A few weeks ago my wife was talking to our three year old son at the dinner table. In the midst of what she was telling him, he looked up and innocently said, “Are you talking to me?” He was in his own little world and hadn’t paid attention to what she was saying.

That sometimes happens when we use that pronoun “you.” In the English language it is sometimes very easy to misunderstand who you’re talking about. For, unlike most other languages that distinguish between you (singular) and you (plural), the English language uses the same word for each. So unless you are in the South where you might hear, “y’all” or “all y’all,” you have to figure out from context who is being talked about.

A similar thing happens when you read the name “Israel” in the Bible. Most people probably think that the use of the word “Israel” in the Bible either means the nation of Israel or the land of Israel. Although those are possibilities, they are not the only possibilities.

The name “Israel” traces its history back to one man: Jacob (the grandson of Abraham). In Genesis 32 you can read about how Jacob was given that name. There was a night where, in a very interesting episode of his life, he wrestled with God. In the midst of that wrestling match, God gives Jacob this new name. For God said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob…it will be Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:38).

So, originally, the name Israel applied to one man, but over time it was applied to many others. An example is found at the beginning of the book of Joshua: “After the death of Moses the Lord’s servant, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, who had served Moses: Moses My servant is dead. Now you and all the people prepare to cross over the Jordan to the land I am giving the Israelites” (Joshua 1:1-2). The Israelites were those who were descendants of Israel (Jacob). Most people think of the Israelites being descended from Abraham (which is true), yet not all of Abraham’s descendants are Israelites. Only those who descended from Abraham’s grandson named Jacob are Israelites. For example: Jacob had a twin brother named Esau. Although Esau’s descendants also were descendants of Abraham, they were not Israelites, but rather they were known as Edomites.

Over time, not only did Jacob and his descendants use the name of Israel, but also the land on which they lived. Throughout the Bible you can find many places where the promised land is called the land of Israel.

One more possibility exists. Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians. He said, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, ‘your offspring will be traced through Isaac.’ That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring” (Romans 9:6-8). What is Paul saying here? Spiritually speaking, not all who are physically descended from Israel can call themselves Israelites. However, those who are Abraham’s children by faith in the promise that God gave to Abraham can (spiritually speaking) call themselves Israelites.

So when you read the word Israel, make sure to read it in its context. You may be reading about the man named Jacob. You may be reading about his physical descendants. You may be reading about the land on which they lived. Or you may even be reading about yourself. For, by faith in the promised Savior, who we know to be Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose again; by faith in Jesus we too can be called Israelites.