Who is Israel?

June 9, 2014 | 22 comments
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When teaching Institute recently to a class of LDS students in our ward, I used the term ‘Latter-day Israel’ and met with a surprised silence: they had never heard the term. Yet, all of them were second generation members, born and raised in the church and thoroughly schooled in whatever the church had thrown at them, several had performed a mission and as university students (most of them) they had read their church books. Being a convert member now for almost 50 years, I suddenly realized how much the discourse on Israel had changed in the church. Maybe this is just a Dutch or European phenomenon, but neither do we produce our own lesson materials, nor do we produce our own gospel discourse, so I do not assume it is. In effect, this demise of the Latter-day Israel discourse highlights the changed notions on descent and race that Armand Mauss analyzed so well in All Abraham’s Children. We transformed from an ethnic church into a worldwide one, a process that is still ongoing: the ‘us’ is no longer based on descent.

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, hands crossed, and adopts them as sons

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, hands crossed, and adopts them as sons

Again – my dominant theme in this series of blogs on the Old Testament – we as LDS reflect older dynamics in salvation history. When reading the Old Testament we encounter the same question ‘Who is Israel’, but as it is couched in different terms, we do not recognize it easily, even though it is in fact a debate informing much of the Old Testament. In order to understand the debate we have to start from the notion, expounded in my last blogs, that two happenings produced the Old Testament, the split between Israel and Judah after Salomon, plus the major trauma of the Babylonian Exile. When the small band of Yehudi’s came back from Babylonian captivity, they found Samaria as a flourishing vassal state to Persia, and had to redefine their relationship with them. After all, Samaria was not a foreign state, they were a brother-population. They offered their help, also in the temple project. In a second remigration wave, Nehemiah, of royal descent, was appointed by Artaxerxes as governor of the small Judean vassal state; he first built the walls of Jerusalem and was later joined by Ezra, of priestly descent. For reasons that are not completely clear the two of them made the decision that the people from Samaria were not the true ‘sons of Jacob’, accusing the latter of idolatry, apostasy and religious syncretism. The Samaritan offer to help with the rebuilding of the Second Temple was consequently turned down, the reading of the Torah was initiated (that was new, the Torah as such did not exist before exile) and a major purification movement took place; all men-of-proper-descent who wanted to belong to the Second Temple community were even obliged to divorce their ‘foreign’ wives. Quite heavy-handed.

This way the problem of pre-exilic Israel was continued and intensified, the split between Judah and Israel. For Samaria was to all external measures populated by true Israelites, in fact the descendants of Joseph. They were Josephites, through Ephraim and Manasseh, and considered themselves true sons of Jacob. They had their own shrines of YHWH, kept the law of Moses, were monotheistic, kept their Sabbath strictly, circumcised the boys as they should, and refrained from making images. Nothing wrong there. They were the remnant of the old Northern Kingdom; the Assyrians had abducted a lot, especially from the other tribes, but Ephraim and Manasseh were still there. For our salvation history, that is the reason why Lehi and his group counted the same ancestors, Lehi from Ephraim and Ishmael through Manasseh. So after the abductions by the Assyrians there were in fact just a few tribes over from the original 12, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Judah with a smattering of Benjamin. The number of 12 had become mythical.

Unity in faith: Abraham as ancestor to all people of faith

Unity in faith: Abraham as ancestor to all people of faith

This is the rift that generated and informed a lot of text in the Old Testament. The clearest is this in the book of Numbers, one we have passed through in the recent Sunday School classes. We zoomed in on Balaam, with very good reason. But Numbers is a fascinating book anyway, if only because of all those numbers. Israel is counted over and again, and counting in the Old Testament is never a neutral activity: when David in 2 Samuel 24 holds a census, he is severely punished by the Lord through a plague that costs Israel 70.000 lives! Yet in Numbers Israel is counted seven times: in chapter 1 for military might, in 2 for temple arrangements, in 7 for temple gifts, in 10 for marching order, in 13 for delegates in the reconnaissance of the promised land, in 26 a general census again after a plague, and finally in 34 for the allotment of land. No other book in the bible is so besotted with numbers. The message, as always, is not in the actual numbers, as the figures of the total population of Israel are way out of the realm of the possible: 603.550 men at arms, meaning a total population of over 2 million people! In that desert? No way. So the message is elsewhere, and seems easy: seven times they counted twelve tribes (though the number of 12 is arrived at in varying ways). The book is a constant testimony that Israel had 12 tribes, a message hammered in seven times, another sacred number. Numbers shouts from its pages the subtext of the covenant, i.e. that Israel is one, twelve-in-one.

