Heathen—(Heb. plural goyum). At first the word goyim denoted generally all the nations of the world (Gen. 18:18; comp. Gal. 3:8). The Jews afterwards became a people distinguished in a marked manner from the other goyim. They were a separate people (Lev. 20:23;26:14-45; Deut. 28), and the other nations, the Amorites, Hittites, etc., were the goyim, the heathen, with whom the Jews were forbidden to be associated in any way (Josh. 23:7; 1 Kings 11:2). The practice of idolatry was the characteristic of these nations, and hence the word came to designate idolaters (Ps. 106:47; Jer. 46:28; Lam. 1:3; Isa. 36:18), the wicked (Ps. 9:5, 15, 17).
The corresponding Greek word in the New Testament, ethne, has similar shades of meaning. In Acts 22:21, Gal. 3:14, it denotes the people of the earth generally; and in Matt. 6:7, an idolater. In modern usage the word denotes all nations that are strangers to revealed religion.