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What is a Jew?

by Royce Logan  
11/15/2007 / Bible Studies

Part I
Adam fathered Cain and Abel. Cain slew Abel. After Abel was dead, Adam fathered Seth. According to Eve, Adam's wife, God told her that Seth was a replacement for Abel. (Gen. 4:25). Seven generations after Seth, came Lamech who fathered Noah (Gen. 5:29).

Noah had three sons that accompanied him on the ark, Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen. 9:18).

Japheth, third son of Noah, had a grandson named Kittim (Gen. 10:4). Kittim was the name of the island known today as Cyprus and this island and the islands around it were taken by Japheth. These islands have been called the "isles of the Gentiles" and may be an indication of how the European race began, including the Romans who later persecuted the Jews. Genesis 10:5 tells us the descendants of Japheth divided into different nations and spoke different languages. They were also known to be sailors and to have settled other parts of the ancient world because they could sail the seas to new lands.

Ham, the second son of Noah, had four sons: Cush, Mizraim, Phut, and Canaan. The land of Canaan encompassed the land that was later given to Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel by God. This land encompassed parts of what is today known as Syria in the North, parts of Lebanon, parts of Israel, and parts of Jordan. All this land is on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea and is just west of Iraq. Canaan, the grandson of Noah, also fathered the people who would later war with the Hebrews; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites (Gen. 10:16). Mizraim, the brother of Canaan, fathered the people known as the Philistines (Gen. 10:14) who also warred with the Hebrews. The descendants of Ham are most likely the people who later became the Egyptians, Africans, Orientals, and people of the Middle East as from Iraq, Syria, Turkey and India.

Shem, the first born of Noah, took the land east of Canaan, which is today parts of Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Eber was the great-grandson of Shem, great-great grandson of Noah, and therefore also descended from Adam. Eber is known as the father of the Hebrew.

If you follow the lineage of the three sons of Noah who survived the Great Flood because they accompanied Noah on the ark, you can see how these three sons could have fathered the population of the entire world, as the Bible claims in Genesis 9:19. If you are of European descent you may have descended from Japheth. Orientals, Africans, Middle Easterners and probably also Eskimos and American Indians most likely descended from Ham. The Hebrews descended from Shem.

Six generations later, Abram is born, a great grandson removed four more times from Eber, who was the great-grandson of Shem. God decided to make a covenant (a promise, or contract) with Abram and changed his name to Abraham. God promised to make him rich and to let him have many sons and promised him that this covenant would also be for all of Abram's descendants forever, and that his sons would become kings and create new nations.

Part II
The word Hebrew means "belonging to Eber" and Abram is the first person in the Bible called a "Hebrew" (Gen. 14:13) because he is descended from the family of Eber. Abram was born in the area known as Ur which is near the Persian Gulf and known today as Iraq. After Abram had taken a wife, Sarai, Abram's father, Terah, took Abram, Sarai, and his grandson, Lot, and moved them all to Haran. Haran was an area north of Ur that was given to Lot's father, Haran (Gen. 11:31). Haran was Abram's brother.

When Abram was 75 years old, God told him to take up all his family and possessions and move to Canaan. Lot, Abram's nephew, also had great possessions and went with him. There was a famine in the land of Canaan so Abram and Lot and their families all moved to Egypt for several years until a time came when the Pharaoh demanded they leave the land of Egypt. As they were traveling north, back to the land of Canaan, the land couldn't support both Abram's family and Lot's family, so they decided to split up. Lot headed east into Jordan and settled there and his son, Moab, later established the nation of Moab.

Now remember, Canaan was the land taken by Abram's great uncle removed four more times, Ham, the second son of Noah, and brother of Shem. After Lot had departed, God told Abram that he was giving him all the land as far as he could see in all directions. So, basically, God gave the land of Canaan to a descendant of Shem (Abram) which was still inhabited by the descendants of Shem's brother, Ham. This land later becomes Israel.

Part III
We have to keep following this lineage to find how the Hebrews, or at least some part of the Hebrew family, became known as Jews. Although Abraham fathered many children by many wives, he only fathered one son with his Hebrew wife, Sarah, whom they named Isaac. Abram's first son, Ishmael, was born from Hagar, an Egyptian maid of Sarai, whom Sarai sent to Abram to conceive. An angel of the Lord came to Hagar while she was pregnant and told her that Ishmael would father so many descendants that they couldn't be counted. We now know that Ishmael became the father of the Islam religion.