The question is why this message had to be broadcast so loudly. Here the blessings by Balaam give a clue: he mentions two names, Jacob and Israel, which could be read as synonyms, but not exactly are. The reference is Jacob’s blessings of his sons, especially those of Judah and Joseph, texts that are also important in LDS theology, Genesis 49:22: Joseph as a fruitful bough with branches running over the wall. I remember well the missionaries citing this verse to me, now 50 years ago! Balaam uses the same words but with a twist: all blessings of Judah and Joseph now pertain to the whole of Israel, the undivided sons of Jacob. The hidden message beneath the counting is the unity of Israel, which in the 6-5th century means: Judah and Joseph are one. Set within the situation of return sketched above, the relevance of this message becomes clear: it is a hidden protest against the exclusivity of Nehemiah and Ezra. They are the ones who divide a people that should be – for had been – one.

Speaking is the community of scholars known as the priestly editors, P in the DH, which spanned priests from Samaria and from Judah, who must have been one scholarly community, not happy at all with the situation. Their school had been supremely important in fashioning the Pentateuch as we know it; in Numbers they handled a J (Yahwist) history, but in such a way that their editorial agenda shone through: ‘We were one! We should be one.’ Samaria considered itself as a faithful Israelite community and with good reason, they probably were. When snubbed by Ezra, the Samaritans built (or enlarged) their own temple, on Mount Gerizim near Shechem, a place that already enjoyed a long sacred history rivaling that of Jerusalem. How deep the rivalry between the two places of worship was, is testified by the destruction of Gerizim by the Maccabean dynasty in the 2nd century BC; the voice of Gerizim had to be muted, and was silenced, attested by the almost complete absence of the place in the New Testament. Almost complete, because indirectly Jesus acknowledges the special position of the area. In John 4 Jesus is at this holy place, and it is here that he, referring to the mountain (vs 21), for the first time announces his messiah-hood. To a Samaritan woman, at the Gerizim! The name itself is carefully edited away. How many have heard of Gerizim today?

So the Book of Numbers contains a subtly worded protest against the exclusivist policy of Ezra, against the narrow definition of who belonged to the covenant. It would be none other than Jesus who broke open this fundamentalist definition between ‘us’ and the ‘other’ inside the sons of Jacob – the parable of the Good Samaritan has a deep history – later extrapolated by Paul who would extend the realm of salvation way beyond this ethnic boundary.

The inside of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, easily the most contested place on earth

The inside of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, easily the most contested place on earth

As LDS we went through the same process, defining ourselves first as Latter-day Israel, but then mainly through Ephraim. So we in a way defined ourselves as Samaritans, the ‘other Israel’, with another sacred place, another Zion. Shunned by the Christians of Jerusalem orientation, we have developed our own Gerizim, our temple. Our fellow Christians found their temple in the Script, and focused on Jerusalem, while we built a rival to the city of David. Though we did and do count ourselves as fellow Christians, this was often to no avail, and we keep hankering after ‘their’ recognition. Against exclusivist official definitions of who was the ‘proper son of Jacob’, the priestly editors tried to unify the sons of Jacob in joint worship, trying to expand the covenant to the widest possible circle. We have done the same in our own short history: starting out with the notion of “Latter-day Israel’, centering on Ephraim, we widened the circle to non-Europeans for whom this putative ancestry (or adoption) carried little meaning. I know that African converts are often irked by notion of belonging to the tribe of Ephraim, as they have already a tribe! So this discourse has gone, like I noticed in my Institute class, lingering on as a survival in patriarchal blessings. But it is hardly ever mentioned and for good reason, descent belongs to a different period.

