The Origins of the word ‘Goy’
By Richard Edmondson for VT
“Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world—only to serve the people of Israel.”
Those are the words of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas Party in Israel, as quoted in the October 18 edition of the Jerusalem Post. And lest you get the idea that Yosef is regarded as a minor crank or off-the-wall nut job, consider that the Shas Party holds four cabinet posts in the Netanyahu government, and that Yosef’s following is such he was even selected as a poster child for Carlsberg Beer.
The word “goyim” is plural for “goy”—which in modern-day Jewish use is a designation, sometimes derogatory, for non-Jews. Given the fact that such comments as Yosef’s are being expressed openly by religious leaders in Israel—and given also the obsequious (we might even call it “slavish”) deference paid to Israel by American political leaders—it would behoove us to look at the word “goy” more closely and examine its history and origins.
The word is a Hebrew term, and in biblical translation it is usually rendered as “nation.” But where did it come from, or as we might say what is it’s “etymology”? In their book, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, volume II, Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren inform us goy is derived from the West Semitic gāwum/gāyum—found in the Mari dialect of Akkadian, a language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as 2500 bce. The word gāyum is thought to have meant “people,” or possibly, more precisely, “group, (work-)gang,” although indications are it may also have implied “tribe” or “territory.”
Eventually goy, the Hebrew adaptation of the word, came into heavy usage—there are more than 550 occurrences of it in the Old Testament (OT)—but it’s important to realize that initially the word carried no negative connotations. Under the so-called “documentary hypothesis,” also referred to as the Wellhausen theory, the first five books of the Bible—the Torah, or sometimes called the Pentateuch—are believed to have been composed in the main by four different sources at four different times. The earliest of these, the so-called “Yahwist source,” dates to around 950 bce, and here the word goy is largely content neutral. Thus in Genesis 12:2, Abraham is even promised that his own descendants will become a goy. It’s perhaps worth pausing here and noting, however, that the OT never gives a precise definition of what actually constitutes a goy. Is it racial origin? Is it land or territorial occupation? Is it the fact that a people may have a king or governing body of some sort? Botterweck and Ringgren say all three of these were important factors:
At any given point, one of these features could be regarded as of primary importance, but it is misleading to attempt a definition on the basis of such a single aspect. Normally all three aspects were combined in the formation of a goy, which thus formed the counterpart of what in the modern world would be regarded as a nation.
Thus it would seem that, at least initially, designating someone, or group of someones, as a goy was not so very different from referring to them as a “people.” In fact the Hebrew words am, “people,” and goy, “nation,” were often used interchangeably. Often, but not always. As Botterweck and Ringgren note, there was one important difference: in the Bible, goy is never used in conjunction with the name of a deity. Thus we have a number of instances of Israel proclaiming itself as am yhvh, or “the people of Yahweh”—and in Numbers 21:29 we come across a reference to am kemosh, or “the people of Chemosh” as it applies to the Moabites—but nowhere do we find corresponding uses of the word goy. So even in the earliest times, there does seem to have been that important distinction.
In the centuries following the composition of the Yahwist source material, Israel found itself increasingly at turmoil with its neighbors in the Middle East. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 721 bce, while the Babylonians, in 586 bce, sacked the Southern Kingdom, including the city of Jerusalem, and carried a significant portion of the population off into exile. The so-called “Deuteronomist source,” often abbreviated simply as D, is thought to have been a product of these years of turmoil, dating most likely to around 650 bce. In the Pentateuch, the book of Deuteronomy is generally attributed to D, although the same source probably also contributed to the books of Joshua, Samuel, and Kings. Here we find the word goy taking on what Botterweck and Ringgren refer to as a “stronger political coloring.” Israel had always regarded itself as having a special religious character, making it distinct from other goyim, but in the D-inspired material the non-Israelite goyim begin to be described as engaging in “abominations” (Dt. 18:9, 1K 14:24), with Moses promising that Israel will conquer and “possess” these nations provided only its am obey the commandments. It should be noted that especial rancor seems to have been harbored for the Amalekites, whose genocide is ordered in 1S.15:3, where Yahweh directs Saul to wipe out the entire nation, including women, children, and even infants, as well as all their domestic animals.
Important to remember, however, is that at least up until 586 bce, Israel (or at any rate its southern half) remained a goy itself. As Botterweck and Ringgren note:
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, although a development in this direction does begin to emerge. Alongside the lessening tendency for Israel to regard itself as forming a goy, we find a usage in which the term acquires an increasingly adverse religious sense. While only the first steps of this tendency are traceable in the OT, they are undoubtedly evident.
The fall of the Southern Kingdom in 586 was a dramatic event, largely dismantling Israel’s status as a goy in its own right. It is at this point we arrive at the “Priestly source,” usually abbreviated as P, the most recent of the four main sources of the Pentateuch. Many scholars date P to the period of the Babylonian exile, or “post-exile” period, and according to Botterweck and Ringgren, here “we find a marked restraint in the description of Israel as a goy, which undoubtedly reflects the fact of the beginning of the diaspora and the political situation of the Persian Age in which Israel lacked several of the normal characteristics of a goy.” The term now begins to take on, if anything, even more of a “coloring” than had been the case in the D period. To get an idea of how negative the connotations became, in Strong’s Concordance, goy (entry number 1471 in its Hebrew/Chaldee dictionary) carries the following definition: “a foreign nation; hence a Gentile; also (fig.) a troop of animals, or a flight of locusts:—Gentile, heathen, nation, people.” *
Doubtless millions of Gentiles the world over never thought of themselves as “locusts” before, but the designation is not perhaps quite as bad as it would appear on the surface. In Leviticus 11:22, written perhaps not surprisingly by the P source, locusts are named among the animals to be regarded as clean. In other words, Jews are allowed to eat them.
