Hebrews, Israelites & Jews
Are they the same people?
Today, Israel refers to a nation, whose culture is Jewish and its language Hebrew; yet the Hebrews were a people, Israelite areligion and Jew, a race!
Thus the 3 terms, Hebrew, Israel and Jew refer to nation, culture, language, people, religion and race depending on the geohistorical contexts of when and here they were used.
Confusing isn’t it.
In this podcast, I hope to demystify this enigma.
The extended family of Jacob (along with his servants and slaves) settled in the land of Goshen in Egypt by Joseph’s invitation, were known in the writings of the Hebrew Bible as the Hebrew people. Note that even by the time Jacob (Israel) “founded” the Hebrew people, there was already a mixed pedigree and being a people signaled a dynamic religious association rather than a static genetic identification. It was possible to change one’s religious association by being forced into submission as a captured slave or by coerced marriage to another religious group. Thus a Hebrew can become an Egyptian as Moses clearly was, and then become a Hebrew again in adulthood by abandoning the religion of his youth to embrace that of his biological parents. Indeed, Jacob’s extended family as well as his servants or slaves were counted as a composite people — the Hebrews.
Moses led the “Hebrews” (a term derived from ‘apiru or desert nomads) who were largely descendants of Jacob’s family, slaves and servants, along with other Egyptian slaves from other tribes and nations into the desert for 40 years.
Later, Joshua and Caleb led the next generation of Hebrews++ (i.e., Hebrews and non-Hebrews, now regarded as Israel rather than strictly Jews to accommodate the inconvenient fact that Caleb was in fact from a Canaanite tribe who joined the Hebrews, possibly because they were among the captured slaves of Egypt liberated by Moses) into the land of Canaan. Some Canaanites joined the Hebrews in worshipping YHWH and formed the religious nation of Israel (the name the Lord gave to Jacob, the second son of Isaac, the second son of Abraham). Biblical Israel was a multiracial association of YHWH worshippers.
Of the 12 tribes of original Israel, the Levites had no land but Joseph’s sons, Manasseh & Ephraim, had lands of their own, making up 12 lots of land given to 10 full tribes and two half tribes. This is why there is no tribe of Joseph but rather, two half-tribes of his sons, one of who Ephraim, was to later take on the name Israel and represent all 10 northern tribes. Here is what happened. After the death of Solomon (926 BC), the nation of Israel’s 12 tribes was divided into the northern kingdom (10 tribes) & the southern kingdom (2 tribes). The northern kingdom was called Ephraim, after its dominant tribe among the 10 tribes, and the southern kingdom was called Judah, after the dominant tribe among the 2 tribes. After the civil war, the biblical writers began to re-use the word Israel when they referred Ephraim (the confederacy of 10 northern tribes), so that King Solomon nation of a united Israel became the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. From this point on, Israel no longer referred to the 12 tribes of Jacob’s descendants but rather, 10 of the 12 tribes. The modern state of Israel however, recognized only the successors of Judah’s 2 tribes rather than Israel’s 10 tribes, now called Samaritans.
In the 8th century BC, the northern kingdom of Ephraim/Israel fell to Assyria. According to the final forms of the Hebrew Bible, these “lost” tribes never recovered their national integrity due to intermarriage, even though in reality, all 12 tribes intermarried from day one. In the Bible, the northern tribes became known as the Samaritans, although they themselves did not think they were genetically lost, but rather, that they lost the battle for supremacy.
In the 6th century BC, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to Babylonia. However, when Babylonia itself fell to Persia, many Jews returned to rebuild their capital, Jerusalem. Following this, other Israelites began to describe themselves as the race of the Jews, after the surviving tribe of Judah, even if they belonged to other tribes (e.g., Esther was a Benjamite).
Thus, there are 3 Israels:
a) The nation of Israel — 12 tribes in the 13th century BC,
b) The kingdom of Israel — 10 tribes (from Ephraim) in the 10th century BC
c) The state of Israel — 2 tribes (from Judah) in the 20th century AD.
The question for modern Christian Zionists is, which Israel are we referring to? The nation organized by Joshua, the kingdom established by Jeroboam, or the modern political state started by David Ben Gurion?
