The Origins of the Jewish People

All Jews are Israelites. But most Israelites are not Jews. Understanding this distinction is important to understanding some of the greatest prophecies in the Bible.
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From the January 2021 Watch Jerusalem Print Edition

The Bible is a book of prophecy. In fact, a full third of the Bible is prophecy. Most of these prophecies directly relate to the end time—to the days just before the coming of the Messiah—to the time we are living in right now!

To understand these crucial prophecies and what they mean for humanity, we have to understand the biblical identity of the world’s key nations. In his authoritative book The United States and Britain in Prophecy, the late author and educator Herbert W. Armstrong wrote: “The great world powers of our time have been, and are, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, Germany, France, and other Western European nations. The missing vital key [to understanding prophecy] is simply the identity of these great world powers in biblical prophecy!” (emphasis added).

It is a matter of simple logic: To understand end-time prophecy, we must be able to identify and connect modern nations with their biblical names.

For example, understanding the biblical identity of the German people allows us to understand the many prophecies about Germany. The same goes for Russia, Iran, China, Britain and the United States. The Bible has a lot to say about each of these nations. When you understand their biblical origins, the world around you brings the Bible to life!

When you read the Bible it is clear that it features a group of people called Israel. Other nations and peoples are mentioned, but only as they come into contact with this group, which descended from the 12 sons of Israel (originally named Jacob; Genesis 32:28).

The Bible actually gets very specific in describing the modern identity of each of these ancient tribes. Who—or where—are these 12 tribes today? This is important to know, since most of Bible prophecy is about their descendants. Genesis 49, for example, describes in detail what would “befall” each of these specific and significant populations “in the end of days(verse 1).

Today, many assume that the tribes of Israel are represented by the modern State of Israel, or by the Jewish people in general. Many hear the term Israel and simply assume the little Jewish state is comprised of the 12 tribes—or all that is left of them. But this is not an accurate understanding. In fact, the first time the word “Jew” is used in the Bible, it refers to the Jews fighting against the Israelites! (2 Kings 16:6).

So, who, exactly, are the Jews?

Israel and the Jews

The Jewish people in general are descendants of one tribe of Israel: Judah. The word “Jew” is merely a short form of the name Judah. This is even more obvious in the Hebrew language, where “Jew” is Yehudi and”Judah” is Yehuda.

Judah was one of the 12 sons of Jacob and the patriarch of just one of the 12 tribes. (There are 13 tribes if you count two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh.) This means that while all Jews are Israelites, not all Israelites are Jews. “Jews are Israelites, just as Californians are Americans,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “But most Israelites are not Jews, just as most Americans are not Californians. The Jews are the house of Judah only, a part of the Israelites” (ibid).

The Bible records that following the death of King Solomon, Judah’s descendants—along with portions of people from the tribes of Benjamin and Levi—became an entirely separate “Jewish” kingdom alongside the northern kingdom of Israel, which was comprised of the 10 tribes.

You can read about Israel’s split into two distinct kingdoms in the books of Samuel and Kings. Under David and Solomon (both of the tribe of Judah), the 12 tribes of Israel formed a united kingdom called Israel. 2 Samuel 7 records that God promised King David an everlasting throne for his faith and obedience.

Just before he died, David installed his son Solomon on the throne. King Solomon’s reign began well, but his harem of 1,000 women led him into some catastrophic paganism. By the end of his reign, Judah’s relations with its fellow tribes were severely strained. Israel’s existence as a single nation was in jeopardy.

In 1 Kings 11, God records a dramatic prophecy delivered by the Prophet Ahijah to Jeroboam, the leader of the tribe of Ephraim. “[T]hus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee—but he shall have one tribe, for My servant David’s sake, and for Jerusalem’s sake, the city which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel” (verses 31-32).

Here, God prophesied that the nation of Israel would split following King Solomon’s death. This dramatic separation is recorded in 1 Kings 12, which describes King Rehoboam’s oppression and Jeroboam’s prophesied rebellion. “And when all Israel saw that the king [Rehoboam] hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying: ‘What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse; to your tents, O Israel; now see to thine own house, David.’ So Israel departed unto their tents. … So Israel rebelled against the house of David, unto this day” (verses 16, 19).