God changed Sarai's name to Sarah when he made the covenant with Abraham. Isaac married Rebekah who gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. God blessed Jacob and later changed his name to Israel. Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel but also fathered children from each of his wives' maidservants. Among these four women he had 12 sons; Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were sons of Leah, Joseph and Benjamin were sons of Rachel, Dan and Naphtali were sons of Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, and Gad and Asher were sons of Zilpah, Leah's handmaid (Gen. 35:23). These 12 sons fathered the 12 tribes of Isreal.

Israel and all his sons eventually moved to Egypt, again because of famine in the land of Canaan and because Joseph, the eldest son of Rachel, had lived there for many years and had earned the gratitude of the Pharaoh by helping the Egyptian people survive seven years of famine (Gen. 41:30). All the sons and their families died there after many years, but their children multiplied greatly until a time came that a later Pharaoh, who did not know or maybe care about all the good things Joseph had done for Egypt, made slaves out of all the Israelites. The Israelites had managed to maintain their individual families based on each of their tribes. However, by the time of their escape from Egypt, some 300 years after Joseph and his brothers first came to Egypt, there were actually 13 tribes of Israel, not just the 12 we think of today. Joseph had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh who each headed their own tribe making up the thirteen tribes of Israel along with Joseph's eleven brothers. By the time the Hebrews were about to leave Egypt there were approximately 3 million men, women, and children in the 13 tribes of Israel.

Part IV
Moses was born from the family of Levi, brother of Joseph and one of the 12 sons of Israel. God called upon Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt and for the next 40 years the Hebrews roamed the desert in search of Canaan, the land God had promised Abraham and his descendants. During this time most of the Hebrew law was written, including the Ten Commandments.

Moses never entered Canaan, the Promised Land. He led the Israelites right to the edge of the Jordan River but God would not let him cross. There were still about three million Israelites in his camp at this time. Moses climbed Mount Nebo and from there God showed him all the land, but God told Moses he would not cross into the Promised Land. Moses died in the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River, and was buried there. He was the last prophet to know God face to face.

Moses had an aid, Joshua. Joshua was the son of Nun from the tribe of Ephraim, one of the sons of Joseph. Here it gets a little complicated. God told Moses how to divide the Promised Land among the 13 tribes of Israel, but, the tribe of the Levites, which Moses was from, was not to receive any land. Instead the Levites were to receive possessions and food from all the other tribes from their sacrifices to God. This was an honored position of authority and judgment given to the Levites by God. Before the Israelites left Egypt, the tribe of Joseph had been split into two clans of the two sons of Joseph; Manasseh and Ephraim and each were called half tribes by the Israelites. Since the Levites were not to receive any land, the splitting of the tribe of Joseph created the 12th tribe of Israel that received land.

Joshua, Moses' aid, became the leader of the Israelites after Moses' death. Soon after the Israelites left Egypt, God commanded Moses to take a census of all the men from each tribe that was 20 years old or older. From this census we can count more than 600,000 men over 20 years old and then estimate that there were around three million Israelites who roamed the desert for 40 years.

The Israelites were always grumbling and complaining, worshipping other gods, and rebelling against God and God got tired of it after while. When the Israelites finally reached the Jordan River, God told Moses to send one leader from each tribe into the Promised Land as spies to explore it and bring back a report to the Israelites. The land was inhabited by the Amalekites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites (Num. 13:29). Among these men Moses sent Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Joshua, Moses' aid, from the tribe of Ephraim. When the men returned all of them except Caleb and Joshua gave bad reports about the land, saying it was inhabited by people the Israelites couldn't defeat. Caleb and Joshua, however, reported that the land flowed with milk and honey and they could certainly defeat the people in their land and take possession of it (Num. 13:27). The other men spread their bad report all through the Israelite tribes. This angered God and he decided that not one of them would ever see the Promised Land except Caleb and Joshua. Even Moses was excluded from entering the Promised Land. Not just the men who went to explore, but any man over 20 years of age counted in the census would never see the Promised Land. God sent down a plague on the men who gave the bad reports and over time, all the men over 20 years of age counted in the census died except for Caleb and Joshua. Out of the six hundred thousand men counted in the census only Caleb and Joshua ever saw the Promised Land.

