Chapter Seven

To Be An Israelite

The religious perspective of a first century Israelite and the religious  perspective of most 21st century American Christians are completely different.  The American church’s religious perspectives have deep roots in a long history of protestant denominationalism.  Though the American religious scene has experienced [and continues to experience] some basic changes in recent decades, there still are Americans in churches whose thinking is based on denominational models.  When the denominational perspective forms a person’s primary religious thought pattern, he/she typically views Jewish sects within first century Judaism as Jewish denominations.  When such people read of the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the Zealots, or the Essenes, they typically think, “Jewish denominational groups!”

However, that is not true.  One could be a part of Israel even though he ‘does not endorse my theological perspective in Judaism’s concerns.’  The disagreements among Jewish sects were commonly emotional, often intense, and frequently confrontational.  That situation is comparable to a situation in congregations of the Church of Christ who champion the ‘one cup’ theology, the ‘no class’ theology, the ‘opposition to congregational cooperation’ theology, or the ‘appropriate use of church buildings’ theology.  Though first century Israelites often disagreed over what they regarded to be fundamental theological questions in Judaism, they did not reject each other as a part of the nation of Israel.  The sects might strongly disagree on what was regarded as critical theological questions in Judaism, but they still were part of the nation of Israel. 

A first century Jew did not choose to be an Israelite.  He was an Israelite by birth.  He chose his religious sect, but not his nationality.

That situation demands that an important question be asked: in the first century, what were the essentials for being an Israelite [not a convert]?  Whom did first century Jews recognize as Jews [excluding proselytes]?



God’s promise to or covenant with Abraham was the promise of a great nation coming from him (Genesis 12:2).  The nation would come from the promised son, Isaac (Genesis 17:15-19) who was born to Abraham through Sarah when Abraham was 100 years old (Genesis 21:1-5).

Israel is not the only nation to descend from Abraham.  The descendants of Ishmael also became a nation (Genesis 21:13, 18; 25:12-16).  Lot’s son/grandson, Moab, became a nation with a land provided to them by God (Genesis 19:30-38; Deuteronomy 2:9) as was also the case with Ben-Ammi, father of the nation of Ammon (Genesis 19:30-38; Deuteronomy 2:19).  The sons of Esau also become the nation of Edom (Genesis 32:3; Numbers 20:14-21) with a land provided them by God.

Being able to trace genealogy back to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob was an important aspect of being an Israelite.  Early evidence is seen from the time Israel left Egypt.  The last occurrence prior to Israel leaving Egypt was establishing and observing the Passover meal.  No non-Israelite was to share in the meal (Exodus 12:43).  Exceptions were made, but only with specific instructions.  Slaves to Israelites [who were purchased with money] must be circumcised prior to taking the Passover meal (Exodus 12:44).  No uncircumcised person was to be permitted to eat the meal (Exodus 12:48).  Otherwise, all Israelites must eat the meal (Exodus 12:47).

Much later, the exiles [Israelites] who returned from Babylonian captivity intermarried with and had children by women who were “foreign women” [of the people of the area, not of Israelite descent].  Though these women frequently were the wives of some prominent men in Israel, Israelite men were required to divorce them.  The separation was to be total (Ezra 10:3-4)—Israelite men were no longer to continue their marriages with foreign wives.  They were not to keep children produced by those marriages. 

Ezra’s distress regarding this situation is reflected in Ezra 9:3 when he tore his clothing and pulled some hair from his head and beard.  It is also reflected in Ezra 9:5-15 and 10:1 which note his intense prayerfulness about this matter.  Nehemiah’s distress regarding such marriages is reflected in Nehemiah 13:25 when he extracted a pledge from Israelites not to give their daughters as wives to gentile people or take wives for their sons from gentile people.  Nehemiah contended with them, cursed them, struck them, pulled their hair out, and made them take a oath to God.  Though God hated divorce and was offended by Israelites who dealt treacherously with the wives of their youth (Malachi 2:14-16), in this instance genealogy was more important than divorce.

The importance of genealogy in first century Israel is evidenced by Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:2-16 and Luke 3:23-38.  It is also noted that the prophetess Anna was from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36).  Paul knew he was from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5).

