December 2008

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Who Is a Jew?

by Dr. Patricia Depew

Can a nation be born in a day? Or in Israel’s case, can a nation be re-born in a day? On May 15, 1948, Israel was re-born as a nation. A nation that was originally established to be a light to the world that pointed the way to the Almighty Creator, is now a sanctuary for the earth’s Jewish peoples. God’s purpose is still that they would be a light to the nations. But first, they must become re-born in a different way!

The nation state we call Israel is tied in with the ethnic peoples we call Jews. For this reason, it’s important to define Jewishness. Let us look closely at what a Jew is, starting with Scripture.

God teaches us in the Hebrew Bible about the lineage and history of the Jewish people and the meanings of their names. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were called Shemites, a name that stems from Noah’s son Shem. They were Hebrews because “Hebrew” means “one who crossed over a river or a desert as Abraham did when he left Chaldea to enter Canaan according to God’s command.” Jacob’s name, “Supplanter,” was changed by God to “Israel,” meaning “Prince of God,” and from him came the 12 tribes, one of which was Judah, from which we get the name “Jew.”

Hebrew Peoples Are Part of God’s Covenants

All 12 tribes can trace their lineage back to the covenants that Yahweh made with their Fathers. To Abraham, God said in Genesis 12:2 -3, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (NASV). In The Mosaic Covenant (Exodus to Deuteronomy), Yahweh gave the Sons of Israel the Ten Commandments; the laws which contained civic, dietary, health, sacrificial and ceremonial requirements; the biblical feasts as an honor and remembrance of Yahweh, and the Levitical priesthood. The Land Covenant promised that the Sons of Israel would become the crucial nation of the world if they were obedient to God (Deuteronomy 28:1,13). But the covenant also warned that many curses would befall the people if they were disobedient (Deuteronomy 28:15-37), including exile from the land (Deuteronomy 28:38-57). In Chapter 30, God said He would restore the Sons of Israel to their land. The Davidic Covenant is recorded in 2 Samuel 7:12-15. There God told David that his son Solomon would build the Lord’s temple. God also said that David’s house, kingdom and throne would be established forever (7:16). This was confirmed by God to David in Psalm 89:4 and to the nation of Israel through the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 9:6-7 and Jeremiah 23:5-6). In Luke 1:31-33, the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that Jesus would be the Messiah, the One to whom God will give the Davidic throne, that He will rule over the House of Jacob forever, and that His Kingdom would have no end.

Uniqueness Challenged During the Exile

About 930 B.C., the United Kingdom of Israel divided. The Northern Kingdom retained the name Israel and the Southern one called itself Judah after its predominant tribe. The term B’nei Yisrael (“Sons of Israel,” Israelites) was still used for both groups. The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. These tribes later dispersed throughout the world. DNA studies today are attempting to identify descendants of these tribes.

In 598 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, and many Israelites were exiled to Babylonia. Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. and the First Temple was destroyed. In exile, the Israelites were able to participate in the economic and social life of their new land. They had to reorganize and maintain Jewish life. It was a time of self-reflection. One early definition of “who is a Jew” dates to this time. Jewish leaders were concerned about marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Their final decision, which is basically acknowledged today although often challenged, is that Jewish people are those who have Jewish mothers.

When the Persians conquered Babylon in 538 B.C., the Persian King Cyrus permitted the Jewish people to return to their homeland. About 50,000 Jews returned to Judah, although many stayed in Babylon. The biblical principles in the lives of some Jewish people became less important after their return from Babylon. This was because some of them started to assimilate into the pagan cultures of their captors including the Greeks, Romans and Arabs. They still maintained some degree of unique identity; the first use of the word, “Jew” in the Bible is found in the Book of Esther during the Persian Empire. From this time on sacred historians, prophets, apostles, and the Lord Himself, regarded the “Jews” whether in Israel or in the “Dispersion” as the “Sons of Israel,” and the only people in line of the covenants and the promises which God made to the Hebrew patriarchs.

The focus of Jewish intellectual life following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D.70 was established in Yavneh, a place near modern Tel Aviv, Israel. Jewish scholars met there to write out the spoken Jewish law to complement the Torah. At the end of the Second Century A.D., this writing was completed by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi and others. It is known as the Mishnah. Discussions on the Mishnah were also put into writing, and this is known as the Gemara. The Mishnah and Gemara together are called the Talmud. To Orthodox Jews today, these writings are as important as the Bible.

The Founding of Modern Israel

Starting in the 1700s, persecution against the Jewish peoples began to increase, especially in Europe. Some migrated to other parts of the world. Before and during World War II, they suffered a Holocaust in Europe that claimed the lives of over six million. Half of the world’s Jews were dead. Those who escaped the Holocaust were scattered, some to what is now Israel.

Ezekiel predicted that God would re-gather the Jewish people and give them their “promised land.” “When I bring them back from the peoples and gather them from the lands of their enemies, then I shall be sanctified through them in the sight of the many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God because I made them go into exile among the nations, and then gathered them again to their own land; and I will leave none of them there any longer.” (Ezekiel 39:27-29, NASV). After years of exile and struggle, God kept His promise, and at midnight, May 15, 1948, the nation of Israel was reborn when Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, read Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Israel Today

In the last 60 years, Israel has fought six major wars with its Arab Muslim adversaries who have stated that they want to eliminate the Jewish nation. This threat also comes from non-Arabic speaking Muslim nations and ethnic groups. Most recently, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad said that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Israel also faces internal struggles between their Orthodox, Conservative and the secular/reform Jews. A blessing for God’s Kingdom has been an increased number of Messianic Jews, who have grown from 3,000 to 10,000 in the last 10 years. To other Israelis, these followers of the Messiah are a problem.

Israel is in the news almost every day, and so the eyes of the world are upon this tiny nation whose landlord is God. The fact that sons of Israel have been re-gathered to their ancient homeland after nearly 2,000 years is a sign to the world of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty.

Let’s Pray!

Saint Paul expresses so well the prayer that is needed for the Jewish people and one that we must uphold: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they might be saved” (Romans 10:1, NASV).

May we always remember to “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). Pray also for the salvation of the Jewish peoples who live in Israel. They know the Word of God, but don’t know their Messiah, Yeshua. Pray that the words of the prophets will lead them to Yeshua.

From the Editor

by Keith Carey

Isn’t it about time we pray for the unreached peoples of Israel? That is exactly what we are doing this month! Please don’t let the holiday excitement keep you from praying for God’s special children!

We can debate at length whether or not the Jewish people are God’s “chosen people,” or have been specially “favored” but we know this for sure: He loves all peoples, and wants some from every tribe, tongue and nation to become part of His holy family. That includes the Muslim, Alawite, Druze, as well as the Jewish religious communities that make up the nation state we call Israel.

Do you know anyone who might want to use this prayer guide featuring Israel? If so, please refer them to our web site (global-prayer-digest.org/) or call (626) 398-2249. Individual copies inside the United States are $1.25 each if you order less than 10 to one address.