WHO IS “ISRAEL”? This is not just a random, general question for me, but it lies at the very heart of the calling that God has placed upon my life. By the time you finish this article, I think you will know what I mean. I have a personal stake in fully understanding this question as I will explain. But it’s not only important to me, it should be important to every Jew and Christian in the world since it lies at the heart of who we are, our identities in God.
MY OWN PERSONAL STRUGGLE
I did not grow up a Torah-centered life, nor did I grow up in a Jewish home, but in a very conservative Christian home. I grew up attending a small Pentecostal church on the south side of Lansing, Michigan, and then when I was twelve, my parents began attending an Assemblies of God church close to our home. However, over the years, the Lord has called my wife and I to an “Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.” Except for our belief in Yeshua (Jesus) as the promised Messiah, by all outward evidence, we are living a Jewish life, at least to the best of our knowledge. There are many things we still need to learn, particularly about being “Orthodox,” but these are things that God has called us to learn, and so we continue to strive to learn them.
But growing up, I remember the more I studied the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the more I loved it. I actually got into an argument many years ago with someone in our Sunday School class, because he tried to argue that people could not keep God’s commandments, and I disagreed with him. I told him we could keep them, but most of the time, we choose not to do it. I also absolutely disagree with Christians who say that God gave us His commandments just to “show us what horrible, sinful people we really are,” I don’t know what Bible they are reading, but I sure don’t see that taught or indicated in the first five books, or even in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. I also was asked to leave one church, because I had just started wearing my prayer shawl that I had just bought from the Israel Connection, a Jewish bookstore, when it was still open in Scottsdale, Arizona. The pastor told me that if I wanted to wear it, I should go to the synagogue or a Messianic service, but I was not allowed to wear it there at his church. My wife and I did not return.
God’s law is also an act of love and grace. He did it because He wanted us to know who He was, what He is like, what He’s not like, and how we are to interact with Him and with one anther. And nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we get any indication of God’s Word being “bondage,” “legalism,” or that it has been “annulled,” “set aside,” or been completely fulfilled so that we no longer have to obey it. Yeshua (Jesus) has been the One who has called my wife and I to this life, and He is the One who is directing us to walk “the ancient paths” of His Kingdom ways, as He invited Israel to do through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 6:16). Now having laid out my general background and reason why this study is so important to me, let me ask the question.
WHO IS “ISRAEL”?
This seems like it should be an easy question to answer, doesn’t it, but it’s really not since there are many different groups, other than the Jewish people, who are claiming to be “the true Israel.” However, my only question is, “How does God define ISRAEL?” Many people are not aware that God Himself defined “ISRAEL” in His own word; consequently, the only definition that matters is His.
WHEN DID ISRAEL BEGIN?
First of all, I think it is important for us to remember when Israel began. Although God called Abraham into covenant with Him, and then his son, Isaac, He laid the foundation for what Israel was to become through their lives. Technically, though, we would have to agree that there couldn’t have been any such thing as “Israel” until God actually renamed Jacob as “Israel” (Genesis 32). In chapter 32, Jacob was really nervous about meeting his brother Esau again, because he hadn’t seen him since he pretended to be Esau and tricked his father into giving him his older brother’s blessing (Genesis 27:1-40), rather than it going to Esau. And he was really nervous when his servants told him that Esau was coming towards him with 400 men (Genesis 32:6), so he divided his family into two companies, hoping that one of them would at least survive (Genesis 32:7-8).
Jacob then spends some time in prayer to God, asking Him to deliver him from the hand of his brother Esau (Genesis 32:9-12). Then he selected a large number of animals, and he divided them up into at least three groups, and to each group, he gave to a servant. He told the servants to take the animals as a present and to give them to Esau, and by doing so, he was hoping to appease him. He also made sure to tell the servants not to go together, but to have a large space between them (Genesis 32:13-20).