Part V
Joshua carried out the promise of God and assigned land to each of the 12 tribes of Israel. During the next 200-300 years the Israelites lived among other inhabitants of Canaan, but as tribes scattered throughout the land. God rose up judges during this time to help the tribes govern themselves, but the Israelites were wicked and began worshipping gods of the Canaanites and other tribes after Joshua and all the elders who crossed the Jordan had died. The Israelites wanted a king like their neighbors even though God wanted the Israelites to accept Him as their one God instead of having a king.

During the time of the judges, the tribes of Israel stayed intact. You could ask any Hebrew which tribe he belonged to and he would know. A woman named Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who was a Moabite, moved back to the land of Judah. There, Ruth married Boaz who was living in Bethlehem. Boaz was from the tribe of Judah. Ruth gave birth to Obed (Ruth 4:13), who fathered Jesse, who fathered David (Ruth 4:17), the second king of Israel chosen by God. Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a direct descendant of David, and therefore, Jesus belonged to the house of Judah. Having Ruth, a Moabite, as an ancestor to Jesus would seem to be a curious deviation from the Hebrew lineage. However, Moab was the son of Lot (Gen. 19:37), Abraham's nephew, and therefore descended from the house of Eber just as Abraham was (Gen. 12:27), and so, Moab, and therefore, Ruth, are truly Hebrew.

The first king of Israel was Saul, whom God told Samuel to appoint as king over all the tribes of Israel. Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin (I Samuel 9:2). Remember, at this time the Israelites had no king, but were judged by the Levites. Samuel was from the tribe of Levi and was known throughout Israel as a prophet of God and high priest of the Israelites.

There was much war during the reign of Saul against the Philistines, but Saul continued to enlarge the army of the Israelites. After years of fighting with the Philistines, God told Samuel to send Saul and his army to Amalek to destroy the Amalekites for ambushing the Israelites after their escape from Egypt. He told Samuel to tell Saul to kill every Amalekite and destroy all their possessions. Once Saul's army defeated the Amalekites they took the Amalekite king prisoner and kept all the best sheep and cattle. This angered God because God told him to kill all the Amalekites and destroy all their possessions and God regretted making Saul king over Israel (I Samuel 15:35). Saul retreated to his home in Ramah in the land of Benjamin where he spent most of the rest of his life in spiritual torment.

God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David, the son of Jesse, with oil so that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon him. David was from the tribe of Judah and was the youngest of the eight sons of Jesse. This was all done in secrecy because Saul was still king of Israel, even though he was living in somewhat seclusion in his home town of Ramah, which was only about 12 miles from Bethlehem. David was still a young man and not ready to be king.

Saul remained in his home tormented by an evil spirit. One of his attendants suggested that Saul find a harp player to soothe him when the evil spirit rises in him. David was a cunning player on the harp so Saul sent a messenger to the house of Jesse to send him David. Saul liked David and had him enter into his service as his armor bearer (I Samuel 17:21).

The Israelites were at constant war with the Philistines at this time. Everybody knows the great story of how David slew Goliath, the giant Philistine. With this victory, Saul appointed David over thousands of his armies and David won many battles for Israel, so many that Saul eventually became jealous of David because the women of Israel would sing and dance about how Saul had slain thousands but David had slain tens of thousands. Saul tried to kill David with a javelin, but the Lord was with David and he escaped with the help of Saul's son Jonathan, and hid out for many years, growing his own small army which he used to defend his own tribe of Judah against the Amalekites in the southern areas of Israel.

Around the time David was fighting the Amalekites the Philistines were pursuing the Israelites and overtook Saul's army and Saul and three of his sons, including Jonathan, were killed. God told David to go to Hebron in Judah and the elders of Judah anointed him King of Judah (II Samuel 2:4). After Saul's death, Saul's uncle, Abner, appointed another of Saul's sons, Ishbosheth, king over all of Israel but the people of Judah followed David. This was the first division of power between the people of Judah and all the other tribes of Israel.

Now with David as King of Judah, the stage was set to usher in an era of both good and bad kings for Israel and Judah. Israel is reunited again by David but divided again some 80 years later by the downfall of Solomon in his old age. In the next part of this essay we'll follow David, Solomon, and some of the reigning kings after them to find out how the people of Judah came to be called "Jews".

