The meaning of the Hebrew word "goyim" is somewhat obscured
by its alternate translations as "heathen," "nations,"
and "Gentiles." This is also true of the equivalent
Greek term "ethne" and its variations.
Today, "heathen" means something like "unchurched,
primitive pagans." "Nations" now carries the governmental
sense of the nation-state, a modern phenomenon. "Gentiles"
means those who are not Jewish. In combination, these different
connotations come close to portraying what "goyim" actually
means. But there are goyim in the world today who do not have
their own state or government. There are also goyim who are neither
unchurched, primitive, nor pagan.
English translations of the Bible and of early Church writings
tend to use "heathen(s)" or "nations" for
"goyim." This is unfortunate, because it makes it very
difficult for readers to understand the nature and intensity of
the conflict in the early Church over the manner in which goyim
(i.e., Gentiles) could be saved. (cf. Acts 15) It makes it difficult
to appreciate what a radically new thing God was doing. It makes
it difficult to appreciate both the nature of the Great Commission
and the full measure of God's grace.
Some who deal with the Church in different cultures use "people-groups"
to more accurately convey the Biblical meaning of "goyim"
and "ethne." This is much better, but it still does
not convey the radical difference between Israel and the goyim.
Though God promises to make Israel a holy nation ("goy kadosh"),
He makes it clear that Israel is a unique people, not to be "reckoned
among the goyim." (cf. Ex. 19:6, Num. 23:9) For our purposes,
"Gentiles" or "goyim" will be primarily used
to denote the Hebrew "goyim" or Greek "ethne"
and their variations.