A simple definition would be, a Gentile is one who is not a Jew. After all, the apostle Paul used this definition when he explain that the gospel is for the whole world: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Ro 1:16). He was making a generalized comment as there were pockets of not only Jews, but Israelis throughout both the Roman and Parthian Empires of his day, of which Paul was aware. Yet, to understand all Scripture, I think we need to dig a little deeper.
We probably can’t really make any distinction between Jew, Israeli, or Gentile before the Exodus. Although God did work through specific individuals from the time of Adam to the time of Moses (i.e., the patriarchs), a specific ethnic group was not necessarily singled out before that time. One could say that he did starting with Abraham, but not necessarily exclusively. Remember Job? It is believed he was a contemporary of Abraham. He believed in God, made burnt offerings, and God blessed him. So, it wasn’t really until God called the Children of Israel out of Egypt and made a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai that Israel became a nation before God, and were instructed to be a kingdom of priests to the world (Ex 19:5-6). What does that mean? Israel was to be the standard – a holy nation – which served God and pointed other nations to God. Israel would receive God’s blessings (Dt 28) and other nations would see that blessing and be drawn to Him. How? Well, there were at least three trade routes which went through the land of Canaan which became Israel: Way of the Sea (Is 9:1); King’s Highway (Nu 20:17), and the Ridge Route which went through the Galilee region. Israel would have plenty of opportunity to have that influence. We see that both Solomon (2Ch 32-33) and Isaiah (Is 55:6-7) understood this and asked for special provision for the Gentile (the non-Israelite) to worship God.
This really had nothing to do with ethnic purity, but obedience to God. Remember, even some of the sons of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel by God [Gn 32:28]) were through his two wives’ servants (Bilhah and Zilpah). Servants were usually not of the family, but foreigners. In addition, Judah married Tamar, possibly a Canaanite (Gn 38:1-30), and Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian (Gn 41:45; 50:22). In addition, Rahab was a Canaanite from Jericho who was spared even though the whole city was designated for destruction because of her belief in Jehovah (Js 6:22-23). She became part of the lineage of Christ (Mt 1:5) and the great-great grandmother of King David. Her son was Boaz. Ruth was a Moabitess. Moab was a country that had not let Israel pass through their land on their way to the Promised Land (Jd 11:17) and had hired Baalam to curse Israel (Nu 22:4-5). Ruth believed in Jehovah and she became part of the lineage of Christ (Mt 1:5). She married Boaz and became the grandmother of King David (Ru 4:13-17). Both of these women were integrated into the nation of Israel and their children were deemed Israelites. There were also times in Israel’s history where Gentile women were incorporated into Israel. These were many times as wives (Dt 21:10-14), but not always (Nu 31:18). These captives were expected to be taught to serve Jehovah. So, it seems God was more interested in a devoted people rather than an ethnically pure one.
The term ‘Israelite’ could not occur before the birth of Jacob. Yet, it was not really used until Israel itself was divided and the term Israel was the name for the Northern Kingdom of Israel (composed of ten tribes). In the same way, the term ‘Jew’ could not occur before the birth of Judah. Yet, again, this was not really used until Judah became a nation, the Southern Kingdom of Judah (composed of Judah and Benjamin). The term ‘Jew’ is not used in the Bible until the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild it (Er 4:12). Therefore, technically, Jew and Israelite cannot be interchanged.
As we said earlier, the concept of ‘Gentile’ did not strongly come into play until God made his covenant with the children of Israel at Sinai and they became an ordained nation before God.
Next time, we’ll look to see what happened post-exile and how these definitions became a little more complicated.
Hebrews - Israelites – Jews
Why is Israel so Important?
Heaven Prior to Christ's First Coming