This will be the first of two studies. First, we will study the laws of citizenship in order to obtain a clearer understanding of how to become a lawful citizen of Israel. Secondly, we will study the laws of rulership in order to see who is eligible to rule.
In each of these questions, we must take into account the differences between the Old Covenant and the New. These distinctions are less pronounced in considering the question of legal citizenship, as we will see. However, when we deal with the requirements of rulership, there is a significant difference.
Who is an Israelite?
In the beginning there were no Israelites. Adam was just a man. Fifteen centuries later, Shem was born to Noah and became the first Shemite, or Semite. Five generations later Heber was born, and he became the first Hebrew. Another five generations passed before Abraham was born. He was called “the Hebrew” (Gen. 14:13). Abraham was neither a Jew nor an Israelite.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, became the first Israelite. He was not born an Israelite, but was given this name-title at the age of 98 after wrestling with the angel all night. The angel gave him this name in Genesis 32:28 when Jacob became an overcomer, for he had “prevailed.” The name Israel means “God rules.” Dr. Bullinger gives us the definition in his notes in The Companion Bible:
Israel = “God commands, orders, or rules.” Man attempts it but always, in the end, fails. Out of some forty Hebrew names compounded with “El” or “Jah”, God is always the doer of what the verb means (cp. Dani-el, God judges).
Until Jacob “prevailed,” he was not qualified to hold the name Israel. The name, therefore, was not given on account of his genealogy, else he would have been born an Israelite. Neither did his simple faith in God make him an Israelite, for he had faith while his name was yet Jacob.
During his early life, his faith was insufficient to call him Israel, even though he was always destined to receive that name. In his rivalry with Esau, he thought it necessary to use his wits to overcome Esau’s physical strength and skill as a hunter. Later, he thought it necessary to outwit Laban, who changed his wages ten times (Gen. 31:7) in order to cheat Jacob.
His given name, Jacob, meant a “heel catcher, usurper, supplanter, or deceiver.” This became most evident after Jacob deceived his father into giving him the blessing, for we read what Isaac said to Esau in Gen. 27:35, 36,
35 And he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and has taken away your blessing.” 36 Then he [Esau] said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times….
While he was called Jacob, he thought that God needed his help in fulfilling His word. The prophecy, given before the children were born, was that the older would serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). So when Isaac intended to give Esau the blessing, Jacob and his mother panicked, thinking that they had to do something to fulfill the promise of God. They did not act by faith, but by fear.
This low-level relationship with God (more fear than faith) characterized Jacob for the first 98 years of his life. But then, on his way back to Canaan, he heard that Esau was coming with 400 men to kill him (Gen. 32:6). That night he went out to pray, and he encountered what he thought was a man, and they fought. I believe Jacob thought it was Esau, but when his opponent did something supernatural, he realized that it was an angel of God.
The angel disabled him, but Jacob simply hung on to him and refused to let him go until the angel blessed him. That is when Jacob “prevailed,” and that is when he received the name Israel.
Jacob did not win the wrestling match. He prevailed because he had received divine revelation. That revelation is recorded when Jacob actually met Esau the following day. In Genesis 33:10, Jacob told Esau, “I see your face as one sees the face of God.”
Now Jacob had just named the place of wrestling Peniel (32:30), “God’s face.” He named it after the angel that he had just wrestled: Peniel, “God’s face or presence.” In other words, Jacob’s revelation was that all his life he had presumed that he was fighting Esau, but now he recognized that he had actually been fighting God.
When Jacob could see the face of God in Esau, he became an overcomer, for he prevailed over the blindness of his own flesh. Israel is a title testifying to all that God is sovereign, God rules, God commands, God orders. When we can grasp that revelation, we too can prevail. When we can see the face of God in our worst adversary, and know that God will work all things out for our good (Rom. 8:28), then we have truly overcome the limitations of flesh.
It is customary to call one’s descendants by the name of the original founder of a nation. For this reason, Israel’s physical descendants came to be known as Israelites by common definition. Yet a simple look at their history shows that very few of them prevailed as their forefather had prevailed. They were Israelites in name only, not in their character or in their understanding of God.
For this reason, during most of their years in the land of Canaan, they worshiped false gods. In other words, they did not live up to their name. Were they Israelites? That depends on how we define the term. Among the nations, they were certainly known as Israelites. But in my view, we ought to be more concerned with God’s definition. We ought to see the hearts of men, and not their genealogy.
By God’s definition, an Israelite is an overcomer, one who has prevailed and has come to a higher level of faith than the average believer. If a genealogical Israelite fails to live up the name Israel, God has every right to strip him of that name or even to give the name to others.