The third voice, again, is highly informative. Ultimately the Priestly School failed in its quest against the dominant rulers, despite the great theological and literary skills these scholars brought to their cause, for the fundamentalists of the Ezra persuasion would win out for the time being. I think we see the same tension is present again, between the accommodators and exclusivists, a dynamic playing out right in front of us. Probably we need both; the priestly community produced a major part of the Pentateuch, while the exclusivists did preserve the cult, rebuilt the temple, read the Torah – as largely produced by their opponents! – and defined and perpetuated Judaism up to the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. From the first, the liberals, the inspiration, from the second, the orthodox, the continuity.

22 Responses to Who is Israel?

  1. Niklas on June 9, 2014 at 9:01 am

    I’m surprised. It is really astonishing that the concept of ‘Latter-day Israel’ was completely unfamiliar to your students. I’m sure here in Finland Institute students had no problems understanding that (saying that as an Institute student myself).

  2. Roger on June 9, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Thank you, Walter. This piece ties a lot of disparate notions together for me.

  3. Nathan Whilk on June 9, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Many of the references to “latter-day Israel” on lds.org seem to be fairly recent.

  4. Rachel Whipple on June 9, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Walter, this is fascinating. Thank you so much for giving context to these books. There is a lot of insight one can glean through a close reading of the text, but this extratextual information shines a lot of light on passages that are otherwise opaque.

  5. Wilfried on June 9, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Thanks, Walter. Comparison with the present is always fascinating. ” From the first, the liberals, the inspiration, from the second, the orthodox, the continuity”…

    The reference to Israel in our present rhetoric remains a dual matter, sometimes problematic with its connection to literal bloodlines. I referred to it in this post.

    But you provide some extra and excellent background in the biblical historic context.

  6. DQ on June 9, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    I’ve thought it was always taught that anyone baptized, becomes part of Israel, and thus an heir to the blessings (and responsibility that comes with being counted among the seed of) of Abraham. Granted, it’s a relatively obscure teaching, but it comes up in the normal cycle. I think with virtually any gospel topic that you focus on, you’re likely to learn something new, especially, if you haven’t been as “focused” in the last 4 years or so (which is the case for most young adults)

  7. Wilfried on June 9, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    DQ (6), in Preach My Gospel, there is not one word about becoming part of Israel through baptism. The word “Israel” is not even in the index. No word about Abraham and his seed either. Could it be that this avoidance is deliberate? It would be kind of significant.

  8. Dan Ellsworth on June 9, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    This is one of my favorite posts in a long time…probably since your last one. I have a persistent feeling that we as a faith are due for a full reckoning with the DH at some point just like we are currently reckoning with other issues. When we do, I think our faith will emerge leaner and much stronger. I am in the middle of a marathon study of the DH, and I appreciate these insights, especially about Samaria.

  9. Abu Casey on June 10, 2014 at 1:43 am

    Interesting. I hadn’t heard the argument about Numbers as a counter-argument to Ezra-Nehemiah’s reforms. I’ve read a bit about the DH but haven’t come across it yet–where have you found it?

  10. Frank McIntyre on June 10, 2014 at 7:04 am

    Gospel Principles discusses becoming part of the House of Israel and the Abrahamic covenant. We had that lesson on Sunday. So new members should still hear about it, even if not as often as they once did.

  11. Walter van Beek on June 10, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    Abu: The best study on the priestly books, to date, to my view, is that of Mary Douglas ‘Jacob’s Tears. The Priestly Work of Reconciliation’, Oxford UP 2004. As an anthropologist maybe I feel drawn to her argument, but I do not know any other scholar who has gone as deeply into the politcial-religious connections of the Priestly Period, just after return from Exile, as she has done. I will be using her argument later for Leviticus as well.
    (6) and (9)The Abrahamic covenant lesson does not necessarily use the term Latter-day Israel. As Wilfried stipulates ‘Preach My Gospel’ does not mention it, and when you go through the General Conference talks there is very little on it. And for new members these are the important feeds.
    But for the general shift from the ethnic definition of Israel Armand Mauss’ book has been clear already. One has to bear in mind that in the church doctrines never are done away officially, but when not suitable any more, they are gradually ignored; like old soldiers, they just fade away. That did not succeed with the race issue, obviously, but it does work with many other issues that were very important in the 19th century and are not so any more: gathering for instance – here the meaning is even almost completely reversed.