JACOB WRESTLES ALL NIGHT WITH GOD
That night, as he was on guard alone, in case one of Esau’s men would try to sneak into the camp, he ends up wrestling with someone in the dark until the breaking of the day. And when the stranger saw that he was not prevailing against Jacob at all, the Scriptures say he touched the hollow of his thigh, and by doing so, he was able to put it out of joint (Genesis 32:24-25). Obviously, this was not any ordinary man since he was able to do this by simply touching his thigh. At this point, the man says to let him go, but Jacob responds, “I will not let you go, except you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). The man then asks him his name, and then when Jacob tells him, the man says,
Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince have you power with God and with men, and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:28)
When Jacob asked him his name, he would not tell him, but he blessed Jacob there. This scene is where Jacob is renamed as “Israel.” From this scene, I think we can logically infer the following about Israel:
- Although Jacob had done some unscrupulous things in his past, he had repented and he is trying to reconcile with his brother by making amends;
- During this process of repentance, Jacob wrestles with a stranger and is given a new identity as “Israel.” “The man” says Israel is “as a prince” has “power with God and with men,” and he has “prevailed.”
In Hosea 12, there seems to indicate that the man was God, but then there’s the indication that it was an angel:
In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his maturity he contended with God. Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed: He wept and sought His favor. He found Him at Bethel, and there He spoke with us. (Hosea 12:3-4)
Consequently, based on this account, Israel is “one who wrestles with God.” And how many of us like Jacob also wrestle with God in one way or another.
GOD CREATES ISRAEL
Then in Genesis 35, we have what seems to be God renaming Jacob as Israel all over again for a second time, but there’s more to it here than merely a renaming. When Jacob came out of Padan-aram, God again appeared to Jacob and blessed him. (Genesis 35:9) And God said to him:
Your name is Jacob: Your name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be your name:
“and He called his name Israel. And God said to him,”
I am God Almighty (Heb. El Shaddai): be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of you, and kings shall come out of your loins; and the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to you I will give it, and to your seed after you will I give the land. (Genesis 35:10-12)
First of all, in looking at what God told him after renaming him “Israel”:
- God identified Himself as “El Shaddai” (God Almighty) or “the God who is more
- God told him to “be fruitful and multiply.” This indicates that this is not just a renaming, but a creation account since the only two times prior to this that this phrase was used was during the initial creation account in Genesis 1 (Genesis 1:22, 28), and after Noah, his family, and all the animals came off the ark, indicating a new creation after the flood (Genesis 8:17; 9:7).
In the book of Isaiah, God says to the people and nation of Israel:
But now thus says the LORD that created you, O Jacob, and He that formed you, O Israel, fear not: for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name; you are Mine. (Isaiah 43: 1)
During the biblical period, the act of naming something or giving it a new name was an act of showing one’s ownership of that thing or person. For instance, when Adam gave “Woman” the name Chavah (trans. as “Eve” in English), he was showing his ownership of her since she was his wife. When God renames Abram into Abraham, and Sarai into Sarah, He is showing His ownership of them. They now belonged to Him, and the same is true of Jacob here into “Israel.”
We even see this in the New Testament, when Yeshua (Jesus) renames Simon into “Peter,” He is showing His ownership of Peter as belonging to Him, and the same is true of us as modern believers, since in the epistles we are told that Yeshua (Jesus) purchased us with His blood (I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; 2 Peter 2:1), and therefore, He is going to show His ownership of us by giving us a “new name” (Revelation 2:17), as well as give us three other names: “the name of My God,” “the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem,” and “My new name” (Revelation 3:12). Notice that although Yeshua (Jesus) and the Father are One (John 10:30), Yeshua (Jesus) refers to Him after His resurrection as “My Father and your Father, and to My God and Your God” (John 20:17), and here in this passage, He also refers to Him as “My God,” and He’s even been given “a new name” by God, demonstrating God’s ownership of Him. And these three names will also be given to those who overcome.
ANALYZING GOD’S DEFINITION OF ISRAEL
- After giving him the name “Israel,” God then defines “ISRAEL” as “A NATION and A COMPANY OF NATIONS shall be of you.” ISRAEL is then defined as –
- “A NATION“ (Heb. goy; Gk. ethne). One of the interesting things I noticed when comparing the Hebrew with the Greek is that the Hebrew word goy is in the singular, and it means “a nation,” but the Greek word ethne is in the plural and means “nations,” and it’s where we get the English words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.” This word, though, refers to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. However, in defining Israel, God doesn’t just stop there, but He adds to the definition the following element.
- “A COMPANY OF NATIONS” (Heb. q’hal goyim; Gk. sunagogai ethnon) And like the word “nation,” the Hebrew word q’hal is in the singular, and the Greek word sunagogai is in the plural. Again, I wonder why the change from the singular to the plural.
