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The term “Jew” (Yehudi, Judahite) has a range of meaning. First, it may refer to the patriarch named Judah. Second, it may refer to his literal descendants. Third, it may refer to the tribe, which included many non-Jews who joined the tribe and converted to Judaism (Esther 8:17).
The term “Israelite” also has a range of meaning. First, it may refer to one who is descended from the man named Israel. Most of the time, however, it simply refers to the nation of Israel, which included more than just descendants of Jacob-Israel. Israel was not a tribe as such, but included all of the tribes as a whole until the era of the Divided Kingdom, when the term Israel was distinguished from Judah and included only ten of the tribes.
The context of Scripture usually tells us which meaning is applicable, whether genealogical, national, legal, or religious.
The earliest use of the term Israel was when the angel renamed Jacob Israel. This new name did nothing to alter his genetics. It was instead a title showing a heightened relationship with God. In this sense, it was a legal title. His children then began to be known as Israelites, or the children of Israel.
When Isaac died, Jacob-Israel inherited the estate, which included many servants who were not actual family members. Recall that Abraham was able to muster 318 men to fight the five kings and to free his nephew, Lot (Genesis 14:14). Most of these 318 men had wives and children, parents and grandparents. Abraham’s household probably numbered about 2,000 people, most of whom came with him out of Ur and Haran. And this was before Abraham himself had any children at all.
These 2,000 people followed Abraham, giving them Abrahamic faith. They were children of Abraham in the New Covenant sense (Galatians 3:7). No doubt this is also why Paul called them “the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10 KJV).
If Abraham himself was the head of a village of 2,000 people, how would they have increased in the next two centuries in the days of Isaac and Jacob? How many of them would have gone to Egypt with Jacob and his immediate family? There were “sixty-six” of Jacob’s immediate family (Genesis 46:26), not including Joseph and his family. There were “seventy” in total if we include Joseph, his wife, and his two sons (Genesis 46:27; Exodus 1:5).
Jacob’s Immediate Family
By this time, all of Jacob’s sons had been married, and all of them had children. Leah’s children and grandchildren totaled 33 people (Genesis 46:15); Zilpah’s children and grandchildren totaled 16 (Genesis 46:18); Rachel’s children and grandchildren totaled 14 (Genesis 46:22); Bilhah’s children and grandchildren totaled 7 (Genesis 46:25). The grand total was 70.
They took all of their cattle with them (Genesis 46:6). It is not likely that they left their shepherds behind, though we are not told specifically. The sons of Israel never had to care for their large herds of sheep, goats, camels, or donkeys. There were many others to do that job. My guess is that there were at least 10,000 people who went to Egypt with Jacob—most of whom were not part of Jacob’s immediate family.
This is how the Israelites were able to multiply quickly. After spending 210 years in Egypt, they totaled about six million.
It was 400 years from the birth of Isaac, Abraham’s seed, to the exodus from Egypt (Genesis 15:13, 14), but the first 190 years were spent in the land of Canaan, which was under the hegemony of Egypt. Isaac spent his entire life in Canaan, living to the age of 180. Ten years after the death of Isaac, Jacob moved to Egypt, and the Israelites remained there for another 210 years.
They left Egypt and received the Old Covenant at Sinai 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant, as we see in Galatians 3:17. If Jacob had actually spent 400 years in Egypt, then the Abrahamic covenant would have been made just 30 years prior to that time. But that is not possible, because when Jacob took the family to Egypt, Abraham had been dead for more than a century.
The point is that the vast majority of the household of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who came out of Egypt under Moses were not direct descendants of Jacob, yet by this time they had all joined one of the tribal units. They were fully integrated into the tribal structure itself and could call themselves Israelites.
To them were added many Egyptians who left Egypt with them. Exodus 12:38 says,
18 A mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock.
These were new converts, so they caused some trouble later. Yet there is no evidence that any of them actually returned to Egypt. Instead, they identified with the tribe of their choice. Hence, when the land of Canaan was divided among the 12 tribes, we see no land allotted to a tribe of Egyptians.
Legal Status as an Israelite
Legal citizenship in Israel was always open to foreigners. We see this clearly in Isaiah 56:6, which speaks of “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord.” The prophet tells us that this was the purpose of Solomon’s temple, which was to be “a house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). There were many foreigners over the centuries who came under the covenant and thereby obtained Israelite citizenship among the tribes.
