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Mar 21 2013

Who are the Jews and the 12 tribes of Israel

There is confusion as to who the Jewish people are with respect to biblical accounts. Today when we use the word “Jew” or Jewish,” we are not necessarily using the term in the same way that is used in the Word of God. The Word of God does not use the term “Jews” to refer to the 12 tribes of Israel.

Prior to 722 B.C., the word “Jew” had a much more narrow meaning. It referred to the members of the tribe of Judah or those from the Kingdom of Judaea. Today, the word Jew refers to people who follow the Jewish faith, Judaism. When Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31), Abraham and his descendants were known as Hebrews (Genesis 14:13), not Jews. Abraham fathered Isaac and Isaac fathered Jacob. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (Genesis 32:28; 46:1). Ever since, Israel’s (Jacob’s) descendants were known as the children of Israel, Israel or Israelites, not Jews. Jacob had 12 sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin). The descendants of Jacob’s 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel.

After the Israelites had invaded Canaan, they were ruled by kings Saul, David and then Solomon. After King Solomon’s death the Israelite kingdom was split into two, Israel in the north and Judaea in the south (1 Kings 12:2, 2 Chronicles 10). The southern kingdom consisted of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and part of Levi which became the nation of Judaea. Despite being taken into captivity, they did not lose their identity unlike the northern kingdom. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and the inhabitants were exiled. Those of the northern kingdom that were exiled lost their national identity as they assimilated (2 Kings 17). They are now known as the “Ten lost tribes of Israel.” Prior to the exile, those descended from the tribe of Judah or the people from the land of Judaea were known as Jews, the others were Israelites.

After King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonian invaded Judah, Jerusalem was destroyed. After the Persians conquered Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return. Many returned to Judah. It was after the Babylonian exile that the word “Jew” replaced the word “Israelite” as the term for these people that survived. After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judaea was ruled by the several different groups, Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. Despite the terms “Hebrew” and “Israelite” being used in the New Testament (Romans 9:4, 2 Corinthians 11:22), the term Jew was more common such as the Romans referring to Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).

Today, the word “Jew” is used to refer to the descendants of Abraham who follow Judaism or those that have converted to Judaism. The 12 tribes followed the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob but were not known as Jews. That only came after the Diaspora (the scattering into the Babylonian exile). The word “Jew” did not denote the faith of the people as it does today. Today the word “Jew” denotes those who practice or follow Judaism.

Photo Credit: Pixabay.com

This post is adapted from an answer written for GotQuestions.org

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  1. Ed

    Thank you for this post Tishrei.

    This can be a very confusing topic. Abraham, who is known as the “father of the Jews”, was as you mention a Chaldean who lived way before the word Jew was first used in the Bible, so that causes confusion.

    Also, the term Jew in modern times causes confusion because people often use the term not strictly to refer to people whose faith is Judaism, but to denote a person’s nationality and/or ethnic background.

    Oy vey :)

  2. Pat

    Hello Tishrei,very good information I did enjoy the read,I hope you’re having a good day on the Farm LOL!!
    Love ya :-)

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