Israel 2009
Israel 2009 (Photo credit: acroll)

Jacob has long held the top spot for boys, but how ’bout the Old Testament patriarch’s other name?

Thanks to Shannon for suggesting Israel as our Baby Name of the Day

At first glance, he’s a place name.  If children can be called Jordan, then why would this Middle Eastern nation be any different?

It is different, of course.  Israel is the world’s only Jewish-majority state, officially established following the destruction and genocide of World War II, though Jews had been migrating to the area since the late nineteenth century .

Israel wasn’t quietly created, either.  In 1948, David Ben-Gurion signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence and sparked the first Arab-Israeli War.  He’d go on to serve as the first prime minister of the fledgling state.

And yet, it isn’t accurate to say that Israel is less than a century old.  After all, Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world, sacred to Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  About 1000 years BCE, King David declared it the capital of the Kingdom of Israel.  Israel appears in the historical record a few centuries earlier, in an account written by an Egyptian ruler.  Jerusalem has been conquered, divided, occupied, and sacked over the years, but remains an incredibly important destination and world capital.

Long before there was the state or even the kingdom, there was Jacob.  He wrestles an angel in the Old Testament – and wins.  In Genesis, he’s renamed:  Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have prevailed.  Variant translations abound, but the gist is the same.  Jacob becomes Israel, a name that signifies that one has persevered, has contended with God.  Some suggest that the meaning is more accurately God contends, or God rules.

In any case, he’s a masculine given name ages before he appears on the map.  Jacob has twelve sons, and those sons and their descendants are known as the Israelites.

So let’s leave it at this: Israel is a valid Old Testament given name, but he’s as potentially controversial as Nevaeh or Cohen.

Nonetheless, he’s been in use for centuries:

  • The name appears in seventh century Albania and sixth century Egypt.
  • Israel Hands was a pirate, second in command to Blackbeard.  Robert Louis Stevenson borrowed the name for a character in Treasure Island.
  • General Israel Putnam fought with distinction in the American Revolution, and there was a Union general in the American Civil War named Israel Richardson.
  • Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline.
  • In the twentieth century there’s Canadian media mogul, politician, and philanthropist Israel Asper.
  • Israel Houghton has won Grammy awards for his contemporary gospel and worship music.

That’s a long stretch of men answering to the name, and not all of them are Jewish.  The same is true of many Old Testament names today.  You don’t have to be Jewish, Christian, or even observant of any faith to consider naming a son Noah, Elijah, Gabriel, Isaac, Isaiah, Levi, or Jeremiah.

In fact, Israel has ranked in the US Top 1000 every year since 1880, charting at #221 in 2011.  That suggests that plenty of parents embrace his sound and some aspect of his meaning.  After all, Zion – another name for Jerusalem – ranked #245.

If you’re looking for a stylish sound and a rich meaning, Israel is one to consider.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Here Israel is heavily used by the Pacific Islander community, and according to Abby at The Name Station, it’s similarly popular in Hawaii, so it seems to really resonate with Polynesians.

  2. I’ve got hippie dreams (that aren’t coming true any time soon; don’t worry) about a little boy named Jerusalem, nicknamed Jem. Buuuuuut, we’re Jewish, so.

  3. A woman at my church has sons called Jordan and Israel (they’re about twelve years apart). Israel is a strong name with rich historical and spiritual connotations, but probably not a name I would personally use.

  4. I went to school with an Israel, a boy with a Mc- last name. I always thought it was a very unusual combination (my class was full of Mikes, Matts and Brians). It was striking and quite memorable. I think it’s wearable in spite of the conflict in the Middle East.

  5. I think, depending on where you live, this could be a loaded choice. In my neighborhood this name would send a strong pro-Israel message as opposed to being just another place or biblical name.

  6. My ninth grade math teacher named her son Israel Reese. A lot of my classmates didn’t understand it and asked her why she didn’t name him Iraq or Afghanistan (rude!), but I thought it was very handsome and went out of my way to tell her so. I’m surprised that Israel isn’t more popular considering the popularity of Isaac and Isaiah, but I suppose that conflicts in the Middle East outweigh the name’s Biblical reference…

  7. I feel like this is a heavy hitter of a name, but beautiful. I honestly think it is probably gender neutral.. the -el ending gives me a girly feel like Bell or Ariel or any other -elle ending. Infact it struck me as girl first before I had started reading your description then could see where the boy comes from. Overall I think it is wearable on any gender and is a wonderful place name.