Part VI
In part two of this essay we learned that a "Hebrew" was anyone descended from the house of Eber. Eber was the great-grandfather of Abraham, removed four more times and the great-grandson of Shem, who was the son of Noah. In parts three and four we saw how the Hebrews became slaves in Egypt, escaped under the leadership of Moses, and settled in the Promised Land as the 12 tribes of Israel. Although God tried to protect the Hebrews from bad kings by setting up a system of judges, the people whined and complained until God grew tired of them and allowed Saul from the tribe of Benjamin to be anointed the first king of Israel.

After Saul's death, Saul's uncle, Abner, became the real power in Israel and appointed Saul's son, Ishbosheth, king of Israel. Ishobeth was an honorable man, according to David, but his future as king wasn't very promising since he was not anointed by God. God anointed David from the tribe of Judah as the second anointed king. However, when we left part five of this essay, David had not yet unified Israel and was king of only the tribe of Judah.

David's army of Judah warred against the house of Saul for more than seven years, but the people of Israel were sympathetic to David. There was much support for David to be king over all of Israel. Abner became angry at Ishbosheth for reprimanding him for sleeping with one of Saul's concubines so Abner approached David and made an alliance promising to deliver all of Israel to him. Joab, a nephew of David, but also an overbearing captain in his army, killed Abner on his way home from Hebron in revenge for Abner killing his brother a few years before.
Now that Abner was dead, two brothers that were captains in Ishbosheth's army believed that Israel would fall to David because Abner was the real power in the house of Saul. They beheaded Ishbosheth and took the head to David believing they would gain favor in whom they were sure would become king over all of Israel. David knew that Abner was the real power in the house of Saul and believed Ishbosheth to be a righteous man so he had the two captains executed.

Once all the sons of Saul were dead the elders from all the tribes of Israel came to Hebron and anointed David king over all of Israel. David was 30 years old at that time. He reigned as king of Judah for seven years and six months and, upon becoming king of all of Israel, he moved his base to Jerusalem and reigned over all of Israel and Judah for 33 years (II Samuel 5:5).

After David's death, David's son, Solomon, became king of Israel. Solomon was a wise and just king and was known for his wisdom throughout the land of Israel, Egypt, Moab and beyond. His fame was in all nations round about (I Kings 4:31). But, Solomon liked his women. In fact, he loved all 700 of his wives and his 300 concubines and he especially liked women from other nations. In his old age his wives began to turn his heart away from God and onto other gods that they worshipped. This angered God and God told Solomon that He was going to take away his kingdom. For David's sake, whom God loved, God told Solomon he would not take the kingdom of Israel from Solomon but from his son, all except for one tribe, which, again, for David's sake, he would allow Solomon's son to keep. That nation, of course, was Judah.

Solomon saw that a young man named Jeroboam was valiant and industrious, so he gave him charge over the house of Joseph. But Jeroboam became an adversary of Solomon so Solomon sought to kill him. Jeroboam left Israel and hid out in Egypt until the death of Solomon. Rehoboam, son of Solomon, was to become king of all of Israel, but Jeroboam came with many Israelites to meet with Rehoboam and Rehoboam rejected them, so all the Israelites left and went north with Jeroboam to establish the one nation of Israel and the descendants of Judah stayed with Rehoboam and re-established the kingdom of Judah. So, Israel became split again between Judah and all the other tribes of Israel. But, Judah was a large area of land that was well populated because of the wealth and popularity of King David and King Solomon. Judah was, at least, equally as strong and powerful as all the rest of Israel.

Israel and Judah never again reunited. During these ancient times of the kings and the division of the Israelites into two nations, Israel and Judah, the people of Judah came to be called Jews to distinguish them from the Israelites. The first mention in the Bible we find of the word "Jews" is in II Kings 16:6 when the Bible tells us that Rezin, the king of Syria, recovered the city of Elath and drove the Jews out. Elath was a port city at the very northern tip of the Red Sea which was also on the southern border of Judah. From this time on, all through the kings to follow and the fall of Israel and Judah, the people of Judah were called Jews.

