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The Nation of Israel—Biblical Israel? (Part One)

Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," September-October 2016

Writers on the subject of Bible prophecy commonly conclude that all verses that mention Israel actually refer to the modern, Middle East nation of Israel. Does the Bible support that view? To answer that question let us review whom God calls Israel and how that compares with the more commonly held beliefs.

We find the first mention of Israel in Genesis 32:28: “And He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’” God first uses the name “Israel” to identify Jacob, the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel.

From this point forward the Bible uses “Jacob” and “Israel” interchangeably, even in the same sentence. Notice Genesis 48:2: “And Jacob was told, ‘Look, your son Joseph is coming to you’; and Israel strengthened himself and sat up on the bed.”

A Distinction Begins

Genesis 48 contains the account where Joseph comes to see his sick and dying father and brings along his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (verse 1). After recounting God’s promise to him, Israel summons the two boys so he can bless them (verse 9). As part of that blessing, Israel says in verse 16, “The Angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; let my name be named upon them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (emphasis ours). God through Jacob places the name Israel on the sons of Joseph, not Judah, giving us our first glimpse of God’s view.

The term “house of Israel” is used in Exodus 16:31; 40:38, Leviticus 17:3, 8, 10; 22:18, Numbers 20:29, Joshua 21:45, and Ruth 4:11. In these instances, it refers to all the tribes of Israel. But, by the time of King Saul, God begins to distinguish “Israel” from “Judah.”

So he took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, “Whoever does not go out with Saul and Samuel to battle, so it shall be done to his oxen.” And the fear of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out with one consent. When he numbered them in Bezek, the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand. (I Samuel 11:7-8)

According to the pattern God began in Genesis 48:16, He is establishing that there is a difference between Judah and the other tribes by attaching the name “Israel,” not to Judah, but to those other tribes.

Later, during the time of King David, the distinction continues:

» Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. Only the house of Judah followed David. (II Samuel 2:10)

» David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty-three years over all Israel and Judah. (ll Samuel 5:4-5)

» I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! (II Samuel 12:8)

These two separate houses had their differences:

Now the king went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him. And all the people of Judah escorted the king, and also half the people of Israel. Just then all the men of Israel came to the king, and said to the king, “Why have our brethren, the men of Judah, stolen you away and brought the king, his household, and all David’s men with him across the Jordan?” So all the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “Because the king is a close relative of ours. Why then are you angry over this matter? Have we ever eaten at the king’s expense? Or has he given us any gift?” And the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, and said, “We have ten shares in the king; therefore we also have more right to David than you. Why then do you despise us—were we not the first to advise bringing back our king?” Yet the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel. (II Samuel 19:40-43)

In verse 43, those representing Israel in the disagreement point out that they have “ten shares in the king.” The ten shares are the ten tribes that make up the house of Israel. Under the article, “Ten Lost Tribes,” Wikipedia states, “The ten lost tribes refers to the ten of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel that were said to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 722 BCE.”

This deportation took place over 250 years after David’s reign. So more than 250 years before they eventually became known as the “Ten Lost Tribes,” God reveals to us that this division was already in place and that the name “Israel” did not include Judah. As further evidence of the depth of the division, the disagreement in II Samuel 19 led to a rebellion and a brief civil war between these two houses as recorded in the following chapter.

God is applying the name “Israel” to the ten tribes and not to Judah. This distinction begins well before the famous split after Solomon’s reign. The only time God includes Judah under the name “Israel” is when He is talking about all the children of Israel. Throughout the Bible, God is confirming for us that Judah is not the Israel of the Bible.

After Solomon’s reign, a final separation indeed occurs. Most of the two books of Kings details the activities of the now-separate nations. At this point, the lines are clearly and finally drawn. “Israel” includes the ten tribes, and “Judah” includes Judah, Benjamin, and the Levites.

