Is Israël an Am or Goy or both? whats the Torah definition and best translation of both terms?

Because it seems that Israël is being called both Am as a Goy. (Am Kadosh: Devarim 26:19 and Goy Kadosh: Bamidbar 19:6)

Both terms seem to refer to a group of people, I once heard that Am is related to Im 'with/togetherness', and Goy to Geviyah 'body', any thoughts on this ?

2 Answers 2


Malbim from ספר הכרמל entry for גוי:

Goy is a gathering of individual entities, without any higher purpose. It is derived from גוה, a body or unit. It is also used as a reference to a large group, which is what it means when used in reference to the Jewish people.

Am is a higher level, which references a unified group with a guided purpose, whether it be governmental or otherwise. Therefore, a person can belong to an am - עמי. But a person never belongs to a goy - there is no גויי, my nation. (Hashem has גוייך, but that is not His belonging to it, but his owning it.)

I would translate it as Am = nation and Goy = people, or group of people.


The two terms have held different meanings at different times, eg. the Israelites were referred to as a 'goy kadosh' (holy nation) in the Bible, but today the term 'goyim' more frequently is used for non Jews. Language changes over time, and this is true within the Tanakh too, as terms' meanings change as a result of the passing of time between the various authors.

In terms of the differences between Deuteronomy and Numbers, as you pointed out, again it is the matter of different authors. Scholars frequently date Deuteronomy as a "later" text (that is, in relation to the rest of the Pentateuch). For example Moshe Weinfeld, in "Deuteronomy--The Present State of Inquiry" (Society of Biblical Literature, 1967), argues in favor of the theory of W. M. L. de Wette, who claimed as early as 1805 that Deuteronomy's law code matched the reforms of Josiah and specifically the efforts to centralize the Temple cult in Jerusalem. Josiah's discovery of a "book of the law" and his efforts to reform Israelite religion (2 Kings 22-23) are commonly taken to refer to the "discovery" of a fifth book of Moses. In this light, differences in language between Numbers and Deuteronomy (not to mention the rest of the Pentateuch, e.g. the commandment to שמור vs. זכור the Sabbath) come into focus.

When the terms are used in the same verse, we can see them as complementary terms. As @YEZ pointed out, one example is Chronicles 1 17:21, which reads:

וּמִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, גּוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ: אֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ הָאֱלֹהִים לִפְדּוֹת לוֹ עָם, לָשׂוּם לְךָ שֵׁם גְּדֻלּוֹת וְנֹרָאוֹת--לְגָרֵשׁ מִפְּנֵי עַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ מִמִּצְרַיִם, גּוֹיִם. כב

In the first phrase, "U-mi ke-'amha yisra'el, goy 'ehad ba-arets," we find a classic example of Biblical parallelism, the main rhetorical and poetic form of the Hebrew Bible. In part A of the phrase, the term "Am" is used, and in the second, its synonym, "Goy," replaces it.

As E.A. Speiser has argued, the terms have complementary meanings. "Am" does not exclusively reference the Jewish people, but it is also the only term to be used on conjunction with the tetragrammaton, e.g. Am YHWH - the people of God. "Am" has more of a relationship with family and kinship, and perhaps can be best translated as "people," whereas "Goy" is a nation, which can be established, built, destroyed, etc. In the end, Speiser argues that Israel was both an "Am" and a "Goy." Though the terms had different meanings, they were complementary and together characterized the Israelite people.

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    How about when both are within one verse? Chronicles 1 17:21 Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 3:29
  • In my estimation the scholars of traditional Judaism more frequently date it to an earlier period than that. In any event, this answer is complete hand-waving. I don't disagree that meanings of words can shift over time, but you'd have to track it to show any meaningful result.
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 3:34
  • @DoubleAA I'm sure that "traditional" scholars would date Deuteronomy earlier inasmuch as they reject the documentary hypothesis. Most reputable academics today will support, generally speaking, the concept that Deuteronomy was written by a different author than the rest of the Pentateuch, no matter how many authors there were totally. And I don't think that the idea that language changes over time is "hand waving." If language changes over time and the Bible was the product of a number of authors from different times and thus different cultures, then they would use the same words differently.
    – Jason
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 5:55
  • @YEZ good point, updated the answer a bit.
    – Jason
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 5:57
  • That idea alone is hand-waving. You have to actually do the nitty-gritty of what means what when to have a persuasive answer.
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 15:49

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