From this moment (which occurred in the late 10th century b.c.e.), there are two distinct entities: Israel and Judah. Led by King Jeroboam i, Israel was comprised of 10 tribes. Judah was comprised mainly of the tribe of Judah, but it also included people from the neighboring tribe of Benjamin (within whose territory Jerusalem was situated) and the Levites scattered throughout the land and who migrated into Judah following the separation (2 Chronicles 11:12-14). These, therefore, became the Jews—the Jewish kingdom.

For 200 years, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah existed side by side. Although they were brother nations, relations were generally not good. In fact, for much of this history they were competitors and enemies.

In the late eighth century b.c.e., after warning Israel repeatedly through His prophets, God began to use the Assyrian Empire to punish the kingdom (Isaiah 10:5). Finally, in 721–718 b.c.e., the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered. 2 Kings 17 describes the captivity and wholesale deportation of the Israelites. “[T]he house of Israel was conquered and its people were soon driven out of their own land—out of their homes and cities—and carried captives to Assyria, on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea! And then … lost from view! … They were utterly gone!” (ibid).

But what about Judah, the Jewish people? 2 Kings 17:18 records: “[T]he Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of His sight; there was none left but the tribe of Judah only.

Judah’s Fall and Return

Unlike its brother in the north, Judah did have a few righteous kings. Thanks to these righteous leaders, the kingdom lasted some 130 years longer than Israel. However, by the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e., Judah’s sins and rebellion reached critical mass. And just as He did with Israel, God used a foreign power to punish the nation.

The first Babylonian invasion occurred in 604 b.c.e. (2 Kings 24:1-4). During this invasion, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s army gained control of the land of Judah (from this point forward, the nation’s rulers became mere puppet leaders). The second Babylonian invasion took place around 597 b.c.e., and the third and final invasion, including Jerusalem’s destruction, occurred in 586 b.c.e.

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At this moment, the kingdom of Judah ended. But unlike Israel, the people of Judah were not lost in the fog of history. In fact, the path of the Jews is relatively easy to trace. The deportation of the Jews to Babylon is plainly recorded in Scripture, as well as by secular historians and the archaeological record. We also know, from both the Bible and secular history, that a significant number of Jews were allowed to continue living in and around Jerusalem (Jeremiah 40).

In 539 b.c.e., the Babylonian Empire was dramatically conquered by Persia’s King Cyrus. The book of Ezra records that Cyrus granted the captive Jews in Babylonia permission to return to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (Ezra 1:1-4). While thousands of Jews decided to return, most chose to stay in the relatively comfortable environment under Persian rule (these people formed the early diaspora). Some theologians have speculated that people from the other 10 tribes returned to Judah with the Jews. But this is not what the Bible says.

Verse 5 reads, “Then rose up the heads of fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites ….” Clearly, those who returned to Jerusalem were from the kingdom of Judah. These people were descendants of the tribes of Judah (primarily), Levi and Benjamin. Study the books of Ezra and Nehemiah—both of which chronicle the names and genealogies of those who returned. By far the majority of those who returned were descendants of Judah.

They were Jews!

The Identifying Sign

From this point forward, both the Bible and secular history clearly chronicle the Jews’ presence again in the Holy Land, on through the Hellenistic, Maccabean and Roman periods. At this point, it’s important to ask: Why did the 10-tribed kingdom of Israel lose its identity, while the Jewish people did not?

The answer is clearly revealed in the Bible, and it revolves around the Fourth Commandment. While all of God’s commandments are important, the Sabbath command carries a special depth and meaning. Exodus 31 reveals that this particular commandment was to be a “sign” commandment: “Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations …. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever …” (verses 13, 17).

The Sabbath is a key sign identifying God’s people!

All 12 tribes of Israel were commanded to keep it. But the northern kingdom of Israel refused. In fact, one of the main reasons Israel was destroyed was because the nation rejected the Sabbath command (1 Kings 12; 2 Kings 17:21-23). By rejecting the Sabbath, they rejected the sign that separated them from other nations and identified them as God’s nation. Without the Sabbath, they became indistinguishable from other nations.

The nation of Judah wasn’t perfect in its obedience to the Sabbath. Like Israel, Judah’s poor Sabbath-keeping was linked directly to its destruction. But Judah overall was more receptive to this command. At least half of Judah’s kings were obedient to God. And as the Bible relates during the post-exilic time of Nehemiah, when the people began to defile the Sabbath, they were quickly straightened out (Nehemiah 13).