John the baptizer’s declaration that repentance and its fruits were more important than ancestry (Matthew 3:7-9) was a shocking statement to be made concerning Israel!  Though we gentile Christians often focus on the importance of repentance, this statement verified the confidence many Israelites placed in ancestry/genealogy.

If one was to be an Israelite, he or she must be a descendant of Abraham through Isaac.



Again, circumcision as a religious rite in Israel began with God, Abraham, and the promised future existence of the nation of Israel.  To confirm the acceptance of the promise/covenant between God and Abraham, circumcision served as the continuing sign of this foundational promise/covenant (Genesis 17:9-14).  Every Israelite male was to be circumcised (verse 10) to verify confidence in this ancient promise/covenant God extended to Abraham (verse 11).  This circumcision was to occur eight days after the Israelite male was born (verse 12) and included servants born into the household or purchased (verse 13).  Failure to be circumcised and thereby to become a part of the promise/covenant between God and Abraham meant the uncircumcised Israelite male was excluded from the nation of Israel (verse 14).

The importance of circumcision as a religious rite in Israel was verified from its beginning.  Genesis 17:26-27 states that on the day God gave Abraham this responsibility, Abraham, Ishmael, and all male servants were circumcised immediately.

Isaac, the son God promised Abraham, was circumcised eight days after his birth (Genesis 21:4).

On the evening that the Israelite slaves prepared to leave Egypt, instructions were given defining future people who could eat the Passover meal.  The Passover memorial meal was the most important occasion of worship in Israel.  In that meal, Israelites acknowledged they existed as a nation because of an act of God (Exodus 12:26-27).  The purpose of Israel’s sacred feasts was to remind Israel they existed as a nation because of God’s acts (see Deuteronomy 16:1-17 and 26:1-11). As essential as the Passover memorial feast was [and is] to an Israelite, no uncircumcised Israelite should be permitted to eat that meal.  Joshua 5:2-12 declares this progression after the wandering Israelites left the wilderness: (1) all the men of Israel were circumcised; then (2) Israel as a nation observed Passover.

It is important for us gentile Christians to realize that circumcision in ancient Israel was far more significant than an arbitrary physical hygiene practice.  It was a religious rite filled with ‘relationship to God’ significance.  It was to be a physical expression of internal commitment to God: “So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). 

Deuteronomy predicted Israel would experience captivity and divine redemption from captivity.  The return of Israelites from the predicted captivity was described in these words: “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). 

Failure to understand that circumcision was to be both external and internal produced dire consequences.  Generations later, Jeremiah wrote this: “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised—Egypt and Judah, and Edom and the sons of Ammon, and Moab and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart” (Jeremiah 9:25-26).

Circumcision was as important among Israelites in the first century [even among Jewish Christians] as it was among Israelites previously.  When Peter was sent to Cornelius by the Lord (Acts 10:9-20), he took with him six circumcised believers to serve in the role of witnesses (Acts 10:45).  Peter needed these witnesses to confirm his story when circumcised believers confronted Peter condemning him, not for baptizing Cornelius, but for going into a gentile’s home and eating with him (Acts 11:1-18, note especially verse 12).

Jewish believers in Christ told the gentile converts at Antioch this: Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1).  According to these Jews, a ‘faith in Christ’ response of penitent baptism could not save unless it was preceded by circumcision.  This position was declared by Jerusalem Pharisees who were converted to Christ: “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).  The incident occurring in Jerusalem in Acts 21:18-24 happened because Paul was falsely accused of teaching Jewish people not to circumcise their children—obviously a serious accusation among Israelites! 

The significance of circumcision to the Jewish community [including Jewish Christians] was evidenced in additional ways in New Testament books.  Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21).  Paul had Timothy [who had a Jewish mother] circumcised to enhance his credibility with Jewish audiences (Acts 16:1-3). Peter was known as the apostle to the circumcised while Paul was known as the apostle to the uncircumcised (Galatians 2:7-9). In the Jewish community, circumcision was critically important to forming a continuing bond with God.