This is precisely what happened when God sent Israel to Assyria as captives. Their genealogy did not change, but God took away their name, so that they would be lost. Hence, men have called them “the ten lost tribes.”
Joseph was called Zaphenath-paneah
When Joseph was in Egypt, he went by the name Zaphenath-paneah (Gen. 41:45). For this reason, when the news was spread abroad of a new Prime Minister in Egypt under Pharaoh, Joseph’s brethren did not know that he was their long-lost brother.
This name change prophesied of future things that would come to pass in his descendants, the Israelites. They too would lose their name, for because of rebellion, God would strip them of their name Israel and scatter them among the nations. In doing this, God established His right to bestow or withdraw the name Israel as He determined.
Israel is a Legal Term
Joseph was the one to whom the name Israel was entrusted, for his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh became the custodians of that name. Gen. 48:16 says in the Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible,
16 The messenger [Angel Peniel] who is redeeming me from all evil doth bless the youths, and my name [Israel] is called upon them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and they increase into a multitude in the midst of the land.
We are also told that Joseph received the birthright (2 Chron. 5:2) along with the name Israel. In other words, by law the other sons of Jacob—and their descendants after them—could not call themselves Israelites unless they were in unity with the tribes of Joseph.
This was why, many years later when the tribes split into two nations, the northern confederation could continue to call itself Israel, while the two tribes in the south had to revert to the name Judah, the dominant tribe of that nation. It was because the sons of Joseph were given the name Israel, and when Judah and Benjamin were separated from Ephraim and Manasseh, they lost the right to be called Israelites.
We see from this that even though the men of Judah were descended from the man called Israel, they did not have the right thereafter to call themselves Israelites. Not in the legal or national sense. The prophets maintain this distinction in their prophecies about the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
This shows clearly that the term Israel was more than a genealogical term. It is true that occasionally a man of Judah was called an Israelite in a general sense, but such usage must always be subordinated to the legal use of the name.
For example, if a German immigrates to America and obtains American citizenship, men may still refer to him as German, but it is more accurate to call him an American. The law trumps genealogy.
For this reason also, when a woman of one tribe in Israel married a man of a different tribe, she changed her tribal affiliation. If she had been of the tribe of Manasseh, but married a man of Asher, she became part of the tribe of Asher. Her tribal affiliation was legal, not genealogical.
So also was it with the name Israel. Some may say that I am advocating the concept of spiritual Israel. Well, Paul does say that the law is spiritual (Rom. 7:14), but it is more than just spiritual. It is a matter of biblical law. If we define spiritual Israel in a lawless manner, then it is not really spiritual at all. Spirituality is not lawless.
Just because a man has genealogical roots connecting him to Jacob-Israel, it does not necessarily mean that he is an Israelite. Paul says in Rom. 9:6, “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.”
In other words, not all who are physically descended from Jacob-Israel are Israelites in the sight of God. Paul was not trying to distinguish between Israel and Judah, but between the children of the flesh and the children of promise. He says in Romans 9:8,
8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
Paul’s thesis is drawn from the story of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was born by natural means, but Isaac was born supernaturally to his 90-year-old mother, Sarah. Paul takes this further in Gal. 4:25, telling us that Hagar is “the present Jerusalem.” He says further that those Jews who claimed to be “chosen” on the grounds of their fleshly genealogy were actually Ishmaelites, legally speaking.
Hence, not only was Jerusalem a bondwoman, but her children were also “in slavery.” Paul claimed the heavenly Jerusalem as his mother, saying in verse 26,
26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.
Paul’s genealogy had not changed. Nonetheless, he no longer depended upon his genealogy to be saved or even “chosen.” He made it clear that no man will be an inheritor of the Kingdom unless they have Sarah as their mother. During the time that Paul (known then as Saul) persecuted the church in his earlier life, his mother was Hagar. Paul had been an Ishmaelite but did not realize this until the Holy Spirit imparted a better understanding of the law.
The Law Governing Israelite Citizenship
The law often states that if a person commits a certain sin, he could be “cut off from among his people.” For example, in the law of Passover, Moses says in Ex. 12:15,
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 until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.
In other words, a full-blooded descendant of the tribe of Benjamin could be “cut off from Israel” by violating this law. He could not defend himself by bringing up his genealogy. Physical descent was irrelevant in such a case. The law trumps genealogy, and such a man would no longer be considered an Israelite.
He might continue to call himself an Israelite, and other men may continue to recognize him as an Israelite, but God would not consider him to be an Israelite. Whose opinion do you think will stand up in the divine court?
Under the Old Covenant, Passover ceremonies were designed to express the people’s faith in the blood of the lamb, which pointed to Jesus Christ. Eating leaven during the seven days following Passover was forbidden, not because God had anything against leaven (yeast), but because it signified putting away sin and corruption.