From the time of King David, God protected the tribe of Judah. Even when they turned from Him and followed other gods and did other evil things, God did everything He could to protect them. But the Jews kept losing sight of God's promises for them. After Judah split from Israel for the last time, God began to raise up prophets to foretell the destiny of the Jews unless they would stop following other gods and trying to solve their problems by treaties with other nations. All God ever wanted was for the Hebrew people to put their trust in Him. When they did, they flourished and lived in peace, but when they didn't they were continually defeated and enslaved by other nations.

Part VII
In 722 B.C. Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians and only the nation of Judah remained intact from the original 12 tribes. In 612 Assyria fell and was replaced by the very powerful nation of Babylon. Judah became a state of Babylon but continued to rebel until 586 B.C. when King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem after 18 months of war and took the survivors of Judah back to Babylon to be slaves. After 70 years of captivity, the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple.

For the next 400 years the Jews were defeated by one nation after another until finally signing a treaty with the Romans in 160 B.C. Israel basically remained independent for the next 100 years. Although subdued by the Romans, at least the Jews received some peace from their neighbors due to their treaty with Rome, but around 63 B.C. the Romans were no longer satisfied with just a treaty. The Romans forcibly conquered Israel and made them a state of the Roman Empire. Of course, it was during the occupation of Jerusalem and the land of Judah by the Romans that Jesus was born.
If you look through history you can see how God did everything He could to protect the Hebrews.

First, there was Adam and Eve. They and their offspring disappointed God and eventually He sent the Great Flood to destroy all of mankind except one righteous man and his family, Noah. In other words, He tried to start over with man. The Hebrew people did okay with God through the descendants of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, but due to famine, they were driven into the land of Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. God rose up another great leader, Moses, who led them to freedom and to the Promised Land. But, the people grumbled and complained. They weren't satisfied with just their God, they wanted a king. God knew man was wicked and a king would just dominate His people so he arranged a system of judges so the Hebrew people would have a system of authority without a king. But this wasn't good enough for the Hebrews. They still wanted a king. So, God gave them kings for some 500 years. Only David pleased God and He was also pleased with Solomon until the very end of his life and those years of David and Solomon's reigns were the most peaceful and prosperous times the Hebrew people ever knew. During the years after Solomon of mostly bad kings, God rose up prophets to warn the Jews about their impending demise unless they stopped their evil ways and followed Him. But, again the Jews would not listen. Finally, Israel and Judah fell and the Jews were exiled from the Promise Land and for the next 400 years they were continually dominated by other nations until eventually signing a treaty with the Roman Empire simply for protection, even though they would have to become subordinate to the Romans to survive.

It almost seems that God gave up trying to give His people the free and easy life He promised to Adam and Eve, then to Moses and the three million Hebrews in the Promise Land, then to all of Israel under the reigns of David and Solomon. If He couldn't save them from their own wickedness in their natural lives, He would send them a Savior to free them from their spiritual wickedness. So, He sent His Son, Jesus.

Even then, most of the Jews didn't recognize Jesus as the Son of God, but thought Jesus would become a military leader and create a world power to free them from Roman domination, but no, that was not why Jesus came to earth. Jesus came to reunite all the people of the world, not just the Jews or the Hebrews, but the Gentiles, and all of mankind by re-claiming what Adam and Eve had given to Satan; authority over sin and spiritual death. Jesus used His time on earth as a natural man to teach about the kingdom of God, but it was His spiritual victory on the cross that regained our right, as children of God, to enter into the kingdom of God spiritually upon our natural death.

So, finally, "What is a Jew?" Well, in the natural a Jew is a descendant of the tribe of Judah, but later the term came to include all the tribes of Israel. However, because of the resurrection of Christ, we all became children of God; so, another way of looking at it is that we all became Jews in the spiritual sense of the word. The big difference between the Jews and all the rest of the world's population during the time of the Old Testament was that the Gentiles never had the same opportunities to accept God as their king as the Hebrews had. But, in reality, do you really think the rest of the world would have done any better with those opportunities than the Jews did? Just look around the world today and the answer is: probably not.

Royce Logan. Author of The Worship Principle and Worthy of Worship. Founder and Director of Agape Solutions, Inc., a faith-based, 501(c)(3), non profit organization with a mission for teaching deep spiritual understandings from the Word of God.

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