From the nation’s origin, Israel understood there was a direct connection between ritual purity and what a person ate.  Leviticus 11 declares what Israelites could and could not eat. The delineation between ‘clean and unclean’ creatures that may or may not be used for food concludes with this statement: “This is the law regarding the animal and the bird, and every living thing that moves in the waters and everything that swarms on the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten.” (Leviticus 11:46, 47).  Deuteronomy 14:1-21 also stresses the link between the Israelites’ diet and their purity.

The diet to be eaten in Israel included both what was eaten and the manner in which the food was prepared.  The Yiddish word used to declare a food was sanctioned by Jewish law is kosher.  Kosher food is ritually appropriate for Jewish consumption.

The association of ritual purity with food is noted in Mark 7:1-4.  Some religious leaders from Jerusalem chastised Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without performing the ritual task of washing [purifying] their hands.  The writer noted that it was common practice among the Jews to purify their hands prior to eating.  Not only did they purify their hands prior to eating, but they also practiced purification rituals when they returned from the market.  They also purified the preparation and serving vessels.  Again, this observation is not about practicing good hygiene.  It is a religious matter, not a health matter.  Impure hands made food impure.  Ingesting impure food made the body impure.  Worshipping God with an impure body insulted God.

A sacrifice offered to a false god was impure.  In Romans 14 some Jewish Christians in Rome were vegetarians (Romans 14:1-3).  They had no way to be certain that the meat sold at the market had not been part of an idolatrous sacrifice.  To be ‘safe’ religiously, they ate no meat.  The fact that 1 Corinthians 8:4-13 discussed basically the same problem indicates this dilemma was a common problem in Jewish communities, even among Jewish Christians.  In Judaism, food did commend Israel to God, but no longer could food serve in that role (1 Corinthians 8:8).

The same dilemma is addressed in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33.  Paul’s instruction is thought-provoking.  “When you buy meat at the market, do not ask questions.  When you are invited for a meal in the home of a person who is not a Christian, do not ask questions.  Give thanks to God who is the true source of your food.  Eat what you are served unless your host tells you your meat was sacrificed to his god. Then abstain from eating for your host’s sake—only your God should be honored by your gratitude.”

The stress that Jewish dietary laws brought into the Christian community is evident in Galatians 2:11-14.  This illustrates the importance of Jewish dietary laws to the Jewish community.

An important mark of being an Israelite was eating only those things Israel had been instructed to eat for hundreds of years.


Jewish Tradition

In most religious movements and perspectives, major digressions occur when people confuse the what with the how.  Judaism was no exception.  At times in Israel, the how was of such importance that if the how was incorrect, the what was so polluted that it became meaningless.

Consider an illustration.  When God gave Israel the ten commandments, He said, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).  Following was this clear emphasis: no work was to occur on the Sabbath.  Yet, one could not obey that instruction unless work was defined.  The instruction contained no comprehensive definition of work.  Was it to be considered work to feed and water your livestock?  Was it to be considered work to cook a meal?  Was it to be considered work to tie your sandal?  Was it to be considered work to offer a sacrifice?  Before an Israelite could keep the Sabbath holy by not working, he/she had to have a definition of work.

Consequently, Jewish leadership defined work for Israelites.  The first century understanding of work is likely found in the Mishnah, Shabbath 7:2.  Thirty-nine classifications of work are given.  A Jew living by God’s law must abstain [on the Sabbath] from doing any act under those thirty-nine classifications.  The ‘intent’ was to make the command to keep the Sabbath day holy a command that could be obeyed.  However, the ‘how’ was elevated to a level of importance that made ‘correct’ procedure  as important as intent.

In an attempt to make the instructions of the law applicable to all current situations, Judaism recognized two sources of authority [just as do most Christians].  Those two sources of authority were ‘the written law’ [scripture] and ‘the oral law’ [tradition].  The primary function of ‘the written law’ was to declare the what.  The primary function of ‘the oral law’ was to apply ‘the written law’ to current situations.  They, as we, believed scripture was alive and could be applied to all existing situations and circumstances.

‘The written law’ came from God.  ‘The oral law’ came from ancient men of God who handed down applications through the generations.  Thus, the what came from God and the how came from ancient men whose hearts belonged to God.