Also in every city he [Rehoboam, king of Judah] put shields and spears, and made them very strong, having Judah and Benjamin on his side. And from all their territories the priests and the Levites who were in all Israel took their stand with him. For the Levites left their common-lands and their possessions and came to Judah and Jerusalem, for Jeroboam and his sons had rejected them from serving as priests to the Lord. (II Chronicles 11:12-14)

Two Paths

After their deportation, the history of these two peoples takes two very different paths. One takes the path of historical oblivion, and the other, the path of perpetual prominence. In David Limbaugh’s recent book, The Emmaus Code, he writes:

It is utterly remarkable that a nation dispersed for two millennia would retain its identity and regather in the very land it left, and to which God said it would eventually return. Highlighting the astounding nature of these events, Josh McDowell observes that throughout history, every other nation that left its homeland lost its national identity within about five generations. Pastor Tony Evans further notes that no other nation in history vanquished from its land for fifty years or more has ever returned speaking the same language. (p.107)

This quote highlights the different paths of these now two separate nations and peoples. It is the house of Judah, not the house of Israel, which has retained its identity. The house of Israel has disappeared from the scene. As in the quote above, “it is utterly remarkable” that the house of Judah has retained its identity for millennia. But then the God of Judah is an utterly remarkable God who says what He means and means what He says, and most importantly, can make happen what He says in Isaiah 56:4-5:

For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, even to them I will give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

If God gives eunuchs “an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” for keeping His Sabbaths, then it follows that such a promise would apply even more so to His beloved people. His people are both the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

An Identifying Sign

The Sabbath shaped the destiny of these two houses as we see in Ezekiel 20:12-13, 20:

Also I gave them My Sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know [without any doubt] that I am the Lord who sanctifies them (separates and sets them apart). . . . Sanctify My Sabbaths and keep them holy; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know [without any doubt] that I am the Lord your God. (Amplified Bible, 2015 Edition)

What caused one house to retain its identity and the other to lose it? God gives the answer—the Sabbath. Whedon’s Commentary on the Bible (at verse 12) states, “The Sabbath was the visible sign to the Hebrews and to the world that they were his, and that he was theirs.”

A sign identifies. An example is a burqa, the long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet, worn in public by many Muslim women. A woman wearing a burqa is an unmistakable sign that she is Allah’s and that he is her god. It is a sign that separates and identifies.

With these verses in chapter 20 of Ezekiel, God guarantees that if His people keep the Sabbath—the sign that signifies who they are and who they worship—that sign would assure their identity. To be separate requires a definable identity. God, by their observance of the Sabbath, guaranteed they would remain separate and set apart, preserved as a select people unmixed with the nations.

Throughout history, the house of Judah has continued to observe the Sabbath. As a result, they have retained their identity. On the other hand, the house of Israel rejected the Sabbath, and true to Ezekiel 20, they have disappeared from view. They have lost their identity. They no longer have the sign that tells them, or the rest of the world, who they are.

The house of Israel chose to rebel against the Sabbath, a proclivity that began as far back as the wilderness journey:

Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them’; and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out My fury on them in the wilderness, to consume them. (Ezekiel 20:13)

So, the Bible clearly and consistently identifies as Israel those nations that have become known as the “Ten Lost Tribes,” rather than the house of Judah. In light of this fact, why is there still such confusion between what we know as “biblical” Israel and the modern nation of Israel—the house of Judah—today? While theological scholars may debate their reasons, it is clear that God’s intention for Israel to remain lost or hidden—sifted in Amos 9:9—remains.

The Ten Lost Tribes

If not Judah, the current nation of Israel, then who is the Israel mentioned in the Bible, especially in Bible prophecies? Where are the descendants of the house of Israel today? Are the “Ten Lost Tribes” actually lost? The Bible tells of the time at the end of this age when God will again unite the house of Israel and the house of Judah. For that to happen, the house of Israel must exist, just as the house of Judah currently does. Here are some of the prophecies pointing to this future reunification:

» “For behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “that I will bring back from captivity My people Israel and Judah,” says the Lord. “And I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.” (Jeremiah 30:3)

» He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isaiah 11:12)

» “Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Surely I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will join them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand.” (Ezekiel 37:19)

» Then the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and appoint for themselves one head; and they shall come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel! (Hosea 1:11)

To themselves and the world, the house of Israel may indeed be lost, but not to God. He tells us that in Amos 9:9: “For surely I will command, and will sift the house of Israel among all nations, as grain is sifted in a sieve; yet not the smallest grain shall fall to the ground.”

According to God, the lost house of Israel exists today. So, who are they and where are they? In the next issue, we will explore those questions and why the influence of the house of Judah in our world is the result of a gift from God.

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