It has been more than 500 years since Christopher Columbus mistakenly identified the indigenous peoples of the Americas as “Indians”, and yet that name has remained the popular collective label for the many hundreds of nations more accurately identified by their own names, such as Arawak, Pequot, Lakota, Yaqui, Quechua, and Navajo. Many of these nations have ceased to exist, the victims of disease, war, enslavement, and cultural genocide. Others have come into existence as dispersed and diminished peoples have merged to make new nations. Still others have persisted in their identity to this day, enduring beyond hope as distinct peoples. All of those things describe the Seminole Nation, which now resides in the states of Oklahoma and Florida. The Seminoles did not become a distinct people until late in the 18th century, when remnants of the Muskogee (Creek) and other peoples of Florida and what is now Georgia and Alabama combined to form a new nation. The Spanish called them cimarrones, meaning runaways, or free people. This term referred to the fact that the tribe included many escaped slaves, both African and Native American, who had joined with others from broken, scattered tribes. In the Muskogee tongue, cimarrones became semulon-e, and eventually Seminole.
This people who originally were not a people soon developed a strong sense of national identity which compelled them to resist all efforts to conquer them. They fought against the Spanish, the English, the Creeks, and, inevitably, the Americans. Three bitter wars from 1817 to 1858 left the Seminole Nation broken and divided, but still unconquered. Most of the surviving Seminoles were removed by the United States government to Oklahoma, but a remnant remained in the swamps of southwestern Florida, where they remain to this day. The Florida Seminoles are unique among Native American peoples in that they alone have never signed a treaty of peace with the United States. Those who were removed to Oklahoma may have agreed to peace with the U.S., but they maintained a fierce independence in their new land. Efforts to integrate them into the Creek Nation of Oklahoma met with determined resistance. In time the Seminole remnant in Oklahoma reestablished their tribal identity, and today exist as a separate and distinct nation.
It may come as a surprise, but the greatest story in the Bible is about a nation created from a people who were not a people. The tale begins with the account of Joseph and his brothers, but the story as yet has no ending.
The Torah portion VaYigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) is the long-awaited reunion of Jacob’s family. It begins with the account of Judah approaching Joseph to explain that their father Jacob had believed for many years that Joseph was dead. Of course, he left out the part about conspiring with his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery; Joseph picked up that bit of information in listening to them talk among themselves in Hebrew while he pretended not to understand. When it looked like the youngest brother, Benjamin, was going to be held as a slave in Egypt, Judah intervened to plead for the young man and offer himself as a substitute. Thus Judah fulfilled the promise he had made to old Jacob to look after Benjamin’s safety, and at the same time revealed to Joseph that the Spirit of God had done a miracle in Judah’s heart. His older brother was ready to lay down his own life for others, an attitude of humble servant-leadership that prefigured the life and ministry of Judah’s descendant, Yeshua of Nazareth.
We know what happened next: Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, explaining to them that God had worked through the events of bringing him to Egypt so he could prepare a place for the family and work to save the world from the great famine. They were astonished, of course; not only had they presumed Joseph to be lost forever – presumably dead – they were not expecting this thoroughly Egyptian prince to be their own flesh and blood. He neither looked nor acted like a Hebrew, so why should they have any clue that they were related? And yet they were very much related, and their reunion was something God had foretold years before through Joseph’s dreams. Even earlier, God had explained to Grandfather Abraham that his descendants would live in a foreign land, and as Pharaoh issued an invitation for Jacob’s family to come settle in the region of Goshen, God revealed that Egypt would be that land. There this Hebrew family became the Hebrew nation known by the name God had given father Jacob: Israel. The rest of the Torah is the story of how Israel left Egypt as a nation, and how God gave them the instructions and commandments necessary to live as His people.
