[Editor’s note: The people of God have struggled through an identity question for millennia. It comes down to this: if God has designated Israel as His only covenant nation, and only those who are part of Israel can partake of all His promises, then who is Israel, and how does anyone get to be part of it? The proposed answers are many, and often seem to be mutually exclusive. Is Israel only the Jewish people? Is it only the church, which is now “spiritual Israel,” or “the Israel of God?” Is it only people from the British Isles, or from Africa, or some other ethnic grouping? Or is it perhaps something else – something more inclusive that incorporates all who call upon the name of the Lord (Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13), somehow embracing both physical descendants of Abraham and foreigners whom God has “grafted in?”
In 1994, Angus Wootten proposed an answer based not only on his understanding of scripture and history, but his faith in a covenant-keeping God to come through on His promises. More than a synthesis of various positions, Angus crafted a balanced, logical approach that indicates how much we all have in common as part of God’s family, regardless how we got in. This article was originally published in the August 1994 edition of the House of David Herald.]
Searching For Our Tribal Heritage
By Angus Wootten – August 1994
House of David Herald, vol 7-8, August 1994
Our Heavenly Father had the Prophets Amos and Hosea deliver a message to the Northern Kingdom of Israel: “Behold . . . I will shake the house of Israel among all nations as grain is shaken in a sieve, but not a kernel will fall to the ground” (Amos 9:9). And ultimately, He said, “Israel is swallowed up; they are now among the nations like a vessel in which no one delights” (Hosea 8:8).
Even earlier the Psalmist had warned: “They did not listen to the voice of Yahveh . . . Therefore He swore to them, that He would cast them down in the wilderness, and that He would cast their seed among the nations, and scatter them in the lands . . . [For] they did not destroy the peoples, as Yahveh commanded them, but they mingled with the nations, and learned their practices” (Psalms 106:25-27; 34-35).
Knowing that we can only please Yahveh by faith (Hebrews 1 12:6), we have no alternative but to accept that the foregoing prophesies have been fulfilled, and that the following promises are either now being fulfilled, or at some future date will be fulfilled: For He says the scattered peoples will cry out: “Save us, O Yahveh our God, and gather us, from among the nations, to give thanks to Thy Holy Name, and glory in Thy praise” (Psalms 106:47).
The Psalmist also gives the reason why Yahveh answers this prayer: “For He remembered His holy Word with Abraham His servant; and He brought forth His people with joy, His chosen ones with a joyful shout. He gave them also the lands of the nations, that they might take possession of the fruit of the peoples’ labor, so that they might keep His statutes, and observe His laws” (Psalms 105:42-45).
Even though we are required to exercise our faith, we can contemplate on how Yahveh did, and will, fill the many prophesies about the scattering and regathering of the people of Israel. And, in regard to their regathering, we can attempt to ascertain whether we might have a role to play. So let us start our investigation from the most advantageous position possible: that of a graduate student of the House of David. A graduate student is one who has read In Search of Israel, The Olive Tree of Israel, and issues of the Herald, and fully understands the basic teaching of House of David: That there were in Scripture, and still are two houses of Israel, Ephraim and Judah, and that it is Yahveh’s plan for them to be reunited into one house, which becomes the restored kingdom of Israel.
We are starting from the vantage point of understanding that Israel today is separated into two houses, of which many are still scattered among the nations. Today, those of the house of Judah are primarily scattered among the Jewish people, while those of the house of Ephraim are primarily scattered among the Christian people. As we well know, the initial division between Ephraim and Judah took place in 930 BC, when the united Davidic kingdom was divided into the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, or Israel and Judah. Over the next two centuries, the Northern Kingdom was slowly absorbed into the surrounding nations, including Judah.
For example, during the reign of Baasha, 908-886 BC, Ben-hadad, King of Assyria, sent the commanders of his armies against the cities of Israel, and they conquered Ijon, Dan, Abel-maim, and all the store cities of Naphtali (2 Chronicles 16:4). During the same period King Asa of Judah had many from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon defect to him from Israel (2 Chronicles 15:9).
It was some one hundred and sixty years later that the end came with the Assyrian conquest of the city of Samaria in 722 BC, alter a three year siege. It was at this time that the famous exile of 27,290 inhabitants of the city, taken as booty, were carried away into exile by Assyria, and settled in Halah and Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes (2 Kings 17:6). While this one exile most often forms the basis for most works that seek to explain the wanderings of the “Ten Lost Tribes,” it was by no means their only exile, and, it was neither total, nor was it final, and it surely does not constitute the entire remnant of the Northern Kingdom.
The Assyrian policy at that time was first to absorb areas and populations into the empire in place, and next to establish vassal states. When the first two policies did not work, they would take military and political control of the area, effectively neutralizing the population by deporting a portion of the people: which basically included the leadership, soldiers, and all those capable of being a threat to Assyrian control. These exiles were replaced by the importation of foreign colonists, those who were exiled from their own lands. And then, as today, there was a continual voluntary movement of people for economic reasons.
Hezekiah, King of Judah 7l5-686 BC, reinforces the fact that the deportation of the Northern Kingdom was not total. As a young man, Hezekiah had observed the gradual disintegration and capitulation of the Northern Kingdom as the Assyrians advanced southward. He realized that Israel had been taken captive because of her disobedience to Yahveh’s laws. Therefore, Hezekiah was concerned that his people renew the covenant they had broken. And also, attempting to heal the breach that had separated Judah and Israel since Solomonic times, he sent letters throughout the land inviting the people to come to Jerusalem for the Passover. Although some ignored Hezekiah’s appeal, many responded, coming from Asher, Manasseh, Ephraim, and Issachar, as well as from Judah.
