No, Moses Wasn't Jewish: One Thing All Christians Should Know about God's Plan for Humanity

The mountain, Ararat, on which Noah's Ark came to rest after the flood. Photo by Mariam Grigoryan.

At the risk of seeming prideful and petty (mostly because I am both of these things, and I fear you'll learn the truth about me), I will tell the following story.

At the office some time ago my boss told a tale of a near-unbelievable construction feat, namely a crew building an entire house from slab to gable in mere hours. Being myself quite ignorant of the construction process (as such is not my specialty) I asked a question.

"How long does it take for the foundation to dry once it's poured?"
"Well, a foundation does not dry. It becomes set." He said.

At the response I became silently indignant and checked out of the conversation for its duration. So if my query did receive an answer, I could not tell you what it was.

Although, as I said, I'm an egotistical human, I do my best to receive correction when I am wrong. My issue then was due to the triviality of my error. In the context of our conversation, it mattered not whether concrete dries or sets.

Obviously accuracy in this regard mattered quite a deal to the storyteller, for I don't think he would have corrected me simply out of spite.

I use this story as a precursor to our discussion here to beg that you won't consider the delineation I'm about to make trivial or spiteful. Please don't tune me out yet, as I will explain why such a distinction is important. In fact, as I began to write this, I discovered even deeper meaning than I had anticipated.

At the end of the piece, if you feel you have been insulted or maligned, please direct your complaints to my PO Box address as follows or write me electronically at andrew [at] andrewgilmore.net:

PO Box 720321
Norman OK 73070

But now that that too long of a preamble is dried--I mean, set--let's commence with the issue at hand.



Let's Set the Record Straight


I have heard and read more than a few pundits, evangelists, and Sunday School teachers misuse the terms Jew and Jewish

Example: Moses led the Jews out of the land of Egypt. Or, the Jewish people crossed the Jordan on their way to the promised land.

Such misuse does not offend or bother me much; I know what the speaker means to convey. But as I said above, I think these errors cause both the pundit and listener to miss out on an important truth about God.

Before we go into why this is the case, let's get the facts straight as best as we can.

So for the record:

Abraham was not Jewish.
Isaac was not a Jew.
Neither was Jacob, Joseph, Benjamin, or even Judah.
Was David Jewish? I say no.
Solomon? Still no.
Rehoboam? ... Maybe.

As you can see the line gets a bit blurry, but what we can say with certainty though: None of the patriarchs of old were Jews. And, although there's no clear delineation or transition, we'll do our best to draw a line here. Just note, I'll draw said line with a pencil so we can go back and erase if necessary.

But before we do that we must first differentiate between two other terms: Hebrew and Israelite. Often these terms are used interchangeably, and not without better cause than the misuse of Jew.


How Abram Became a Hebrew

So if the patriarchs weren't Jews, what were they? And what's the difference between Hebrew and Israelite?

Let's start first with Hebrew.

After the flood, the sons of Noah--Shem, Ham, and Japheth--had offspring of their own and went their own ways throughout the world. Ham moved south and west establishing Nineveh and cutting a swath southwest all the way to Egypt.[1] One of Ham's sons was Canaan from which we get the name of the land in Levant that would eventually become the land promised the Israelites.

Japheth's clan most likely moved north, inhabiting the shores of the Black and Caspian seas, and also due west, populating what we now call Europe and possibly even beyond.[2]

The descendants of Shem traveled south to what is modern day Iraq.

When mentioning Shem, Genesis 10:21 reads, "To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born." The author calls out Eber by name here, even though Eber was not Shem's son, nor was he Shem's grandson. In fact here's the genealogy according to Genesis 10:

Shem
Arpachshad
Sheleh
Eber

Why is this significant? Why call our Eber specifically?

The author is giving us a clue that the text is going to focus in on this family.

From the name Eber, we get the word Hebrew. So, in simplest terms, a Hebrew is a descendant of Eber.[3]

Eber means, "the other side" or "the region beyond," and probably refers to land in which Eber settled; the land east of the Euphrates near the Persian Gulf.[4, 5]

From the biblical perspective, Eber's importance comes from his offspring, specifically Terah, the father of Abram. Even before God called Abram, Terah started migrating northwest along the Euphrates, intending to go to Canaan. The text doesn't tell us the reason for this migration, but we know that they didn't make it all the way.[6] Possibly due to Terah's age and health, the family stopped in Haran (not to be confused with Terah's deceased son also called Haran) at which place Terah passed away. Haran, also written as Harran, is in southern Turkey, just north of the Syria border.

Once in Haran, Terah and company settled and Abram lived there until God called him to pack up and travel to Canaan. Fast forward a couple of chapters and we get the first use of the word Hebrew in the Bible. After Abram and Lot separate, Lot finds himself in a pickle, having been captured by a coalition of kings in the midst of a war. The scripture reads:


Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew [what had happened to Lot]. 
Genesis 14:13


The use of Hebrew is telling for a couple of reasons. First is that Hebrew, just like Eber, carries the meaning of "on the opposite side" or "beyond."[7] It makes sense that this would be the designation for Abram and his tribe considering he migrated from a region beyond the Jordan river. The root of Hebrew when used as a verb also means "to cross," and Abram crossed both the Euphrates and the Jordan rivers to arrive in Canaan.

