No, Moses Wasn't Jewish Part II: What Your Sunday School Teacher Never Told You About God's Tender Love

If you were with us for part one of this article, you'll know that the term Hebrew came from Noah's great great great grandson Eber whose forefathers settled in Mesopotamia after the Ark landed in Ararat. You'll also know that Israelites are descendants of Jacob (also called Israel). Today we'll explore the transition from Israelite to Jew.

Daiga Ellaby

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

Multiple years ago—I say multiple because I'm embarrassed how many it has been—I began work on an as yet unpublished book. In my research and draft writing process, I came to a realization that I can't unrealize. Even if I wanted to forget, the distinction has stuck in my mind like a piece of chewing gum to the sole of a sneaker.

I'm referring to the misapplication of the terms Jew and Jewish to peoples that predate their existence.

I'm warning you though, if you continue reading, you'll see these misnomers stick out like sore thumbs in Bible Studies, books, sermons, and the like.

Still reading?

Fair enough. Here's one example from the (never-wrong) website, Wikipedia:

As you know from part I, the proper term here should be Israelites. Moses and Aaron and those fleeing Egypt were not Jews. So who were Jews? Where did the term come from?

The full answer to this question would span almost the entire narrative of the Old Testament, but I promise not to go that deep here. Just keep in mind we'll just be scratching the surface.

For a good grasp on the totality of the Old Testament narrative though, might I suggest you follow my OT reading guide? It's a free download that will guide you through the most critical chapters—in chronological order—all in a 90-day span. 

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The first biblical use of the word Jew appears in 2 Kings 16 which mentions the Syro-Ephraimite War:

Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to war: and they besieged Ahaz, but could not overcome him. 
At that time Rezin king of Syria recovered Elath to Syria, and drave the Jews from Elath: and the Syrians came to Elath, and dwelt there unto this day. 
2 Kings 16:5-6, KJV

You'll notice here I've quoted the King James Version even though I usually rely on the English Standard Version. This is for a good reason: the majority of modern translations (including the New King James Version) do not use Jews in this passage. Many, including the ESV and the New International Version, state it as "men of" or "people of" Judah.

This discrepancy clues us in to the essence of the meaning.

Why does the KJV use "Jews" while the ESV and others read "men of Judah"?

The author of 2 Kings used the Hebrew word הַיְהוּדִ֖ים, transliterated as Yehudim.[1] Yehudim is the plural form of Yehudi, a derivative of the root yehud which means something like "to give thanks" or "to praise."[2]

Nevertheless, the NIV and ESV both translate the same word—Yehudim—as Jews (or Jewish people) in other places in the Old Testament, most notably in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

For example, Nehemiah 1:2 reads, "Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem." (ESV, emphasis mine.)

So does this mean that the ESV and NIV are inaccurate? Why would translators render the same Hebrew word in different ways?

I think the translators' efforts demonstrate the subtleties of the term and how it changed over time. It seems that the different versions have different goals in this case. The KJV strives for literal accuracy in translating Yehudim as Jews, but other translations recognize that the people of Judah had not yet fully realized their identity as Jews at the time of the Syro-Ephraimite War.

In my opinion, the "people of Judah" did not become Jews until the destruction of the temple and exile to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. It is at this moment in history, 586 BC, that God's people changed forever.

So while it is technically correct for the KJV to translate all uses of Yehudi as Jew, doing so fails to capture the nuance and evolution of the term.

What Happens When God's People Sin

A few years ago I borrowed my dad's chainsaw.

Having never wielded one before it was quite awesome and empowering to hold in my hands.

Over the five years or so since we'd moved in to our home, a prominent tree had started to die. After slicing it to the ground like a boss, I looked around to see what other damage I could do.

Our backyard had become overgrown in certain spots, and Katie and I identified another tree that needed to go. Being generally unknowledgeable about Oklahoma's flora, I can't say what type it was, but the tree wasn't spaced properly and wasn't as attractive as surrounding foliage.

So I fired up the 'saw and laid the blade as close the ground as possible in an effort to prevent a prominent stump. Then I cut it down.

After cleaning up our mess, I returned the implement of destruction to my dad. A job well done.

Or so I thought.

Almost immediately after cutting down said backyard tree, it started to grow back. First I noticed a single shoot. A few days later another and then another. Having bigger foliage to fry, I left it alone, promising myself I'd take care of it later.

But time got away from me and a year later the stump was surrounded by shoots that had grown almost four feet tall. Knowing I couldn't wait any longer, I got out a shovel, a pickax, and a lopper, dealing as much damage as I could.

Although I removed the majority of the plant, I wouldn't be surprised if a lone root remained and another shoot sprang from the ground. A tiny part of me kind of hopes it does.