In fairness, it should also be noted that Israel was commanded to love the stranger, for “you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt. 10:19), and that Ruth, a woman from a non-Israeli goy, became great-grandmother to David. Thus it would have to be said that in OT times, the word goy was, to borrow a modern-day colloquialism, very much a “mixed bag.” Goyim could clearly carry out “abominations,” but at the same time, Israel never stopped longing for a restoration of its own status as a genuine, bona fide goy. Or as Botterweck and Ringgren put it:
Existence as a goy was a goal to be desired, and the term did not itself imply any adverse religious connotation. In line with this, there is no support in the OT for the usage which emerged in Talmudic Hebrew where the singular goy could denote an individual member of a non-Israelite nation. Rather, such a person is simply described in the OT as an ish, “man.” Nevertheless, the tendency to regard the non-Israelite nations adversely on account of their religion, combined with Israel’s own political misfortunes, lent a distinctive coloring to the term goyim. When this is viewed in conjunction with the preference found in the OT for Israel to describe itself as an am, “people,” and a mishpachah, “family,” rather than a goy, in view of the political overtones of the latter term, it is not difficult to see how the ground was prepared for the later Talmudic usage in which goy and goyim took on a specific and adverse religious meaning.
The Talmud began to be written in about 200 ce; what had occurred in the intervening years, of course, were the birth and death of Christ, the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 ce. Here the word goy makes its transition from a plural, or collective, term to an indicant of single individuals, although it can be difficult for those not fluent in Hebrew to determine just precisely what the Talmud does and doesn’t say on the subject. There has been a tradition, apparently going back several centuries, of publishing “watered down” versions of the Talmud in English editions, a matter discussed by Israel Shahak in his 1994 book Jewish History Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. Today there are any number of websites out there—put up by both “pro” and “anti” Semites, as well as perhaps a few neutral “in-betweens”—purporting to give the “real story” on just exactly what’s in the Talmud. How much of this is accurate, how much is error-prone, and how much is outright propaganda, is difficult to say, but here are a few points covered by Shahak in his book:
- Since Jews are forbidden from doing work on the Sabbath, the Talmud provides a dispensation for them to employ a “Sabbath Goy” to perform needed chores on Saturdays, and in Israel today Palestinian workers are employed by the Army in such capacity.
- Under Halakah (the aggregate body of Jewish law, encompassing biblical as well as talmudic and rabbinical commandments) it is the duty of every Jew to save the life of a fellow Jew, but as for Gentiles, “the basic talmudic principle is that their lives must not be saved.” In other words, don’t murder them, but also don’t go out of your way to save them, or as the applicable quote from the Talmud words it, “Gentiles are neither to be lifted (out of a well) nor hauled down (into it)’.
- The murder of a Jew is a capital offense, but a Jew who murders a Gentile is guilty only of a sin against the laws of Heaven, not punishable by a court, while to cause indirectly or accidentally the death of a Gentile is no sin at all.
- It is forbidden for a Jewish doctor to “desecrate the Sabbath” by treating a dangerously ill Gentile patient, although as Shahak comments, “in modern times most Jewish doctors are not religious and do not even know of these rules.”
- The concept of adultery does not apply to intercourse between a Jewish man and a Gentile woman; instead, the Talmud equates such intercourse to the sin of bestiality.
Summing all this up, Shahak comments: “An important effect of all these laws—quite apart from their application in practice—is in the attitude created by their constant study which, as part of the study of the Halakah, is regarded by classical Judaism as a supreme religious duty.” In other words, while such laws may not be practiced either officially or even de facto, their net effect is to “inculcate an attitude of scorn and hatred toward Gentiles,” giving rise to a situation in which “an Orthodox Jew learns from his earliest youth, as part of his sacred studies, that Gentiles are compared to dogs.”
In addition to his comments about goyim being born to serve the people of Israel, the ultra-orthodox Yosef also averred that the lives of Gentiles are safeguarded by God, but it would probably be a mistake to interpret this as sentiment of shared humanity. The reason God looks out for Gentiles, he says, is to prevent financial losses to Jews.
“Why are Gentiles needed?” he asks. “They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat.”
And come dinnertime maybe the rabbi will order a side dish of locusts to go along with his meal, perhaps washed down with a Carlsberg beer and served by a Sabbath Goy waiter.
*My version of Strong’s Concordance is the one published in 1997 by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI. In some online versions found today, see here for example, the words “animals” and “locusts” have been eliminated.
Richard Edmondson is a journalist, novelist, and author of The Memoirs of Saint John: No Greater Love. Visit his website at www.memoirsofsaintjohn.com.