist citizens! As with the name Judea, naming the country Zion when Mount Zion was firmly in Arab hands could imply an expansionist aim to capture the rest of the old Judean territory and annex it. So this name, too, was ruled out of the question.
- Ever: This was an old Hebrew name, and there was no support for it.
- Eretz-Israel: Eretz-Israel, the Hebrew biblical name for Palestine, was ruled out. Cabinet Secretary Ze’ev Sharef noted that calling the state Eretz-Israel would have sounded like an overt claim to all of Palestine.
- Israel: It was David Ben-Gurion (who went on to become Israel’s first prime minister) who first suggested “Israel.” Sharef recalled, “It seemed strange at first, and the proposal was received coolly. But members tried pronouncing ‘Israel government,’ ‘Israel army,’ ‘Israel citizen,’ ‘Israel consul’ to see how it sounded. Most were unenthusiastic, but there were only 48 hours left and much urgent work to be done, and the matter was put to a vote. Seven of the 10 members present voted for Israel.”
The name Israel thus came to the state by a process of elimination, because there wasn’t time to come up with anything better. A majority voted for it—unenthusiastically. It was not an intention to deceive on behalf of the Jews, and they were certainly not thinking of the confusion it might cause in understanding biblical prophecies.
The mistaken idea that this nation is all that is now left of Israel in today’s world is an unfortunate and unintended consequence.
A correct understanding of who Israel is today
The confusion regarding who Israel is today can be sorted out if people carefully read their Bibles and examine history. In doing this, they can see that Israel is prophesied to exist on through the ages and into the Kingdom of God under Christ and the apostles!
The other nations of Israel, which have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and world dominance over the past century, are prophesied to face grave danger in the end times, the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7). For explanation as to who these nations are today, see the article “12 Tribes of Israel Today” and other related articles.
For a detailed biblical and historical study tracing the birthright tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, download our booklet The United States, Britain and the Commonwealth in Prophecy.