When a very pregnant Rivka consulted with the prophets Shem and Ever to find out what is in store for her unborn child, she was informed that she was actually carrying twins. The prophet cryptically spoke about her future sons Jacob and Esau: “Two nations (goyim) are in your stomach, and two nations (leumim) shall separate from your innards, and one nation (leom) will be stronger than the other nation, and the greater will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). In this one verse there are three different words used which mean “nation” and, of course, the Hebrew word am also means “nation”.
Rashi (to Ps. 2:1) writes in the name of Rabbi Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) that leomim, umim, and goyim are all words which bear very similar meanings. Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim (1757-1832) infers from Rashi’s comment that these words are not true synonyms that mean the exact same thing; rather, they have slightly different, nuanced meanings. What do all these words for “nation” really mean and what is the difference between their implications?
In his commentary to Psalms, Rabbi Yoel Ibn Shuaib (a 15th century Spanish commentator) writes that goy refers to a nation that is not united under one king (like the Phillistines who were ruled by a pentaverate comprised of five leaders, see Josh. 13:3), while the words umah/leom refer to a nation united under one king. Similarly, Rabbi Heidenheim explains that the word goy refers to a conglomeration of people who are not necessarily united or connected to each other in any concrete way. The word am, by contrast, refers specifically to a group of people who are united by way of a singular leader, king, or
/god. According to this, every am is also a goy, but not every goy is also an am.
Following this basic approach, Malbim further explains that the word goy is a more general and vague type of nation, while the word am denotes a smaller, more specific type of nation. For this reason the Jewish people are generally referred to as an am (Am Yisrael is “the Nation of Israel”), while other nations of the world are referred to as goyim (“nations”). The only exception, Malbim notes, is that when the Bible wants to focus on the multitudes of the Jewish population it will sometimes use the word goy to refer to the Jewish People simply because that word is more associated with greater numbers than the word am is.
Malbim further explains that the…