Hebrew Word: Goy (Nation, Gentile)

Posted by on Mar 26, 2023

The Hebrew word גּוֹי goy is often translated as “nation” or “gentile”. By extension goy means also a heathen, a pagan. The first time the word goy appears in the Hebrew Scripture, is in Genesis 10:5 to refer to the peoples who were separated into their lands, according to their languages and clans. Thus, Genesis 10 has become the cornerstone moment in the human history when the people were divided into nations, and every tribe is called a nation by itself.

Hence, the Hebrew Scripture calls the nations of the world goyim (plural of goy), but the translations often render this word “gentile”, as well, like in the King James’ version in which the same word goy is rendered once as “gentiles” and in the same breath as “nations”. KJV here reads,

By these were the isles of the Gentiles (goyim) divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations (goyim). (Gen 10:5 KJV)

Why did the translators feel it was necessary to render goyim as “gentiles”, as this would not agree with the context employed here? When reading our verse here one might come to the conclusion that the term “gentile” is different from “nation”. But this translation is not grounded well in the Hebrew text, as the connection between goyim and “gentiles” is never hinted at in the context of Genesis 10. Besides, when these two words are read in a sentence, it is inevitable for a reader to associate them with different concepts: one for “gentiles” and another for “nations”, but the Hebrew word behind “gentile” and “nation” is one and the same: גּוֹי goy. The KJV translators have inserted the word “gentiles” on the supposition that the readers already know what “gentile” means. Those translators thus are giving the passage a meaning that it does not have.

The origin of the word “gentile” comes from the late Latin word gentilis (ɡenˈtiːlis) meaning “clan”, “tribe”, or someone of or belonging to the same family: a kinsman; by implication: some belonging to the same nation. By extension, the word gentile is largely assumed to mean a person who is not a from the nation of Israel, a non-Jew, a heathen, a pagan. But in the context of Genesis 10, such an employment of the Latin word “gentile” is out of place for Avraham had not been yet born and Israel would become a nation in Exodus 20. Thus far Latin.

But what does Hebrew say? The Hebrew word behind “gentile”, however, is גּוֹי goy, which simply means a foreign nation. A related word to גּוֹי goy is גֵּוָה geivah meaning the back (the posterior part of a human body) but also exaltation, arrogance, pride. A form of גֵּוָה geivah is גְּוִיָּה geviyah, which means a body, whether alive or dead: carcass, corpse. All these three words come from an unused root meaning to hollow or curve, hence, the back (as the back is rounded). The etymology of the word גּוֹי goy is not obvious. Perhaps the idea of goy is that the people are the backbone of a nation. If this is accepted, then according to the simple interpretation of Genesis 10, the Creator divided the people into ethnically based nations, i.e., social bodies into which the mankind was divided.

Avraham and his son Yitschak through whom a nation will be born.

Avraham and his son Yitschak through whom a nation will be born.

But can Israel be called goy, too? At Mount Sinai, YHVH called them goy, nation, as we read,

And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a distinguished nation (goy). Those are the words which you are to speak to the children of Israel. (Exo 19:6)

The manifestation of the faithfulness of YHVH to the Covenant He made with Avraham was expressed in His willingness to establish an everlasting union between Him and His people. This union was established with them on the premises that they were seen as “treasured possession” (verse 5), “kingdom of priests”, and “distinguished nation” (goy kadosh) out of all nations (goyim).

In Gen 12:2, Elohim promised Avraham that he would make him a great nation,

And I shall make you a great nation (goy), and bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing! (Gen 12:2)

Mosheh also called the people of YHVH a nation,

And now, please, if I have found grace in Your eyes, please show me Your way, and let me know You, so that I find grace in Your eyes. And consider that this nation (goy) is Your people. (Exo 33:13)

Or consider another example. The people who passed over the Jordan River, the Israelites, were called goy.

And all Israel passed over on dry ground, until all the nation (goy) had completely passed over the Yarden. Jos 3:17

From the above is evident that Israel is also called גּוֹי goy for the simple reason that the children of Israel became in fact a nation when they entered the Covenant of YHVH at Mount Sinai. Yet, this nation is not to be like any other nation of the world but a set-apart nation (goy kadosh) from all others, a nation of priests set-apart to YHVH. Hence, the word goy can also be employed to mean a nation other than the nation of Israel.

The Hebrew word for “nations” is the word גּוֹיִם goyim (plural of goy), as found in the passage where it is clearly used with the meaning of “heathen”, such as in,

And the children of Israel who had returned from the exile ate together with all who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the nations (goyim) of the land in order to seek Yehovah Elohim of Israel. (Ezr 6:21)

When גּוֹי goy is used (singular), it refers to the nation of Israel. But when גּוֹיִם goyim is used, then it refers to the nations of the world, gentiles. In other words, Israel is goy (a single nation), always in a singular form, while the nations are goyim.

Knowing what we have learned so far, it should not come as a surprise that it is not proper to refer to Israel as “gentile” on account of being a set-apart nation (goy kadosh) of priests to YHVH and on account of the Latin gentilis. Yet, it is not proper to refer to the nations as something inferior, either, for Israel and they are called by the same Hebrew word goy. What makes the difference though is the role the nation of Israel is called for, namely, to be a nation of priests and light for the nations to spread the knowledge of the Torah in the darkness of the world.

I Yehovah, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you and appointed you a covenant people for a light of nations (goyim). (Isa 42:6)

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