What is a Jew? What makes a person a Jew? Is there such thing as a “two-house” theory, as proposed by the Hebrew Roots and Messianic religions? More importantly, what does the Tanakh have to say about this? These questions will be answered fully in this blog post.
Jew, in Hebrew, is Yehudi. It refers to someone who come from the tribe of Judah (Yehudah). After the split in the kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12ff), the one kingdom became two kingdoms – the Kingdom of Judah (the Jews, the Yehudim) in the southern Kingdom and the Kingdom of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, as you can see in the graphic above. The Northern Kingdom consisted of ten different tribes whereas the Southern Kingdom consisted of the rest of the three (Levi, Benjamin, and Judah). After the exile of the ten Northern tribes of Israel (see 2 Kings and the prophets Jeremiah and Amos; or, click here for an in depth study), the only tribes that remained essentially took on Judah’s name, thus being named “Jews”. This is also why we read that Mordecai, from Benjamin, was called a Jew in the Book of Esther: “Now there was a Yehudi (a Jew) in Susa the citadel whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin…” (Esther 2.5).
Due to the exile of the Kingdom of Israel, the only ones that remained were the Jews. Thus, the Israelite became known as a “Jew”. A Chabad article explains this transitional period well:
“After the death of David‘s son, King Solomon, a civil dispute split the twelve tribes of Israel into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Judah in the south, which included the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (and some Levites and priests) and was centered around the capital Jerusalem and the Holy Temple; and the northern Kingdom of Israel, which included the other ten tribes. In the 5th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyrian King Sennaherib, and the ten tribes were exiled and lost. The only remaining Israelites were the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, and the term “Yehudi” or “Jew” came to refer to all the Israelites, regardless of their tribal ancestry.”
Unfortunately and inevitably, the Christians began using this recently in order to sound more “Hebraic” or “Jewish” to convert Israelites to some form of Christianity. They get this theory from what is written in their New Testament: “But He [Jesus] answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24, NKJV). The theory goes that the lost sheep “of the house of Israel” are actually the Christians. This states that the Jewish people aren’t the only people of G-d but there is a separate house that is known as Israel today. The majority of Messianic’s and Hebrew Roots believe this theory, despite evidence stating otherwise.
The fact is that the ten tribes cannot return to reclaim their title as “Israelite”, as we see in Jeremiah 3.1: “If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the Eternal One.” G-d is quoting the Torah, in Deuteronomy 24.1-4, which states:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, (2) and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, (3) and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, (4) then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Eternal One. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Eternal One your G-d is giving you for an inheritance.”
The Eternal One is saying that just as a man who divorces his wife and she marries another cannot marry the woman again, so too the ten tribes who played the harlot and went to other deities can never return to the Covenant again. What is the answer? Can they never return? Not as Israel – that is, the Ten Northern Tribes – but they can and will come through Judah and become Jews. Consider the following prophecy in Zechariah 8.23: “Thus says the Eternal One of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the tzitzit of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you.'” In other words, the Ten Tribes will return – as all the nations ultimately will – by going to the Jews and converting through them.
In conclusion, to be a Jew is synonymous to be an Israelite, despite what the Hebrew Roots and Messianic religions say. Indeed, the ten tribes of Israel can never return unless they go through the Jews, along with the rest of the nations. May this occur in our time!