So, the population of the area which comprised the former kingdom of Israel consisted of many elements: remnants of the peoples which the Israelites had failed to destroy when they took the land, remnants of the Israelites, Assyrians residing in the land, foreign colonists imported by the Assyrians, and those who had moved into the area for economic reasons.
Then, in 586 BC, we have a virtual replay of the fall of Israel, with Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Judah, along with several deportations of portions of the population of Judah to Babylon. Then, seventy years later, in 535 BC some of the descendants of those deported to Babylon began to return to Jerusalem. Next we see the temple being rebuilt and the reestablishment of Judah as a recognizable people who became known as “Jews.”
Over the next five centuries, the only visible Israelites, and the only known worshipers of Yahveh, were known as “Jews.” So anyone, in the then land of Israel — Judea, Samaria, Galilee — or throughout the world who was called to be a worshiper of Yahveh, became known as a “Jew” — regardless of their tribal heritage. Thus, James addresses his letter to, “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (James 1:1). Furthermore, the post exilic prophets, in particular Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, treated the tribes of the vanquished northern kingdom — regardless of where they were — as integral parts of the covenant people of Israel.
The description of Ezekiel’s two sticks, which represented Ephraim and Judah, indicates that each stick contained elements of all twelve tribes (Ezekiel 37:15-19). This was obviously true in Ezekiel’s day, and will be true in that day, which is yet future, when the two sticks are made one in Yahveh’s hand.
There are two key facts that must be kept in mind when attempting to track the people of Israel: One is the fact that the bloodline comes from the father. Secondly, one’s biology does not change, regardless of where the people were, or presently are, located. Also, what one believes or does not believe cannot change one’s genealogy. An Israelite forever remains an Israelite. Though an Israelite may be “lost” to the world, and even lost to themselves, an Israelite is never lost to Yahveh’s all-seeing eyes (Amos 9:9).
So, by 30 AD, when the ministry of Yeshua served to once again divide the people of Israel, only Yahveh Himself knew the genealogy of the seven million Jews that were in Judah, Samaria, Galilee, and scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Again, we know from James that all twelve tribes were represented in this number. We also know that a major portion of the Jewish people did not follow after Yeshua. And, after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, and the loss of a sacrifice and a priesthood, they established what we know today as Rabbinic Judaism. However, one important portion our Jewish brothers retained was the title of, “Jew,” which to many people, has become synonymous with “Israel.”
On the other hand, a significant portion of the Jewish people did follow after Yeshua. In fact, history tells us that for the first thirty years the Early Church was virtually all “Jewish.” However, the influx of “Yahveh fearing Gentiles” had given the Church a non-Jewish majority by the end of the ﬁrst century.
The first thing to realize is that the Jewish people who followed Yeshua did not have a change in their genealogy. They were still Israelites, and their descendants, even to this day, are still Israelites, whether or not they care to call themselves Israelites, and whether they know it or not.
What was the tribal make-up of these two First Century groups? Realizing that only Yahveh can definitively answer this question, we are limited to reasonable assumptions and educated guesses. So, would it not be reasonable to assume that the initial tribal composition of the two groups would roughly parallel their tribal composition today? If this is true, then we have only to determine the current tribal composition to answer this question. Today, most Christians deny that they are physical Israelites from any tribe. This would pretty well rule out that they are from Judah, Benjamin or Levi, because descendants of these tribes did not receive the punishment of being lost to their identity. On the other hand, based on limited survey data, Jewish people claim heritage from the tribes of either Judah, Levi or Benjamin. Therefore, it would be reasonable to conclude that a majority of the first century Jews who followed Yeshua had a Northern Kingdom tribal heritage, while a majority of those Jews who followed after Rabbinic Judaism had a Southern Kingdom tribal heritage.
As for the “Yahveh fearing Gentiles” we ask: who were they, and where did they come from? Paul answers the question of who they were, by stating who they are: “And if you belong to Yeshua, then you are Abraham’s offspring [seed, sperm], heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Another statement by Paul that should also be considered is, “‘you’ who were formerly Gentiles in the flesh” (Ephesians 2:1 1). The implication clearly is that “you” are no longer Gentiles in the flesh. Thus, if “you” are not now a Gentile in the flesh, then “you” must be the only alternative: an Israelite in the flesh. Was the flesh of the “you” miraculously changed from Gentile to Israelite? Or, does Paul mean: Now that you have accepted Yeshua and understand that “you” are a member of the Commonwealth of Israel, “you” should realize that “you” have always been an Israelite? Peter was quite correct when he states that Paul is difficult to understand (2 Peter 3: 16). So for now, take your pick, and reserve a more definitive answer for the day when you can talk with Paul—in the Kingdom.
Where did these “Gentiles” come from? The reasonable conclusion is that they are from that seed that was scattered throughout every nation on earth. Yair Davidiy’s book, The Tribes, is a reasonable, historical account of how much of the seed of Israel was scattered.
Why is this heritage important? If we do not know who we are, it is impossible to fully understand our mission, and it is difficult to determine how we should live. When we understand that we are an Israelite, and that our job is to prepare for the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, and that as Israelites, we should live in the manner of Israelites, and not in the manner of Gentiles, then, we will surely be more pleasing to our Creator than those who continue to walk in ignorance—which ignorance Yahveh ordained as punishment for our forefathers, but is being removed in our day.
As a follower of Yahveh you are required to see yourself as an Israelite. And that means you must belong to one of the following categories.
Which box would you check?