For this reason, it was ludicrous for Herod to build a dividing wall in the temple that separated Jewish men from gentile converts (and all of the women). To make converts second-class citizens was a travesty that Christ had to correct (Ephesians 2:14).
Not only could foreigners become Israelites, but also there were natural-born Israelites who could lose their citizenship status. We see this, for example, in Exodus 12:15, which speaks of the feast of Passover,
15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.
Passover signifies justification by faith in the blood of the Lamb (Jesus Christ). Leaven signifies corruption (sin). Without going into the theological implications of this law, we can see that it was possible for an Israelite to be “cut off from Israel.”
This is repeated in Leviticus 17:9, where again we read, “that man also shall be cut off from his people,” that is, from his tribe or family. The point is that citizenship in Israel or one of the tribes is a legal matter, not a biological right.
While the Israelites were in the land of Canaan, most of them were idolaters, and many of them actually sacrificed their children to Baal and Molech. Were they Israelites, or were they “cut off from Israel”? As far as God’s law was concerned, they lost their status as citizens of Israel. However, the corrupt political and religious leaders usually failed to obey the laws of citizenship. There were rare times when the prophets and priests of Baal were killed or exiled, but most of the time, the true Israelites were only a remnant—a tiny minority.
Therefore, even though the records show that well over a million men were considered Israelites by the laws of men, only a remnant were actually Israelites in the sight of God. To use Paul’s terms regarding the tribe of Judah, their “praise” (status as a member of the tribe of Judah) was from men, not from God.
So whose testimony are we to believe? Are we to consider men to be either Jews or Israelites even if they have no faith in God or in Christ? Should we believe that the laws of men take precedence over the laws of God? If the governments of men grant or allow ungodly men to enjoy citizenship in Israel on account of their supposed biological right, must we agree with them?
Throughout Israel’s history, few (if any) attempts were made to revoke the rights of citizenship from any ungodly people. If they had been able to do so, the nation of Israel would have been limited to the remnant of grace. Obviously, that did not happen. Yet we today ought to adopt the Kingdom view of things, so that we are in agreement with the mind of God (and His law).
If we wish to maintain a Kingdom vision, it is imperative that we see citizenship through the eyes of God and His law, rather than through the eyes of men.
Having established the legal basis of citizenship in Israel, we can see how God enforced His own law when He sent the Israelites into the Assyrian captivity (2 Kings 17:5, 6), making them “not My people.” Their exile was based on the Old Covenant, which the people had failed to fulfill after promising obedience in Exodus 19:8.
But God had made a second covenant to make everyone “His people” (Deuteronomy 29:12-15). Therefore, their status as “not My people” was to be temporary, essentially postponing the emergence of the Kingdom for thousands of years. For God to fulfill His oath would require a work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all mankind, because no one can become one of God’s people apart from repentance and having the law written on his/her heart.
To accomplish this, of course, Jesus was sent to earth to die on the cross and to overcome death by His resurrection. He ascended to the throne until such time that the earth would become His footstool (Acts 2:35).
During Christ’s ministry, He told His disciples to go only to the lost tribes of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6). But later, just before His ascension, having received full authority in heaven and in earth, He told them to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18, 19). Yet there was an order of priority as well, as we read in Acts 1:8,
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
Paul himself reflected this in his ministry, saying in Romans 1:16,
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
The gospel did indeed begin in Jerusalem, and soon Philip went to Samaria (Acts 8:5) to preach the gospel. From there, the gospel went to the Greeks and Romans and into Europe and eventually to all nations. Peter had a special mission to the ex-Israelites of the dispersion who lived in the northern part of what is now Turkey (1 Peter 1:1, 2, 3; 2:9, 10). Paul’s desire was to bring the gospel to Spain and ultimately to Britain, where large numbers of ex-Israelites were living.
Overall, this shows that while the gospel is for everyone, there were certain priorities that were important. So Europe received the gospel before most of the other nations. I believe this was because the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” had immigrated there after the fall of Assyria. God’s priority was to begin with those who had become “not My people” (Lo-ammi).
Yet it should be clear that they could not become “My people” (Ammi) apart from having faith in Christ. God did not wave a magic wand over them, nor did He consider them to be Israelites until He saw in them New Covenant faith through Jesus Christ. All must become Israelite citizens in the end, and all attain this in the same manner.