A Brief Look at Jewish History: An Introduction


Recently I was invited to attend a Christian Leadership Seminar at Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, Research, and Education Center.  I spent over a week with 25 other Christian pastors and ministry leaders studying Antisemitism and the Holocaust.  In addition, I am taking classes through Israel College of the Bible, where study has focused on the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.  I am finding a great foundation upon which to understand how Christians should rightly relate to God’s chosen people.

Of course, that leads to my desire to share it! Sometimes it is difficult to know where to start!  However, if we don’t know how Judaism started and on what foundation it sits, it is difficult to know how to relate.  So, over the next few days I want to provide a brief (far from comprehensive!) look at Jewish history.

Two-Pronged Identity

What does it mean to be Jewish?  Does that refer to one’s nationality, or to one’s religion?  Well, it seems to encompass both.  Some Jews might identify from a nationalistic perspective, some might identify from a religious perspective, and some might identify by both.  To understand, let’s think about two major covenants: God’s covenant with Abraham and God’s covenant with Moses.

In Genesis 12 we read about God’s covenant with Abram (later renamed “Abraham”), which startes:

Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

The Abrahamic covenant is the focus of many an entire Bible study, but that is not practical for a single blog post!  So, suffice it to say that the covenant with Abraham promised land and descendants (among other things).  Later on, we learn that the sign of this covenant is circumcision.

Thus, this covenant established a national identity for the Jews.  They would live in a certain land, and populate that land with descendants.  Though we know much happened to disrupt that plan, land and descendants still became the basis for national identity of the Jews.

Now fast forward to the days of Moses.  You will recall that the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt when God called Moses to deliver them back to the Land of Promise.  While in the wilderness, God summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai where, in Exodus 20, God gave the law to Moses in the form of the Ten Commandments written on stone.  Again, time and space prohibit all the details here, but know that, as God made a covenant with Moses, He gave him the law written on tablets of stone.  The law was to bring about a holy people…and in so doing, gave the Jews a religious identity.

A mixed multitude came out of Egypt, so this was not a nationalistic movement.  Anyone who accepted the law at Sinai was considered a Jew.

After 40 years of wondering in the wilderness, Moses led the people to the border of the Promised Land.  They would soon be home again, in a land that belonged to them!  When Joshua led them into the Promised Land, the two identities began to merge together.  Some Jews identified from a religious standpoint, some identified from a nationalistic standpoint.  Many identified from both a religious and a nationalistic standpoint.

Indeed, Jewish identity is two-pronged: national and religious.  You’ll see more importance to that as I share in coming days.  However, there is one other thought about God’s covenants that is interesting to consider: As God’s covenants progressed, they focused more and more on human responsibility:

  • God’s covenant with Noah: God did it all!
  • God’s covenant with Abraham: God initiated it, but Abraham and his descendants were to perform the sign.
  • God’s covenant with Moses: the people were responsible to keep the law.

It seems that God chose to make it more and more obvious that, in humanness, none of us are capable of holding up our end of the bargain!  Interestingly, God sent that message via covenants with His people, the Jews!

We’ve only scratched the surface, so stay with us over the next several days as we discover more about Jewish history and its impact on Christianity.

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