Aspects of the problem then and now are similar in many respects. What men concluded [the how] became as authoritative as what God said [the what].  Consider an example.  In Matthew 12:1-8 Jesus and his disciples are walking along the edges of grain fields [wheat or barley] on a Sabbath.  A part of this group were Pharisees.  The disciples became hungry, stripped some of the grain from the stalks along the pathway, and ate the raw grain.

What the disciples did is a familiar, common act to people who grew up in rural circumstances.  They merely reached out as they walked by, stripped some ripened heads of grain, and ate the ripe, raw grain.  It was a casual act, not a labor intensive deed.  In no way was it an attempt to work.

Immediately the Pharisees accused the men of violating the Sabbath [Jesus frequently was part of intense discussions on Sabbath violations].  The accusation: the disciples violated the law.  By the definition of work that the Pharisees recognized, the disciples were in violation of the category of reaping or harvesting.  Note: violating the Pharisees’ accepted definition was violating the law.  Jesus defended the disciples’ act by using scripture and making an observation.

Obediently following the tradition was critical to faithfulness!  Consider Mark 7:3-4 and 7:10-13.  Prior to becoming a Christian, Paul said he was extremely zealous in keeping the ancestral traditions (Galatians 1:14).

Numerous warnings were given gentile Christians about the circumcision’s dogmatic insistence that gentile Christians associate faithfulness to God with observing Jewish traditions.  Paul warned Titus of “rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision” (Titus 1:10).  Crete was notorious for its ungodly people.  Yet, Paul considered the Jewish influence on that island such a great threat to the Christian community that he specifically warned against that Jewish influence.  Such people were to be “reproved severely” to challenge them to be “sound in the faith” [sounds like Jewish Christians!] (Titus 1:13).  Specific direction was given to ignore “Jewish myths and commandments of men” (Titus 1:14).  Because such people said something was impure did not make it impure (Titus 1:15).  Paul said such people claimed to know God, but their behavior made it evident they were detestable, disobedient, and worthless for any good deed (Titus 1:16).  Despite their claims, they did not represent God’s intent!  Additional warnings are found in 2 Corinthians 11:13, 1 Timothy l:5-7, and 2 Timothy 4:3-4.


For hundreds of years, Israel frequently brought spiritual disaster upon themselves through their continuing love affair with idols.  When Israel left Egypt, they left a country steeped in idol worship.  For over four hundred years they lived in a nation devoted to idolatry.  For much of that period they were slaves to the Egyptians!  Those circumstances produced a powerful spiritual influence on Israel. 

For example, after God delivered them from Egypt through powerful acts, after God provided them food and water in the wilderness, after God spoke to them the ten commandments,  Moses went up onto the mountain to receive guidance from God.  Moses was gone for over a month (Exodus 32).  Israel grew restless for leadership.  Their solution:  “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” [idolatry!] (Exodus 32:1).

They prevailed upon Aaron to make them a golden idol.  What was said when Aaron presented the idol to Israel?  “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).  What an incredible insult to God!

Idolatry plagued Israel for hundreds of years!  Listen to the opening of Judges: “Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the Lord to anger” (Judges 2:11, 12).  Idolatry was a major problem in Israel in Judges! 

Consider King Solomon’s failure: “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the sons of Israel, ‘You shall not associate with them, nor shall they associate with you, for they will surely turn your heart away after their gods.’ Solomon held fast to these in love. He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been”  (1 Kings 11:1-4).  Solomon even went so far as to build temples near Jerusalem for his wives’ gods!  (1 Kings 11:7-8)

As a result of Solomon’s idolatrous deeds, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel followed Jereboam’s leadership when Solomon died.  In fear that the ten tribes would turn away from him when they went to sacrifice in Jerusalem, Jereboam lead them into idolatry (read 1 Kings 12:25-33).  This nation was destroyed by the Assyrian captivity generations later.  Not once did they leave idolatry.

The two tribes that remained loyal to David’s descendants spent most of their years in love affairs with idols.  Only the Babylonian captivity [from which a remnant returned to Jerusalem] convinced them to forsake all forms of idolatry.  By the first century, Israel wanted to do nothing that even had the appearance of idol worship.



The basics for being an Israelite in the first century included heritage, circumcision, eating appropriate food and observing appropriate food rituals, keeping Jewish traditions, and avoiding even the appearance of idolatry.



Chapter Six   Chapter Eight