  12. BevP on June 10, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    When I received my patriarchal blessing, 50+ years ago now, my parents were scandalized that I had been called an Israelite. I’d never quite realized how anti-semitic their thinking was. No amount of discussion about multiple lines into the distant past was effective in soothing the pique.

    I have been asking the patriarchs I am fortunate enough to know whether they feel that the importance of lineage assignment is retrospective, ie literal through one ancestral line or another, or prospective, related to blessings yet to come, blessings that will flow out of the blessings given to the original sons of Israel. Any thoughts out there?

  13. Dan Ellsworth on June 10, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    There are a lot of people in the world for whom the idea of adopted Israelite lineage is so strange that it probably constitutes a stumbling-block to their acceptance of the Gospel. I view it as an outdated teaching we will need to do away with if we want to reach a significant number of the world’s population.

  14. maybe anon on June 10, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks for the OP.

    As I have read the post and responses, something came to mind. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal to us currently, or a stumbling block to those looking to join the church, but from own experiences it matters in some way. I was prompted to ask for a second blessing, and when I got around to following up on that prompting my linege ended up being changed. Who knows? It might in fact matter, only we might not be giving it the thought it deserves.

  15. Abu Casey on June 10, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks! I’ll check it out.

  16. SteveF on June 10, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Dan Ellsworth #13.

    I don’t really understand how you can believe that without throwing out almost the entirety of the Book of Mormon, which has an almost universal theme of the scattering of Israel and eventual gathering of Israel in the last days.

    I can hardly think of a theme more significant in building the Kingdom of God on earth and the eventual establishment of Zion, which is the culminating work of the restored Church of Christ that will tie together all things in one in Christ.

  17. Walter van Beek on June 11, 2014 at 2:50 am

    (16) Steve, I think the BoM has a lot more messages than the scattering and eventual gathering of Israel, even if it is an important theme. But then, the BoM is set in a setting within the Israelite heritage, so such a theme is quite probable. The whole notion of the DH, or the third voice as I call it, is to assess the messages of Script by taking into account the conditions of the genesis of the text, and not to read it a priori as a universal, global and eternal message. Reading Script means re-creating its message, also through historical understanding of the conditions of writing.
    (12) Ben: the patriarchs I spoke were divided. As stake president (some time ago) I had to read the blessings and was struck by the variety of their implied meanings, even from the same patriarch, usually moving into – or easily translatable as – promised blessings, future oriented
    (13) Dan. I agree that within a global church such a harking back to an old lineage system is a counterproductive discourse; but, I think that the discourse is fading out; it will not be discarded completely and officially, simply because it is indeed ingrained in the restoration, Steve’s (16) remark makes that clear. This is exactly my motivation for these blogs: we as a church would solve quite a few problems if we acknowledged the third voice and thus gained another dimensions in understanding and interpreting the texts.

  18. Dan Ellsworth on June 11, 2014 at 7:21 am

    SteveF (16),
    If I were to create a list of important, salvific themes in the Book of Mormon, none of them would have anything to do with lineages or the destiny of the house of Israel. I believe it is possible for someone to enjoy all of the blessings of the Gospel without knowing a thing about lineages of any kind. Those teachings are exclusivist relics of times past, when lineages and race were given more significance than they deserved due to the widespread acceptance of the young-earth interpretation of the Bible.
    I agree with John the Baptist: “…I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham…”