The biblical Hebrews belonged to a class of nomadic people to whom the more established groups applied the term “’Apiru” or “Habiru.” They included the extended family and servants of Abraham, who started out as a northern Mesopotamian city-dweller of a settled people, the Chaldeans, in southeastern Turkey today. But in response to a call from his God (not yet known as YHWH), he left his family at Ur and Haran to travel to Egypt. Abram the city-dweller became Abraham the nomad. It was his long journey that made Abram and his entourage become Apirus, “those with unwashed feet” or unsettled people. It was his grandson, Jacob, whose descendants identified him with the name Israel that the notion of being an “Israelite” emerged. There were many inconspicuous nomadic peoples scattered through Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, Canaan, and Egypt. The term ’Apiru does not refer to an ethnic group but to a social stratum of people who lacked citizenship in the established nations of the Near East; “wanderers” or “outsiders” who lived a rootless existence on the fringes of society. The biblical word “Hebrew” became used as an ethnic term, found almost exclusively in biblical materials from the Abrahamic period to just before David. Today, “Hebrew” describes the language of the Jewish people of nation of Israel.
In the Bible, the word cannot be reduced to nationhood. While Hebrew is more of an ethnic term, Israel transcends ethnicity and even politics. It is a religious term. After their exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews of Jacob’s descent became known as Israel, following Jacob’s renaming by an Angel of the Lord. In the postexilic (6th century BC) writing of Deuteronomy, the term Israel was written into the history of Israel when Moses declared that Israel has become “the people of the Lord your God” (Deut. 27:9).
God’s covenant with them for entry to the promised land was conditional. If they did not obey God, they would be cursed, “scattered among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other” (Deut. 28:64). God ruled them through a succession of Judges. In defiance and desiring to be like the other nations, they pestered Judge Samuel for a human king. Israel the nation was formed (like the other nations). It ended in destruction and exile. Israel the religion had become Israel the political entity.
Is the modern state of Israel biblically privileged? No. This is a misidentification. In Christian doctrine, the political ‘nation of biblical Israel’ has been replaced by the spiritual gathering (ecclesia) of the church. This came about when in John 18:36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This stunning Good News was a departure from the way Judaism had developed by the first century in Roman Palestine, which became both economic and political Good News. The promise to biblical Israel has become the promise to the Church.
The English word “Jew” is derived from the Middle English, Iewe, a translation of the Hebrew yehudim which means “from the tribe of Judah.” With the dispersal of the “lost” tribes of the northern kingdom, surviving Israelites adopted the name “Jews” to identify themselves with the politically and economically dominant tribe, Judah (which absorbed the tribe of Benjamin). In time most Hebrew-speaking Israelites of any tribe identified themselves as the Jews, observing Jewish laws and describing themselves as culturally Jewish. To not be Jewish would relegate them to be Samaritans, an object of scorn and derision associated with the northern city of Samaria populated by the “lost” tribes.
Today, being Jewish refers to a cultural identification. To be an observant Jew refers to practicing one of the modern religious sects of Judaism. Thus, modern Israelis (nationality) are not the biblical Israelites (YHWH believers), since a sizeable percentage of Israeli citizens are Arabs, and most of them are either Christian or Muslim. One can be a Christian Israeli, a Muslim Israeli, a Jewish Israeli each of which can be either Arab or Jewish ethnicity, not to mention non-Middle Eastern naturalized citizens.
The Old Testament reference to the nation of the Israelites no longer exists. The modern state of Israel was not a return of the lost tribes but a coming together of racially mixed people groups who identify with the ancient religion of the Hebrew people. When Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist and political activist helped to found Zionism, it was a political organization, not intended to be a return to the ancient religion of the Jews. Herzl was an atheist. In 1896, he wrote that European Jews should leave for Argentina or Palestine to avoid discrimination.
In Der Judenstaat Herzl writes: “The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilized countries — see, for instance, France — so long as the Jewish question is not solved on the political level …. Therefore I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabees will rise again. Let me repeat once more my opening words: The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”
Reverend William Hechler, the Anglican minister to the British Embassy read Herzl’s Der Judenstaat and helped Herzl “put myself into direct and publicly known relations with a responsible or non responsible ruler — that is, with a minister of state or a prince. Then the Jews will believe in me and follow me. The most suitable personage would be the German Kaiser.”
In 1898, Hechler arranged for Herzl to publicly meet the German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898 during his visit to Palestine.
In 1901, Herzl met the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II and offered to secure Jewish money to pay off the empire’s foreign debt in return for Palestine as the new Zionist homeland. The offer was rejected.
In 1903, he approached the Pope Pius X for support and proposed a Zionist state in Palestine which could then offer refuge for those fleeing persecution in Russia. But as long as the Jews did not recognize the divinity of Jesus, the Catholic Church could not support such a proposal. Other suggested locations for the new Zionist state included the Sinai Peninsula and Uganda in East Africa (The Uganda Project).
In 1904, Herzl died, and Zionism took on an increasingly religious overtone in order to gain more support.
Let us get back to the Bible.
