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Defining Ethnicity

"Nation" & "People" in Hebrew and Greek
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

In Genesis 12:1-3 is found the promise of God to Abraham to make him the fathr of many nations, and to bless all the nations of the world in him. What are the Hebrew words here for "peoples" and "nations?" What are the Greek words used for these phrases in the New Testament?


Ireviewed this in the Hebrew text and Septuagint (LXX) Old Testament, with reference to several English versions.

I will give a summary review here of the basic factors in reference to the passage in Genesis 12. The words used in various English translations for "peoples" or "nations" vary, including families.

Two Hebrew words were involved, variously translated in English versions: most common are nation (v 2) and people (v 3).  I was aware that the Greek New Testament commonly uses the Greek word eqnos (ethnos) for the general references to ethnic groups.

1.  Gen. 12:2 Promise to Abraham.  "I will make you a great nation."  New Century Version

Hebrew here for nation is goi, the basic general Hebrew term for an ethnicity, lineage or nation (in the ethnic sense).


This is the broadest Hebrew term referring to ethnicity in the Old Testament.  It is still used in modern Hebrew, and is more broadly known to us primarily from the Central European Jewish setting, from which it comes into modern English through Yiddish, still as goi.  The Hebrew plural is goiim.  My observation is that American Jews tend to use the original Hebrew singular form for both singular and plural in English.

The LXX translates this word as ethnos here and in most places in the Old Testament.  I checked a few places to get an idea if this was consistent.  Commentators say it is fairly so.  However, it seems from my reading, the term goi is used more in Genesis and the earlier sections than later.  The other word mishpahoth, discussed below, seems to rise in frequency in the sections dealing with later history.  I have not checked this out further with Hebrew experts.

The Koine writers of the New Testament use this Greek term ethnos with the same meaning with which LXX uses ethnos representing the Hebrew goi.  It is used with the same basic meaning that underlies our modern English words ethnic and ethnicity.

This is equivalent to the English "Gentiles," the word used in the KJV to translate this word in the New Testament.  It seems to be the common  reference word  used historically by both Jews and Christians in English.  This also confirms the concept entailed in the Hebrew and Greek words used here, since this is from the Latin word gens, gentis, which also means "nation" in the ethnic sense.

The French word for people in both senses of the English one (a group of individuals, and an ethnic group) is still gens.   (Our English words gentle and genteel also come from this word, through the same French route.)

2. Gen 12:3:  Blessing to the peoples of the earth: 
        "And all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you."  NCV

The Hebrew word translated translated "peoples" here is mishpahoth (sometimes spelled in English usage as mishpahot).  Singular form is mishpaha, but seems to be used less frequently.  I have not had time to reference again all the instances of its usage.  I just compared a few I could manually evaluate myself, with some different English translations, to be sure I had understood the usages in this passage in question.

Some versions translate this as "nation," here and in other passages.  Translations, LXX and English, as well as others are not consistent with the translation of the two Hebrew words goi and mishpahoth.

In this passage, the Greek translators of the LXX used the term phulai (phylai), plural of the word phule to translate mishpahoth.  This is used for smaller groupings, like those referred to by the English words clan, family or sometimes also lineage.  The Greek and English translations are not consistent, going more by context, contrasts intended and traditional English usage in translations.

The Greek word fulh (phule) phule (phyle) is used in English in the Latin form as phylum/phyla.  The common usage of this word in standard classification categories also illustrates the level of designation this would have in reference to clear, discrete ethnic groupings.

The term ethnos is used to translate several words, all related to various levels or distinctions of ethnic grouping.  This broader usage of ethnos in Greek by the Jews had become established in the use of the LXX translation by not only Egyptian and European Jews, but in Palestine and Syria as well by the first century BC-AD.

It seems in general the LXX usages in Greek were the prevailing usage pattern in 1st century Judaism and the early Christians.  ethnos becomes the standard term in Greek usage for a basic ethnic entity.

3. Comparative passages

Gen 10:30-32 uses both these terms.  For ease, I'll put the equivalent biblical words underneath the italicized English words.

       v.31 "... family of Shem.  They are arranged by families, languages, countries and nations."  NCV
        Hebrew                                                        mishpahoth                                     goiim
        Greek                                                           phulai                                              ethne
        NIV                                                              clans                                               nations

       v. 32 "This is the list of families from the sons of Noah.  ...according to their nations."
        Hebrew                       mishpahoth                                                             goiim
        Greek                           phulai                                                                     ethne
        NIV                               clans                                                                      nations.

       v. 32 "From these [families] came all the nations...."   NCV
        Hebrew                                                  goiim
        Greek                                                     ethne
        NIV                                                       nations

Gen 10:5 The LXX uses these same two terms.
          goiim             ethne    NCV nations  NIV peoples
         mishopahoth  phulai   NCV families NIV clans
         goiim              ethne    NCV each nation  NIV their nations

3. LXX Theme Phrase

Gen 12:18 is one example of a host of references in which the LXX uses a standard phrase for several references in the promise-fulfillment class as Gen 12.  This is panta ta ethne, "all the nations," which is taken up by New Testament writers.  Sometimes the Hebrew word in the phrase was mishpahoth, sometimes goi, sometimes some other terms.  The terminology in Greek uses ethnos (plural ethne) to translate different Hebrew words for ethncity, not just mishpahoth.  But this consistent phrase carries over as a theme in the New Testament Greek.

The other term phule continues in usage for a smaller, narrower grouping, and is usually considered to be equivalent to English clan, tribe or family.  Lineage is another English word entailed in the usages of phule, similar to the interpretation of mishpahoth in the LXX Old Testament.

3.New Testament Usage

In the investigation of the words and meanings involved in this question, I gained a new awareness of the use of the Greek word fulh (phule) in the New Testament.  In the New Testament, the word eqnos (ethnos) becomes the primary word referring to ethnic groups, such as Acts 17:26, "God made from one source all nations [ethne] of men."  The word phule is used in more specific references, similar to its usages in the Old Testament.

We find fulh (phule) in passages with phrases like "all tribes, tongues and nations."  For example, Matthew 24:30 "all the tribes of the earth;" Revelation 14:6 "every nation and tribe and tongue and people."

Note also the use of this word phule in Greek translations (LXX, Koine and modern Greek) for the "tribes" of Israel.  For example, Matthew 19:28 "judging the twelve tribes of Israel."  In the Tanakh (Hebrew Old Testament), the descendants of the various sons of Jacob (Israel) were referred to by the following Hebrew terms:
matteh (the main word in the Torah though shebet is also used, except Deuteronomy),
min (the main word used in Chronicles, which also has about equal uses of matteh and a couple of uses of shebet) or
shebet (preferred by the writers of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, the Samuels, Kings).

All these terms, normally translated as "tribe" in English translations of the Old Testament, mean variously "branch," "clan," "section," or "part" in Hebrew.

I hope this will provide a bit of foundation and context to the words and their usages we find in Genesis 12, and their role in the thematic concepts of the Old and New Testaments.

Also related
What was Koine Greek?
Determining Ethnicity -- What is a People Group
Hebrew Usage in the First Century

For More on These Words
Use of ethnos, phyle and genos in Herodotus
Use of ethnos, phyle and genos in Greek Religion


First written 23 May 2006 in an email exchange
Finmalized in article format and posted 24 May 2006

Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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