In Hebrew, the word q’hal [H6951] can be translated to mean “assembly, company, congregation, or multitude.” The most popular translation for this word is the word “congregation” since it is translated that way 86 times. Now in all the online sources that I found available, the Greek word sunagogai [G4864] was translated “gatherings,” and it is the source from which we get the word “Synagogue.”
The next word is the Hebrew word “goyim” or the Greek ethnon, and in both languages, it is plural and means “nations” or “gentiles.” Both translations are equally valid. So then this phrase q’hal goyim in the Hebrew or sunagogai ethnon in the Greek could be translated as any of the following:
- An assembly of nations (or gentiles);
- a company of nations (or gentiles);
- a congregation of nations (or gentiles);
- a multitude of nations (or gentiles); or
- gatherings of nations (or gentiles).
Obviously, which of these is chosen depends on the preference of the translator since any one of these could be argued as a valid choice. What I do find interesting is that even though the Greek word sunagogai is in the plural, most English translations seem to follow the Hebrew instead, which is singular.
ISRAEL – A COVENANT PEOPLE WITH GOD
Throughout the Scriptures, Israel is seen as a people who are to live their lives in accordance to the covenants that God had made with them. For example, there was the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15, 17); the Sinai covenant (Exodus 12 – Deuteronomy); the Levitic /Priesthood covenant (Numbers 25:11-13); the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:12-16; I Chronicles 17:7-14); the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34); and the coming covenant of peace (Ezekiel 34:22-31; 37:15-28). The whole history of Israel is of them being a covenant people. And just as God has called Israel to be His covenant people, He has also called me to live my life in accordance to His covenants as well.
ISRAEL – GOD’S SERVANT, HIS CHOSEN PEOPLE
In the book of Isaiah, we learn the following about Israel from God:
But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham, My friend…you are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you. (Isaiah 41:8, 9b)
Israel is God’s chosen servant, who began as we saw with Jacob, whom the LORD Himself had chosen. Israel is the descendant of Abraham, “My friend,” a covenantal term, demonstrating that Israel are God’s covenantal people.
ISRAEL – GOD’S FIRSTBORN SON?
Another interesting thing about “ISRAEL” is that God identifies ISRAEL as “My son, even My firstborn son.” God is giving Moses instructions on what He is to say to the Pharaoh when he meets him, and He says,
And the LORD said unto Moses, When you go to return to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in your hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus says the LORD, Israel is My son, even My firstborn. (Exodus 4:21)
Now Moses has not even seen the Pharaoh yet, and here God is identifying Israel as His “son, even [His] firstborn son.” Obviously, if God is identifying Israel as His son, then God already has an on-going relationship with Israel right here. Then how could the covenant at Mt. Sinai be the relationship covenant since God is already in a relationship with them before Moses even goes to see the Pharaoh or before any of the plagues or before the Exodus from Egypt has even begun?
But isn’t it rather interesting that when it came time for Israel to leave Egypt under Moses’ leadership that Israel was comprised not only of the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but there was also a “mixed multitude” of Gentiles that came out with them:
And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children. And a MIXED MULTITUDE went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle. (Exodus 12:37-38)
Notice that Israel did not leave Egypt alone. They left Egypt comprised of both the physical descendants of Israel AND the “mixed multitude” of Gentiles, just as God defined Israel in Genesis 35: “a nation and a multitude of nations.” And after they cross the Jordan River, they continued to grow in the amount of “mixed multitude” of Gentiles that were part of Israel; for example, with Rahab and her family, Ruth, Doeg the Edomite, etc. And more recently, me and my wife.
ISRAEL – THOSE WHOM GOD HAS CREATED, FORMED AND REDEEMED
Just as we read earlier, God created a whole new being called “Israel.” Before God created him, Israel did not exist. But He also formed him in that he made him from someone who already existed, Jacob. So Israel was both “created” and “formed.” God refers to this in this verse.