Since then I often think about that tree when I read Isaiah's prophecy to Judah. In the aftermath of the destruction of the northern kingdom (Israel), Isaiah said:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
Isaiah 11:1

Jesse, of course, was the father of David, and David was the man to whom God promised, "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever" (2 Sam. 7:16).

But David's son, Solomon, had to complicate things. Despite his unmatched wisdom, he sought after foreign women which led to the worship of foreign gods. As a direct result of Solomon's sin, the kingdom of Israel split into two upon his death.

Jeroboam, the anointed upstart, led a rebellion against the rule of Solomon's heir Rehoboam who was harsh and unwise. Therefore the Israelites split into the northern kingdom which came to be called Israel owing to the fact that ten of twelve tribes united, and the southern kingdom called Judah which also contained the tribe of Benjamin.

Israel (the northern kingdom) suffered from temple envy so Jeroboam played his best Aaron by creating golden calves for worship. The people followed along without question. Thus began the descent to full-on apostasy. The kingdom split around 930 BC. In just two hundred years, God would destroy Israel as a result of its idol worship.

The people of Judah weren't exactly innocent either, but they had an ace up their sleeves: the temple. The temple contained the very presence of God! How could they go wrong? They sought comfort and security in the temple, yet the people of Judah used it as a kind of license to sin. Jeremiah had some harsh words:

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? . . . Therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 
Jeremiah 7:9-10, 14

Shiloh, a site just north of Bethel in Israel, is a symbol for the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeremiah's message, therefore, is clear: the temple can't save you from your disobedience. Your fate will be the same as that of your brothers and sisters to the north: destruction. And, in 586 BC, that's exactly what happened. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Judah, burned down the temple, and exiled the majority of its inhabitants.

Jesse's family tree had been chopped off at the ground, leaving only an ugly stump. David's line was dead. Or so it seemed.

Two Critical Components of God's Nature

Aside from a few outliers like 2 Kings 16:6 and 2 Kings 25:25, the vast majority of appearances of Yehudim appear after the exile of Judah. And even these outliers don't appear until well after the division of Israel into north and south.

Because of this, it seems clear to me that it is during this time that the "people of Judah" transitioned into Jews. Where once they self-identified by location—the ancestral territory of Judah—now in exile, they were forced to identify in another manner.

Yet we know God is always faithful; he always keeps his word. So even though he took a proverbial chainsaw to Judah, he raised up from the stump a new shoot. A people with a new identity: the Jews. Now they identified themselves not based on a location or a on a beautiful building, but on their covenantal relationship with God.

Despite what some people might have you to believe, God doesn't enjoy punishing his people. Why would he send so many prophets to warn them if he did? He did not owe them any warnings at all; he gave Moses the law, but they chose to reject it and to live like every other kingdom of this world: power-hungry, greedy, selfish, and fearful.

Instead, God demonstrated his tender love for his people, and, as a result, all of humanity when he preserved the stump of Jesse. As Ezekiel wrote:

I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. 
Ezekiel 16:59-60

A tender shoot did spring up and from that line of people, these Jews. God gave us his son, Jesus, who was, as Simeon told Mary and Joseph, the "salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:30-32). In doing so, God also kept his promise to a son of Eber, Abram the Hebrew. In Genesis 12:3 he said, "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

This is the lesson you need to hear about God's tender love. He takes no delight in wrath, but instead wants to shower us with his love. Why else would he send his son to die in our place?

It is because of this truth that the captive in exile could write these words in all sincerity:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 
Lamentations 3:22-23

You see God gave the Israelites the law through Moses, but they couldn't keep it. They refused to. Yet God gave them grace as they transitioned into a new identity: the Jewish people.

God does the same for us. Though we sin and wander from him, he gives us grace day after day.

It means that even though we might be led astray, even though we might worship false gods, or commit idolatry, God always keeps his promises. And that no matter how many crappy, stupid things we've done redemption is still on the table for those who put their faith in Christ. We are Israel who worship false gods out of fear or pride, who are exiled and wiped out for our sin, but whom God still loves and to whom his grace is still extended.

Wrapped up in this term, Yehudi, we see two critical components of God's nature: his holiness, and his trustworthiness:

His holiness because he cannot tolerate sin.
His trustworthiness because he kept his promise to Abraham and to David through the line of Judah.

So while Moses wasn't a Jew, Jesus was.

This is a crucial distinction since those who attempt to be justified by the law will die under it. But to those who believe in Jesus, he offers life.

What could be more important?

1. I won't even pretend to know anything about the Hebrew language or its alphabet, but I am good at copying and pasting.
2. Paul R. Gilchrist, "850. Yahad," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, et al. (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 368-369.

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