  19. Steve Smith on June 11, 2014 at 8:54 am

    An intriguing post. To answer the question who is Israel, I got the sense growing up that this wasn’t an extremely relevant or important question. If anything it seemed to be a negotiation around the idea of a chosen people and the emphasis on the idea that we have equality of opportunity before God. None of us will be shortchanged of the opportunity to enter into covenants and be saved. Of course, when it comes to patriarchal blessings, I know that many LDS people get this idea that the tribal lineage is literal and try to reconstruct human history based on which tribe is stated in people’s blessings. Many become quite fascinated with and speculative about human history upon hearing that the patriarchal blessings “reveal” many in Armenia to be from the tribe of Dan or the people in Mongolia to be from a number of tribes. To parse out the genetic lines of humans, we have DNA studies, which are far more consistent, and probably accurate, than patriarchal blessings. As far as I can tell, the genetic literalness of tribe is not doctrinal. In fact, it would best be interpreted as a symbolic assignment of tribe.

  20. SteveF on June 11, 2014 at 10:13 am

    “I believe it is possible for someone to enjoy all of the blessings of the Gospel without knowing a thing about lineages of any kind.”

    I think I agree with this.

    “…I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham…”

    And I most definitely agree with the point being made there. My belief though, kind of in line with the OP, is that our teachings on the House of Israel with shift away from 12 specific lineages and more to seeing the House of Israel as a whole, with Ephraim representing the whole of the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom, and the Jews representing the Southern Kingdom, eventually to become one Kingdom and one unified whole of the House of Israel, with all the righteous who accept the gospel to eventually be numbered among the House of Israel.

    So I where I seem to disagree with you and possibly Walter, is that I do not believe this will fade from our future discourse, or if it does in the short term I don’t think it will in the long term; rather I see it becoming an increasingly important part of our teachings. I believe this is necessary to fulfill the prophesies made and the framework that the BofM (and Joseph Smith in other teachings) gives to the last days.

    I do think that some of the silly speculations that go around, like Steve Smith alludes to in #19, are fading out and will continue to fade from our cultural beliefs/discussion. But I believe the doctrine of the House of Israel in the last days is too integral to prophesy and the purpose and destiny of the restoration, to be left behind in whole.

    Without taking to much time, my summary list of primary themes of the Book of Mormon goes something like:
    1. Salvation and redemption through Jesus Christ
    2. through the gospel of Jesus Christ – faith in Christ, repentance, baptism, reception of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.
    3. The Book of Mormon was compiled and abridged to come forth to the world in the last days – for the people of the last days – to convince them that Jesus is the Christ.
    4. The coming forth of the BoM signals the commencement of the restoration, and the fulfilling of the covenants and promises God made to Israel.
    5. The gospel will first go to the gentiles, and then to the House of Israel.
    6. The larger part of the gentiles will reject the gospel, Israel will be gathered out of every nation, kindred, tongue and people due to the work of the restoration that will stand as an ensign to the nations, and any remaining righteous gentiles will be numbered among the House of Israel
    7. and together/united they will establish Zion in preparation for the second coming of Christ

    In short summary, it is about Christ and His gospel, and extending the covenants made to Israel to all who are righteous gathering/grafting them in with the House of Israel, that as prophesied, through Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Take away the teachings of the House of Israel, and the prophesies of BoM and the self-stated purpose and role the BoM in those prophesies becomes largely meaningless, imo.

    As my final thought, aside from many prophesies and teachings on the subject throughout the BoM, consider also the following teachings:

    “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” (AoF 10)

    “Q. What are we to understand by the angel ascending from the east, Revelation 7th chapter and 2nd verse?
    A. We are to understand that the angel ascending from the east is he to whom is given the seal of the living God over the twelve tribes of Israel; wherefore, he crieth unto the four angels having the everlasting gospel, saying: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads. And, if you will receive it, this is Elias which was to come to gather together the tribes of Israel and restore all things.” (D&C 77:9, also see verse 11)

    “the Holy Ghost falls upon one of the literal seed of Abraham, it is calm and serene; … while the effect of the Holy Ghost upon a Gentile, is to purge out the old blood, and make him actually of the seed of Abraham. That man that has none of the blood of Abraham (naturally) must have a new creation by the Holy Ghost” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 149­-150)

  21. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 11, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    The title page of the Book of Mormon, written by Moroni, states that it was prepared to teach both Jews (Israelites) and Gentiles about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fulfill the promises God had made to the descendants of Israel. That theme is prominent in the many passages that Nephi quotes from Isaiah, about God fulfilling his promises to Israel. If your Institute students are not familiar with the concept of Israel being a living entity populated by people who belong to tribes, either by ancestry or adoption, then they are not reading the Book of Mormon often enough.