But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! (Isaiah 43:1)
Here we learn that God not only redeemed Israel, but he was called by name. Israel belongs to God; they are His people. But not only did God call “Israel” by name, but I believe this implies that everyone who will comprise His people, Israel, He will also call by name. We speaks more about this six verses later:
Everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have formed, even whom I have made. (Isaiah 43:7)
And then, in the next chapter, we learn,
But now listen, O Jacob, My servant; And Israel, whom I have chosen: Thus says the LORD who made you and formed you from the womb, who will help you, Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; and you Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:1-2)
Again we learn that Israel is God’s servant, they have been personally chosen by God. He made and formed each one of them, as He has the rest of us, but we should remember Paul’s description of the “unsaved Gentile world,”
remember that you were at that time separate from Christ [Messiah], excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12)
ISRAEL – GOD’S COVENANT PEOPLE
Throughout the Scriptures, Israel is seen as a people who are to live their lives in accordance to the covenants that God had made with them. Each of these covenants build on one another, they do not replace any of the earlier covenants as Christianity teaches. For example, there’s the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15, 17); the Sinai covenant (Exodus 12 – Deuteronomy); the Levitic /Priesthood covenant (Numbers 25:11-13); the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:12-16; I Chronicles 17:7-14); the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34); and the coming covenant of peace (Ezekiel 34:22-31; 37:15-28). The whole history of Israel is of them being a covenant people. And each of us, who are in Messiah, are also called to be His covenant people. We do not keep one covenant, but in some way, we keep them all.
ISRAEL – GOD’S SERVANT, HIS CHOSEN WITNESSES
Another thing that God says about Israel is that they are God’s servant, His chosen witnesses. “You are My Servant, Israel, in Whom I will show My glory” (Isaiah 49:3). Six chapters earlier, God describes Israel as His witnesses:
“You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen. In order that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there be none after Me. I, even I, am the LORD; and there is no savior besides Me. It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed, and there was no strange god among you. So you are My witnesses,” declares the LORD. (Isaiah 43:10-12)
God has chosen Israel to be His witnesses of who He is, what He is like, what He’s not like, and what He has required of us. As Micah writes,
He has told you, O man, what is good, and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
There is so much about God and His Word we would not know, if not for Israel and the Jewish people.
WHAT GOD HAS SAID ABOUT YOU & ME
And the same callings, responsibilities and privileges that God has given to Israel, He gives to all those who are His, because He makes us all a part of Israel. Now does that mean I believe that the believer in Messiah has in some way replaced the Jewish people? (Replacement Theology) Absolutely not! Nor do I believe that God has placed Israel on the “back burner,” and that God is only working through “the church,” referring to some religious entity that is different than Israel (Dispensationalism).
Instead, I believe that we are engrafted into Israel, that we are to be One (Heb. echad) like God Himself. We are to be One (‘echad) with Him, and we are to be One (‘echad) with one another, just as Yeshua (Jesus) prayed the night before His crucifixion (John 17:22-23). And not only is God’s desire for us all, Jew and Christian, to be One, but that we who are not of Jewish descent partake with them (the Jewish people), as Paul wrote in Romans 11,
And if some of the branches [Jews] are broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, was GRAFTED IN AMONG THEM, and WITH THEM partake of the root and fatness of the Olive Tree [Israel]. (Romans 11:17)
“ISRAEL” is the name of God’s Kingdom that He began with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s intention is that we would all be part of ONE FAMILY, just as Rahab and Ruth, two Gentile women, became a part of the family of ISRAEL. Now does that mean that I completely endorse everything that the present state of Israel does? No, but by the same taken, I also don’t endorse everything that my own country, the United States, does either. But we need to understand what God wants ISRAEL to be, and I believe when the Messiah returns, ISRAEL will become all that He wants them – and us – to become.
WHAT GOD HAS SAID TO MY WIFE AND I
When my wife and I went to ISRAEL, and are planning on going again, we want to learn from the people there, to be their friends, just as we hope that they will also learn from us, and want to be our friends as well. But this is our attitude not only when we go to ISRAEL, but wherever we go. But God has told us in prayer and in revelations to us over the years that there are certain things that He expects of us. The following is a list of many of those things of where we are now, but He didn’t with all of this. It has accumulated over the years.