How did the NT describe Israel in the eyes of Jesus and Paul? Jesus and Paul identified the composition of biblical Israel as those who obey the commands of God and his Son. Christians became the New Testament Israelites. They inherited the religion of the Old Testament Israelites (not the politics of modern Israelis). The Old Testament Israelites refer to a people who were never meant to be a racial or genetic pedigree, but anyone who identify with Israel (God or El prevails). That is why the racial intermarriages in the lineage from Abraham on to Jesus were not problematic. Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and many other biblical men married non-Hebrew wives. They include Keturah, Zipporah, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, some of whom were Jesus’ own ancestors. The primary concern was fidelity to God; not to race, culture, language or geography. Hebrew, Israelites and Jews are not synonymous terms.
1) Are Christians the new biblical Israel?
Christianity claims the God of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Covenant is their God. This religious adoption of an existing religion by a new one at the turn of the first millennium continues to generate much debate both among Jews and Christians as to the relative status of one to the other. Jesus and Paul clearly identified themselves as Jews who believed in the God of Torah. But subsequent followers of Jesus formed a new identity as the Church. In time, Christianity separated from Palestinian Judaism to become the world’s largest religion. Today, most Christians think of themselves as spiritual successors to biblical Israel, believing the same God identified by David, Job, Moses and Abraham. In this sense, the Christian Church is today’s biblical Israel.
2) Are modern Jewish people biblically privileged?
While we acknowledge and celebrate the people first chosen by YHWH to bring the good news to all nations, anyone who call upon Christ as Lord and savior are among the chosen ones. There are not two ‘chosen’ peoples. Gentiles have inherited the Jewish mandate. Indeed, from the religious meaning of being Jewish, believing Gentiles become Jewish, so that there is no difference before God (Gal.3:28). Present-day ethnic Jews hold no privileged salvific position because their primary identity is to a culture rather than a religious belief. This is why a non-observant Jew is still a Jew, just as a non-Daoist Chinese remains a Chinese.
3) Is the modern state of Israel biblically privileged?
The special privilege of biblical Israel has always been linked to the status of Abraham, even though it was Jacob from whom Israel derived its name. The New Testament clarifies the Christian position:
Mark 3:35 “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Galatians 3:7 “Those who believe are the children of Abraham”
Galatians 3:9 “those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham
Galatians 3:29 “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”
However, since biblical Israel has long been fragmented and the state of Israel is a political rather than a religious institution, no such privilege exists today. We must treat both Palestinians and Israelis with equal respect and compassion. Everyone deserves to hear the gospel, whatever his or her ethnicity.
4) How are Jews related to Arabs?
Most Arabs and all the Jews claim Abrahamic lineage. Abram, a Mesopotamian-Arab from modern Turkey fathered many Arabian tribes (including the Midianites from Keturah), through his half-Egyptian son Ishmael, as well as the Arabian tribe we call the Jews, through Sarah’s grandson Jacob. The Jews are a sect of the Arab peoples, not a separate race. They are thus cousins among the “desert dwellers” or ’Apirus. Although their languages evolved separately, both the vocabulary and concepts remain identifiably from a common source.
5) Is there a Scriptural mandate for Zionism in the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Many Christians tend to be Zionist, i.e., believing that the Church must defend political Zionism, the claim that a modern state of Israel should exist in the former Roman province of “Palestina.” This misunderstanding rests on the presumptions that
(i) biblical religious nation of Israel corresponds with the modern political state called Israel, and
(ii) Israel is the geographical location of Christ’s second coming.
Since neither the state of Israel nor the Jewish people are biblically privileged, and the location of Jesus’ second coming is unknown, the Christian church has no Scriptural warrant nor mandate to choose Israel over Palestine.
6) Was the modern state of Israel founded on religious or political grounds?
The founding of Israel on May 14th 1948 was premised upon the return to the “promised land” based on the biblical covenants. However in Deut. 30:5, the biblical promise was explicitly conditioned on the people’s “return to the Lord.” This required any new state of Israel to be a theocracy rather than a democracy. However, by 1948, a theocracy would not gain the support of the United States so this biblical mandate was quietly forgotten. In any case, once formed, Israel operated as a secular nation, but in practice every politician is still very much beholden to the religious authorities who successfully demand special economic and political privileges.
Any legitimate claim for modern Israel cannot rest on biblical nor theological grounds. It was a political “settlement” endorsed by guilt-ridden western powers whose indifference to the horrors of anti-Semitism encouraged the Holocaust.
Ron E. Choong, Executive Director of the Academy for Christian Thought
©2002. Published by The Academy for Christian Thought Publications
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