And yet the story continues. The prophesied ending has not yet come about, although we can see the outlines of that fulfillment. It is no accident that the Jewish sages decided to pair this Torah portion with Ezekiel’s prophecy of the Two Sticks:
The word of the Lord came again to me saying, “And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write on it, ‘For Judah and for the sons of Israel, his companions’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.’ Then join them for yourself one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. When the sons of your people speak to you saying, ‘Will you not declare to us what you mean by these?’ say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will put them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand.”’ The sticks on which you write will be in your hand before their eyes. Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king will be king for all of them; and they will no longer be two nations and no longer be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols, or with their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. And they will be My people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them. They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever.”’” (Ezekiel 37:15-28 NASB)
What could this possibly have to do with Joseph revealing himself to his brothers? Everything! Jacob’s family is still broken and scattered. At some point all the tribes will be together again in the land, but for now they don’t even recognize each other as members of the same family. We know who some of them are; the Jews most definitely are Israelites descended from Jacob’s sons, just as the Apostle Paul tells us. Yet the Jews are not the entirety of the nation. There are still remnants of all the tribes scattered out among the nations, most of whom are in some way descended from the Ten Tribes of the House of Israel who went into exile under the leadership of Ephraim, chief tribe of the House of Joseph. Many would say, quite rightly, that a great number of these “lost Israelites” and their companions are now Christians. It would seem that the Apostles believed so. They certainly believed in the extensive prophecies about the restoration of the entire Kingdom of Israel, which is why they asked Yeshua about it in their last conversation with Him. Moreover, the Apostle James referred to a prophecy of the restoration of the Lost Tribes when he proposed a method of dealing with Gentiles who were coming to faith in Yeshua.
It was Yeshua Himself Who had fostered this understanding and hope among the Apostles when He made this promise to them:
And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28 NASB, emphasis added; see also Luke 22:28-30)
That understanding informed Paul, James, and John in their ministries and writings, just as the Scriptures tell us:
And now I [Paul] am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King [Agrippa], I am being accused by Jews. Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead? (Acts 26:6-8 NASB, emphasis added)
James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (James 1:1 NASB, emphasis added)
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed. (Revelation 7:4-8 NASB, emphasis added)
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper. It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. There were three gates on the east and three gates on the north and three gates on the south and three gates on the west. And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:10-14 NASB, emphasis added)
It would seem that there is something more to this Gospel of the Kingdom than has been commonly supposed among various church teachings. In fact, there is more to it than has been supposed among various Jewish teachings. Both sides have missed the main point: Jews and Christians are two halves of the same people. Most likely there are many other peoples out there who are neither Jewish nor Christian, but who can be counted among the descendants of Israel. We can hope that they will be brought into the nation in time, but for now it appears that the burden rests with those who profess allegiance to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and uphold His Scriptures as their authority.
And yet the nation remains fragmented and unformed. Why? Because we are still alien to one another. Jews are “too Jewish”, and Christians are “too Gentile”. Each expects the other to “convert”, either to become Jewish in every sense of the word, or to drop everything Jewish and become a follower of Jesus. As long as these extreme positions remain the common understanding, the House of Jacob will never be reunited. If Ezekiel’s prophecy is to be fulfilled, then the two halves of God’s kingdom must humble themselves and find ways to communicate and cooperate. Of course we will disagree, offend one another, and argue; that is what families do. The identity of Messiah is most likely the single greatest dividing factor between us, and from that has flowed a great river of blood through the ages. Yet our Father wants to change that river of blood into a river of life-giving water. The only way that can happen is if we take steps of our own and in faith expect Him to carry us to the end of the journey. If Jews cannot acknowledge Yeshua of Nazareth as Messiah, then they can at least acknowledge this man and his followers as Jewish and perhaps as a type of Messiah. If Christians cannot acknowledge Torah as the single greatest guideline for their lives, then they can at least acknowledge that it is God’s word, and the one they call Messiah lived by it and taught his followers to do the same. That should be good enough to start a dialogue, but it will never start unless both sides recognize that there is much they can learn from and teach one another.
What, then, prevents us from taking these steps? We all agree that God’s perfect order on this earth comes when His people are united again under Messiah’s reign. Maybe Messiah’s reign begins when the people of His Kingdom start treating each other with respect, love, and a firm commitment to live together in His covenant of peace.
 For more on the story of the Seminole Nation, see Seminole Nation I.T. (Indian Territory), http://www.seminolenation-indianterritory.org/, The Seminole Tribe of Florida, http://www.semtribe.com/, The Great Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, http://sno-nsn.gov/, and Exploring Florida, “The Seminole Wars”, http://fcit.usf.edu/florida/lessons/sem_war/sem_war1.htm (all accessed December 27, 2014).
 Informed readers will note that the tribe of Dan does not appear in this roster of the 144,000. There are several explanations for this, usually revolving around the role of Dan in bringing institutionalized idolatry into Israel (Judges 17-18). By that same reasoning, the tribe of Ephraim is not mentioned by name in John’s roster, although they appear by the name of their father, Joseph. There is likely more to the story, but as yet we do not know the full reason why God chose to reveal the roster of the tribes in this way. However, it is certain that Dan and Ephraim both have inheritance in the land under Messiah’s reign, as the prophecy of Ezekiel 47-48 explains.