- He has chosen us and called us by name;
- It was He who created us and formed us;
- It was His plan from the very beginning that we should get married to one another;
- He was the One who called us to be His witnesses to the nations;
- He is the One who has given us the insights and revelations about Him and His Kingdom;
- He has saved us, redeemed us, and kept us safe many different times;
- He told us that He wants and longs for a relationship with us to be a holy one, because He can’t live in an unholy Temple. It is detestable to Him, and He will puke us out;
- He told us that Paul remained a believing Pharisee all of his life, and that there’s many things that Paul has written that Christians do not properly understand because of many different things;
- He told us that He does not believe that many Christians love Him because they do not talk about Him with others, they are more passionate about football and sports than they are about Him, and they do not keep His commandments;
- He has told us that we are not to celebrate Christmas, Easter, Lent, or Halloween. These were never His holidays at all;
- He has told us that we are to observe His Shabbat;
- He has told us that we are to observe all of His feasts;
- He has told us to keep the purity laws;
- He has told us that we are to eat only kosher, those foods that He said in His word His people are to eat, and we are not to eat anything that He has called unclean;
- He told me in prayer that I am to live as closely to the life of an Orthodox Jewish man as possible without violating His Scriptures;
- He has told me to wear tzitzit, to pray wearing a prayer shawl, and to wear a kippah;
- He has called me ben Torah, the son of His Torah, and my wife bat Torah, the daughter of His Torah;
- He is calling my wife and I to Israel; and
- He has told us that we are to teach all people, Jew and non-Jew alike, to believe in Yeshua (Jesus) and to be baptized (or immersed) in water for the remission of sins, AND we are also to teach them to obey the Torah, the writings of Moses, and the rest of the Bible as well.
Many Christians have questioned whether I’ve really heard from God, but it was the LORD Yeshua (Jesus) Himself who audibly spoke to me in my bedroom early one morning. It was He who has called us to do these things. Many people don’t believe me when I tell them that the Lord audibly spoke to me, but it is true, and I know it is true. So if we were not to do what He has told us to do, then we would be breaking His commands to us, and it would be sin to us. Of that, I have no doubt.
I am also sure that Christianity is wrong when it comes to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, and many of Paul’s ideas about the law. God’s desire is that we would be filled with His Spirit, and that we would love living out His Torah, keeping the Sabbath and His feasts, and all of His other commandments, and that His Word, including all of His commandments, would reside within our minds and in our hearts. He wants His words in the inside of us, in our guts. He does not want His word sitting on a shelf collecting dust, as it does in many homes today of people.
But we are all ISRAEL, if we are physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or whether we have been engrafted into ISRAEL when we put our faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the promised Messiah. All of us in ISRAEL have the privilege and the responsibility to love God; to love His word, the Torah; and to love one another. If a Jew, Paul says, does not obey God and listen to the prophet “like unto Moses” (i.e., the Messiah Yeshua), then he is in violation of the Torah. And like the Jew, if the Christian, or any other person, does not obey God’s word, including the commandments that He gave to Moses, then he too is in violation of God’s Word.
The division we see between ISRAEL and the Church isn’t really there. It is a man-made division. There have always been those who said they were God’s people, but they did not live their life in obedience to Him. This is true of people in ISRAEL and it is true of those who identify themselves as being in the church. They didn’t love God and they didn’t keep the Torah as God instructed them to do.
WE NEED TO GET READY FOR THE COMING OF MESSIAH AND HIS KINGDOM
But if we are going to be ready for the return of the Jewish Messiah, Yeshua, and the establishment of His Kingdom here on earth, we need to begin living in obedience to all of God’s word, not just some parts we happen to decide that we like. If we don’t, we won’t make it.
There are many people in our churches today who think that when they die or when the Lord returns that they will be going to heaven, but they are going to be sadly shocked and surprised when they discover too late that they will not be going to heaven at all, but they will be spending eternity in the lake of fire and brimstone. The time is quickly coming to an end, and just as God shut the door of the Ark, and then destruction fell upon the earth, so the door of salvation is about to be closed, and soon, the time will come when it will be too late, and the door will be closed. And once closed, it will not be re-opened. Sudden destruction will fall, as it did the days of Noah and in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all who didn’t make it will be destroyed.
Think about it and make the right choice. We know what God has called upon our lives, and we are not going to stop now. We will continue. We can only ask that you think about it, seek God, ask Him what you should do, and follow His directions. If you hear a voice that directs you to violate His commandments or to go against His Word, please know that this voice that you hear is not God’s voice since God does not violate or oppose His Word.
Blessings and Shalom be to all of you.