Second is this: almost every time Hebrew appears in the Bible, the Israelites use the word when speaking of themselves to foreigners or else foreigners use the word to designate Israelites.[8]

Although Hebrew originally was a more general term, in modernity the term is exclusive to those descended from Abraham. This is, of course, natural because Abraham's clan is by far the most prominent of Eber's descendants. And, in addition, the language of the Jewish people is Hebrew.

Therefore I have take no issue with the two terms (Jew and Hebrew) used interchangeably to refer to the people group today, but to retroactively apply the term Jew to Hebrews like Abraham is inaccurate. We'll get into this later, but at the absolute earliest (and probably later), the term Jew did not come into use until the 10th century BC.



But Not All Hebrews Were Israelites


So what about Israelites?


In Genesis 32 Jacob, after wrestling with an angel all night, received the new name Israel which means "he strives with God." Such a name carried the double entendre of Jacob's struggles with the angel and a prophecy of how his descendants would contend with the almighty.

Nevertheless, with this name change, the nation of Israel began to take shape. Now, one could argue that Israelite didn't immediately apply to all of Jacob's descendants, and he'd probably be correct. But what is clear is that even though God's people really got their true identity at Sinai, the term Israelite was in wide use prior.

In fact, almost immediately after Jacob's name change, the Bible begins using the terms Israel, Israelite and children of Israel. Of course if Moses wrote the Pentateuch as tradition holds to be true, he could have retroactively applied the term for continuity.

Nevertheless it is safe to say that sometime between Genesis 32, when Jacob becomes Israel, and Genesis 47, when the Hebrews settle in Egypt, Israelite had become the proper term. Yes, they were still Hebrews, but now Israel was a more specific, distinguishing term.

So, was Abraham an Israelite? No way. Moses? Mos' def'. (Sorry, awful #dadjoke.)

Think of it this way. All Israelites were Hebrews, but not all Hebrews were Israelites. Only those who descended from Jacob (i.e. Israel) were Israelites. Makes sense, no?



From Godlessness to Holiness


But why is this important?

I thought you said this was non trivial?

This is where it gets really good; stick with me here.

We see in the early stages of the post flood narrative that God took the Hebrews who were likely pagans (or at least ignorant of the one true God) and started a process that would transform them into his people. God gave them the law, structure, civilization and set them apart as holy. As Moses reminded the Israelites:


You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.
Deuteronomy 7:6-8

In other words, God took these people from godlessness to holiness.

Guess what?

God does the same with us. As Paul wrote:


God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 
Romans 5:8


Although we were estranged from God, born into sin, God preemptively sent his son to die for us that we might be reconciled to him. 

Our natural father is Adam, through whom we receive our sin nature. But God calls us to leave the land of our father to receive a new one: our father who art in heaven.

Out of our godlessness, God calls us to holiness. Without God we are homeless, helpless and hapless. But he calls each of us, just as he called Abram, to leave behind our old lives and follow him where he leads us.

He does this because of his tender love for us. He knows what's best for us, and he wants us to embrace it. As Peter wrote:


The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise [of judgement and destruction of the ungodly] as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 
2 Peter 3:9


And also in Ezekiel, as God says through his prophet:


Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 
Ezekiel 18:23


We are all Abrams, living in the land of our father. But God's desire is that we pack up and leave thereby repenting of our old lives and embracing eternal life in Christ.

Prior to God's call, the Hebrew people were just as lost as the rest of humanity. Once they became Israelites, they had a new identity centered around the one true God, Yahweh.

This is the model for modernity too. Without Christ, humanity is lost. But with Jesus we are born again into a new life in which he is our center. As new creations, Christ offers us his holiness, possible because of the sacrifice on the cross at Calvary.

So you see the journey from Hebrew to Israelite is one of lostness to identity, but what about the term Jew? When does this come into play?

To avoid turning this article into a book of its own, and to give the topic of Judaism the attention it deserves, we'll address this question next time. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, you should check out my chronological and condensed Old Testament reading guide called, How to Read Through the Old Testament without Getting Lost or Dozing Off.

It's totally free; all it costs you is your email address. I usually send out two emails per month, and you can opt out at any time.




This is a guide I use personally every other time I read the Old Testament. If you've ever gotten stuck in Leviticus or Numbers (or even Chronicles, like I do!), or simply want more insight into the grand narrative of the OT, you should download this guide today:









Stay safe, and I'll see you next time.

-----------------------

Notes:
1. See Genesis 10:11
2. Albert Barnes, “Barnes' Notes on Genesis 10,” Bible Hub, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/genesis/10.htm.
3. It's also worth mentioning that we get the term Semite from Shem. So a Semite, then, is someone descended from Shem.
4. Barnes, ibid.
5. Emil G. Hirsch and Eduard K├Ânig, “Eber,” Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5406-eber.
6. There is some debate about whether Abram received his call while in Ur, thus prompting Terah to pick up and leave, or in Haran after the death of Terah. To me, there is little evidence in the text to support the former theory.
7. James Strong, "5676. eber," in Strong's Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 203.
8. Emil G. Hirsch and John P. Peters, “Hebrew,” Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7445-hebrew.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting and informative. Thanks, Andrew.

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome. Thanks for reading (as always)!

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