    For anyone in Europe especially, the idea that they might have actual ancestors from among Israel should not be a surprise. Repeatedly over time, persecution of Jews has waxed or waned, and there have been incentives for Jews to convert to Christianity, from the subtle to the explicit, such as the decree of 1492 in Spain that all Jews must either convert to Christianity or leave the country. The number who chose to convert and stay was substantial. One evidence of it is that a DNA study a couple of years ago found that the Cohen gene, on the Y chromosome that is passed down from father to son, and has been strongly associated with ancestry from the Tribe of Levi, was found in as many as 20% of the men in Spain and Portugal! Many people who have considered their families to be Christian for generations have discovered that they carry a genetic anomaly that causes disease, that is identified with Jewish ancestry. One of Hugh Nibley’s great-grandfather’s was the first Jewish convert to the LDS Church. One of the ancestors on my direct line of grandfathers was Jewish.

    Back in the First Century, it is estimated that about 6 million Jews lived within the Roman Empire. Yet two centuries later, the number of Jews in the Empire had fallen to a million. Where did they go? There was no widespread persecution of Jews. I suggest the most obvious answer is that many of them converted to Christianity, and they became ancestors to the many Christians in Europe. It would be remarkable if anyone of European descent today does NOT have at least one Jewish ancestor.

  22. Walter van Beek on June 12, 2014 at 5:21 am

    When teaching the anthropology of kinship I started with pointing out, as a thought experiment, that we might all are related to each other through Charlemain: with 2 parents, 4 grandparents etc etc, by the ninth century our ancestry would comprise the whole world population, so also Charlemain. Of course that is thwarted by intermarriage, i.e. by marrying essentially with a kinsman/woman, which we al do. Yes, we all are related, and DNA research has shown, as I recall, that the great majority of the world population can find an ancestor with a specific other person within the last 17.000 years (except for the Bushmen-like groups, where it extends over 100 K y). For the human species 17.000 years ago is like the day before yesterday.
    And for Europe, yes we have heavily intermingled, and the more the better! Raymond (21) cites the Jews, and it probably also holds for Ephraim, not just through ‘lost tribes’ but much more through the Northern Kingdom, and Samaria. After all, the lineage most cited is Ephraim.
    Also, I agree with SteveF (20) that the BoM holds a recurrent theme of Israel redivivus; I do like his list of priorities in the BoM. With Steve Smith (19) I see the lineage assignment as symbolic, leading to a type of blessing. Theologically the quandary is always between election and universality; with an expanding and internationalizing church the gradual shift focus towards the latter is almost a given.
    My point in the blog is that this same discussion is age old, was important in early post-exilic times, and even was a major source for the writing and editing of the Pentateuch. What we are discussing right now, is essentially a replay of the issue. In their case the question hinged on who is Israel, in our day and age it is the discourse on (Latter-day) Israel compared with the discourse on redemption, atonmenent and conversion. Which one is dominant? Compare the present day GA talks on this topic, with the writings of Brigham Young , and I do think a major shift is clear. Enfin, read Mauss on this. Hearing about Latter-day Israel was inescapable in 19th century Utah (Deseret), and is quite ‘escapable’ now. Maybe the discourse will have to be revived as (19) thinks, but I doubt it. Any privileging of descent lines, however symbolical, raises more questions in a worldwide church than it solves, and I do think a fading away of this discourse is to be expected, timely and right. But again, In this very debate we find ourselves back over two millennia ago, in an age where Scriptures were produced – and we are, again, in a scripture producing era.

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