Under the Old Covenant, if a genealogical Israelite violated the law of Passover, and refused to repent, he was to be expelled from Israel and no longer considered to be an Israelite. The only way he could regain his status as an Israelite would be if he repented and was justified by faith in the blood of the Lamb.
His status as an Israelite depended upon his obedience to God, and in this case his justification by faith. The whole nation of Israel was expelled later on account of their lawlessness and lack of faith. The only way that one of those ex-Israelites of the dispersion can be reinstated as an Israelite is if he repents and turns to Christ, keeping the feast of Passover in a New Covenant manner.
No one is an Israelite apart from faith in Christ. That is not “spiritualizing” anything. It is a matter of biblical law, because the law is spiritual and always has been.
Another law worthy of mention is the law of sacrifice, found in Lev. 17:1-7. It tells us that if a man sacrifices an animal outside of the tabernacle or temple, he was required to bring some of its blood to the tabernacle. The priest was to sprinkle the blood on the altar (17:6) in order for the sacrifice to be effective on his behalf.
If a man failed to do this, his sacrifice was said to be offered to “goat demons” and was harlotry (vs. 7).
8 Then you shall say to them, “Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, 9 and does not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to the Lord, that man also shall be cut off from his people.
Here again, we see how law trumps genealogy. Both Israelites and aliens could be cut off from Israel if they violated this law. Under the New Covenant, this speaks of the way men treat the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. All of the sacrifices in the law prophesied of Jesus Christ.
The fact that the Levitical priests were the ones who were called to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the altar and offer it to God shows that it was not the Romans who crucified Jesus, but the temple priests.
When they crucified Jesus, they fulfilled their calling. However, He was crucified “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13), and so a second step had to be taken in order to make His sacrifice effective. The problem was that the priests who crucified Jesus did not consider Him to be the sacrifice for sin, and so they did not apply His blood to their “temple,” that is, to their body.
For this reason, they were “cut off” from Israel. Though they were Levites, fully qualified to offer the sacrifice to God, they were cut off for violating the law of sacrifice. The very law which they proudly thought they were obeying became a curse to them.
Acts 6:7 says, however, that after the day of Pentecost “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” These were reinstated as part of Israel, on account of their repentance, for they applied the blood of Jesus Christ to the true temple, which was their body (1 Cor. 3:16).
What about non-Israelites?
Non-Israelites have never been excluded from the covenants of God. In fact, most of the people who were called Israelites in Scripture were not literal descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In Abraham’s day, he was able to field 318 soldiers to go to war and set his nephew free (Gen. 14:14). This suggests about 2,000 men, women, and children were in his clan—none of which were his own children. Isaac had not yet been born. Not even Ishmael had been born yet.
Yet they were of “the household of faith,” as Paul would say (Gal. 6:10). They all were of Abraham’s house, not on account of their genealogy, but on account of their faith in the God of Abraham. These naturally increased in number, and they all accompanied Jacob’s immediate family when they moved to Egypt.
By the time they left Egypt, each had been joined to one of the tribes of Israel and were considered to be full Israelites. When they left Egypt, a great company of Egyptians came with them (Exodus 12:38). They too joined whatever tribe they chose, for we know that there were only twelve tribes (plus Levi). There was no land set aside for an Egyptian tribe.
Isaiah 56:3-8 makes it clear that eunuchs and aliens may join themselves to God’s covenant by faith and gain citizenship in Israel. This does not change their genealogy, of course. No such change is necessary, for one does not have to be an ethnic Israelite to be a lawful citizen of the nation.
Three Definitions of Israel
In virtually every language, words can have more than one meaning. A simple look at a dictionary will confirm this. As we have seen, the original meaning of Israel was one who testifies that God rules. One might say this was a spiritual application, since it reflected the spiritual change in Jacob’s relationship with God. Later, the term became ethnic. Still later, when the nation of Israel was formed at Sinai, it took on a nationalistic meaning.
Still later, when Judah and Israel were divided into two separate nations, the term Israel took on a narrower meaning, for it then referred to the nation of Israel but excluded the nation of Judah.
A similar evolution took place in the meaning of the term Judah. Originally, Judah was the son of Jacob, and then later his descendants who formed the tribe of Judah. Then, when the kingdom was divided, Judah became a national term that included Benjamin and many Levites. Still later it evolved into a religious term, for we read in Esther 8:17, “and many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.”
In other words, Persians became Jews. They did not change their ethnicity, but rather they had a religious conversion. Even today there is debate among Jews as to whether one’s Jewishness is based on genealogy or upon religious practice.
The bottom line is that non-ethnic Israelites could become part of the nation. The law allows them to become Israelite citizens by faith, regardless of their ethnicity.