More than any other belief or practice, the Sabbath makes the Jews readily identifiable to people around the world. Of course, today not all Jews observe the Sabbath properly. But even among secular Jews, there is at the very least a recognition that this day is culturally and religiously different.

The Sabbath is often referred to as the Jew’s Sabbath. That’s not technically true. God Himself created the Sabbath, and He created it for all men. But since the Jews are the ones who keep it, that has become the title. The Sabbath is another sign identifying the Jews as the descendants of Judah.

Judah in Prophecy

Why is it important to understand that the Jews are descended from the tribe of Judah? It matters because there are literally dozens of Bible prophecies that specifically relate to Judah. And we can use these prophecies to understand trends and events—past, present and future—in the Jewish state!

Consider some key prophecies. The Bible prophesies the return of Judah’s homeland in the Middle East. This prophecy was fulfilled following the capture from the Ottoman Turks, culminating in the formation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Zechariah 14:2 contains a prophecy that the Jews would gain total control of the capital Jerusalem (a prophecy that was fulfilled in 1967)—and then lose control of half the city to the Palestinians just before the Messiah’s arrival.

Psalm 102:14-17 prophesy various archaeological endeavors in the end time, and other passages, such as Jeremiah 8:1-2, prophesy specific discoveries. Zechariah 12:3 prophesies the burdensome status of control over Jerusalem. Genesis 49:9 prophesies an original, lion-like warring spirit for the first part of the State of Israel’s existence—followed by a waning will to fight. (Recall the words of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2005: “We are tired of fighting; we are tired of being courageous; we are tired of winning; we are tired of defeating our enemies.”)

Hosea 5:13 prophesies about Judah’s failed peace process with the Palestinians. Zechariah 11:14 and Isaiah 9:20 are a couple of the many prophecies about Judah’s relationship with the United States and Britain—but the Bible gets even more specific, describing the relationship with various U.S. presidents, such as Donald Trump (2 Kings 14:23-28).

Genesis 49:8 and Daniel 11 prophesy the various threats Judah would face from surrounding Middle Eastern nations—and while identifying Iran (Daniel 11:40), the Bible specifies an even more dangerous Middle Eastern alliance for the Jewish state to beware of (Psalm 83:1-9). Passages such as Ezekiel 23 and Daniel 11:41 prophesy Judah’s misplaced trust in a German-led European power, which will infiltrate and double-cross the nation just prior to the coming of the Messiah.

Finally, numerous passages, such as Zechariah 14:3-9, prophesy the salvation of Judah and all Israel by the Messiah, sitting on the throne of David in Jerusalem.

When you understand that Judah refers prophetically to the Jewish state, prophecies come alive!

As Mr. Armstrong concluded the first chapter of The United States and Britain in Prophecy: “[A]pproximately 90 percent of all prophecy pertains to our time, now …. It is a warning to us—to our English-speaking peoples—of immediate life-and-death import. The prophecies come alive once their doors are opened by this now discovered master key! This book will open, to open minds, this hitherto closed vital third of all the Bible. No story of fiction ever was so strange, so fascinating, so absorbing, so packed with interest and suspense, as this gripping story of our identity—and our ancestry.

“Through it Almighty God gives momentous warning! Those who read, and heed, may be spared unprecedented cataclysmic tragedy soon to strike. If our peoples and their governments will awaken, heed, and return to their living God, then our nations may be spared. God help us to understand!”

Look at how many extraordinary prophecies are unlocked when you understand that the Jews are descended from Judah. And modern-day Judah is just one tribe—one nation among many today. Even more, many more dramatic and relevant prophecies come alive when you understand the biblical identities of other nations and peoples. In future issues, we will study the modern identities of Britain, America, France, Germany and many others.

Click here to request your free copy of The United States and Britain in Prophecy.

In the meantime, be sure to request and read The United States and Britain in Prophecy, by Herbert Armstrong. Together with the Bible, this groundbreaking book forms the foundation of our understanding of the origins of nations. This book will not only unlock your understanding of Bible prophecy, it will unlock the world around you and help you make sense of these dramatic and uncertain times.