TW Viewpoint | Was Moses Jewish?

March 21, 2018 | Michael Heykoop

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The story of Moses leading his people through the Red Sea is one of the most familiar stories in Western Society. It is foundational to two of the most influential religions on earth, Judaism and Christianity. However, one must pause and ask—Was Moses Really Jewish?

Certain aspects of this epic tale, the Ten plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and Moses descending from the top of Mount Sinai with tablets of stone etched with the Ten Commandments in hand, are familiar details for most. However, if you were to read through the account of the Exodus in the King James version of the Bible you may be surprised to find one term missing. The word Jew along with Jews, or Jewish, is nowhere to be found in the book of Exodus. This leaves us with our initial question-Was Moses Jewish?

In searching for an answer, we must first ask the question-What Is a Jew? While this can be a hotly debated topic, we'll divide it into the two primary categorizations. Jew can refer to both an ethnic group and to a religion. While the two are not mutually exclusive, I must point out that they are not co-dependent either. There are many Jews who consider themselves Jews by way of heritage and birth, but have no hesitation when it comes to eating bacon or working on the Sabbath-they are not observant of the religion bearing the name Jewish, some going so far as to reject religion altogether. Conversely, there are many out there who have no history of Judaism in their family, yet have converted to the Jewish faith. Let's look at these two items-ethnicity and religion and see where Moses may fit.

Ethnicity: At first this may seem quite straightforward-of course Moses was a Jew. You may even answer my earlier statement that the book of Exodus does not use the word Jew by stating that Jew and Israelite are synonymous. Perhaps we could go with that, were the King James Version never to use the term Jew. However, it does. This may come as a surprise, the first use of the term Jew comes from the book of 2nd Kings where it reads: "Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to war: and they besieged Ahaz, but could not overcome him. At that time Rezin king of Syria recovered Elath to Syria, and drave the Jews from Elath; and the Syrians came to Elath, and dwelt there unto this day" (2 Kings, 16:5-6, KVJ)

Jew and Israelite cannot be synonymous if they were at war with each other! What is going on here? According to the Bible, the ancient nation of Israel consisted of 12 territorial tribes as well as a 13th tribe which served as priests throughout the nation. These 13 tribes were named for eleven sons of their patriarch Jacob, with the greater allotment for Jacob's favourite son Joseph being divided between Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Judah-from which we get the term Jew-was only one of these tribes and Moses was not of the tribe of Judah, but of the priestly tribe of Levi.

These tribes were first united under a central monarchy by King Saul who was then succeeded by David and then Solomon. After Solomon's death, when their request for tax reform was rejected, ten of the tribes separated themselves into what scripture calls The House of Israel. The tribe of Judah along with Benjamin and many of the Levites formed The House of Judah. It is in this context that we see the House of Israel-the Israelites-at war with the House of Judah-the Jews. Eventually, the House of Israel was deported by the Assyrians. You can learn more about what happened to these tribes by viewing this three-part series of Tomorrow's World telecasts. However, the tribe of Judah, and those who joined themselves to Judah became known as Jews. While Moses was a Levite, the Levites are never referred to as Jews until after this separation of Israel and Judah, several hundred years after the Exodus.

Ethnically, Moses was NOT a Jew!

What about religiously? Of course he is; he implemented the faith given to him by God on the top of Mount Sinai-didn't he? This faith is what gave rise to the faith called Judaism today. While many view the events at Mount Sinai as the establishment of Judaism, it is important to note that many of the laws given at Sinai had already been established earlier in Scripture and that much of what is today considered Jewish law, such as the Talmud, was established long after Sinai.

A 2015 article in The Jerusalem Post asks the same questions we are evaluating today-Was Moses Jewish? It's conclusion is given in the opening line: "Well, according to the Orthodox Rabbinout in Israel, the answer is: 'Definitely not'"

The article's conclusion: "Moses is not aware of modern traditions, Moses did not study even a little bit of the Talmud, Moses did not acknowledge or accept rabbinical authority...Well, it's clear: Moses was NOT a Jew."

To define the codification of the law which took place at Sinai as the establishment of Judaism and to declare Judaism as the religion of the Old Testament is to restrict the many pre-existing laws as applying to Judaism rather than the universal laws they really are.

Genesis 2 verses 2 and 3 record the creation of the Sabbath day, long before "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy" was etched on a tablet of stone. Genesis 7 verse 2 makes clear that Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean animals, long before the Torah was written. When blessing Abraham in Genesis 26, God outlines several reasons for lavishing such abundant blessings on him. Why, "because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (vs 5). All this, before the existence of the first Jew!

So, was Moses Jewish? He was not Jewish ethnically or religiously.

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