July 13, 2024
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Hebrew Words for Nation/People: Part II: ‘Am’ and ‘Goy’

We previously discussed אם and לאם (two completely different words!). This week our words for discussion are “am” and “goy.”

In English, we often refer to the “Jewish people.” Little used is the “Jewish nation.” Why is that? Most likely, the word “people” implies a closeness to one another that is lacking in the word “nation.” There is a parallel to this in Hebrew. “Am” is a word that implies a closeness to one another that is lacking in the word “goy.” We will now try to understand why.

(After the biblical period, the meaning of “goy” shifted. I will discuss this at the end. But in the biblical period, “goy” was a fine word with which the descendants of Abraham and the Israelite people could be described.)

Let us first discuss “am.” Regarding this word and its meaning “people,” the consonants are the same as the word עם (“im”) with the meaning “with.” It turns out that there is a relationship between these words.

Arabic held the key in revealing the lost original meanings here. In Arabic, there is a root “amma” that meant “to join, connect, include.” This suggested to scholars that there was an original Semitic root עמם that had this meaning. This root is the probable origin of עם (= with), and עם (=people). Also, Arabic has a word “umm” that means “father’s brother.”

(Hebrew has a root עמם that means “to darken, to dim.” But scholars are not claiming any relation to this root.)

Words derived from the “people” meaning of עם occur over 1800 times in Tanach. But if one looks carefully, one can see that there are times when the word does not seem to have the “people” meaning, but seems to have a “kinsman, relative” meaning. This might be an expansion from an original meaning of “father’s brother.” Or perhaps the root originally meant something like ancestor or kinsman, and “father’s brother” is a later expansion.

The Even-Shoshan concordance has a separate entry where it lists 29 verses where it believes that עם is used with a meaning of “kinsman, relative.”

One verse where the “kinsman, relative” meaning is evident is Ezekiel 18:18, where “amav” is parallel to “ach”=brother. See also 2 Kings 4:13.

Another example are all those idiomatic references to death: אסף אל עמיו. This expression occurs nine times in Tanach. It always sounded a little unusual to me. But once we realize that עם also had a meaning of “kinsmen, relative,” it makes sense to suggest such an interpretation here. One of the nine times this expression is used is in connection with the death of Abraham at Gen. 25:8. It is interesting that earlier, at 15:15, God had referred to his death as “tavo el avotecha, you will come to your fathers,” perhaps evidencing a “kinsmen, relative” meaning at 25:8, via the parallel.

The “kinsman, relative” interpretation fits very well at Lev. 21: 1 regarding the commandment to priests: “le-nefesh lo yitamah be-amav, to a (dead) person he shall not become impure among his people.” What follows in the next verses is a listing of family members that are the exceptions that he is allowed to become טמא for.

Most interestingly, many see the “kinsman, relative” meaning in the story at Genesis chapter 19 involving Lot’s daughters. One child is given the name “Moav” (=from my father), and the second is given the name “Ben-Ami.” “Ben-Ami” probably means “son of my kinsman,” or “son of my father” and not merely “son of my people.” (See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 769).

Now we will discuss the word “goy.” This word or its cognates is not found in the other Semitic languages (with one possible exception, see below). This makes its etymology unclear. E. Klein writes: “Of uncertain origin; possibly related to גו (=body).” I.e., an ethnic ‘body.’ See his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 94.

There is a word “gawum/gayum,” which is found in the Mari dialect of Akkadian. (The Mari dialect of Akkadian is older than Tanach.) In Mari, “gawum/gayum” means “group, gang of workmen,” or “tribe, clan.” Perhaps it may have originally meant “people.” See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for biblical Hebrew, p. 64. A widespread view sees a connection between “gawum/gayum,” and the biblical word “goy.” See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 426.

There was a shift in the meaning of “goy,” post-biblically. In the Tanach, at Gen. 12:2 God promised Abraham that he would make him into a “goy gadol,” and throughout Tanach, “goy” was a positive term and something that the people of Israel were to aspire to. (See, e.g., Isa. 60:22, Ezek. 37:22 and Michah 4:7). The entry “goy” in TDOT (vol. 2, p. 431-32) explains further: “In a usage in which Israel could describe itself as a ‘goy,’ there was clearly no possibility of the term taking on a completely hostile religious meaning … At no point in the OT is the semantic development reached in which ‘goy’ in itself means ‘heathen nation..’ There is no support in the OT for the usage which emerged in [later] Hebrew where the sing. ‘goy’ could denote an individual member of a non-Israelite nation.” The above entry then explains that the Tanach does record hostility between the Israelites and other nations referred to as “goyim.” Eventually “am” became the preferred term for the Israelite/Jewish people. In this way, the ground was prepared for the later usage of “goy” as referring to the non-Israelite nations and sometimes having an adverse connotation.

Also noteworthy are the comments of Radak, in his Sefer-Ha-Shorashim, entry “goy.” He explains that the Sages would have preferred to call non-Israelites by their particular nation, e.g. Edomite, Ishmaelite, etc. But by the time of the Sages, it was not possible to do this any longer. Instead, they would call the individual a “goy.” Their intended meaning: he is from one of the “goyim” that is not Israel.

With regard to the distinction between “am” and “goy,” the TDOT entry concludes, regarding biblical Hebrew (p. 427): It “evidences a tendency for ‘goy’ to describe a people in terms of its political and territorial affiliation, and so to approximate much more closely our modern term “nation.” ‘Am,’ conversely always retains a strong emphasis on the element of consanguinity as the basis of union into a people.” (“Consanguinity” means “blood relationship, kinship.” But the entry admits that the above tendency is not observed with complete consistency, as one can find “goy” used in the context of consanguinity.)

What about that word “gentile”? Where did it come from? It derives from Latin “gentilis,” which derives from the Latin ”gens,” meaning “clan, tribe.” The original meaning then acquired the wider meaning of belonging to a distinct nation or ethnicity. In the Latin translation of the Bible by Jerome (400 C.E.), “gentilis” and “gentes” were used in this wider sense to translate references to non-Israelite nations.

I wish to acknowledge the post of 6/13/16 by David Curwin of Efrat at his site balashon.com (“Am, Goy, Leom, Uma”) that provided me with the idea for this column.


Mitchell First aspires to be a scholar of “national” renown, known to both Jews and Gentiles. In the interim, he can be reached at [email protected]. He dedicates this column to our Chayalim in Eretz Yisrael who are risking their lives fighting for the Jewish people.

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