Was Sam Houston a Cherokee? It is a fair question. The man who won independence for the Republic of Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto had spent many years with the Cherokee nation. His first contact with the tribe occurred in his youth, when his family moved from their home in Virginia to Tennessee. He learned their ways and their language, was adopted by a chief of the tribe, and in time represented the Cherokee people to the United States government. Houston even took a Cherokee wife: Tiana Rodgers, daughter of a Scottish trader who had married into a prominent Cherokee family. Houston’s marriage with Tiana was never recognized in white society, but they were legally married under Cherokee law. Even after he had returned to white society, Houston never remarried until after Tiana’s death.
But the fact is that Sam Houston did return to white society. In 1832 he moved to the Mexican territory of Texas, and within four years had secured independence for Texas, forever linking his name with that great state. Today, over 150 years since his death, Houston is remembered as a military hero and statesman, serving the Republic of Texas as its general and elected president, and the State of Texas as its senator and governor. Houston is also the only man ever to have served as governor of both Tennessee and Texas. These are the things that might come to mind when one thinks of Sam Houston, but what does not come to mind is his identity as a Cherokee.
Houston’s identity in history is the result of his own choice. Had he remained with his adopted people, he would have been remembered as one of many non-Indian white and black people who became members of various Native American tribes. Yet he chose otherwise, and therefore his Cherokee identity is merely a footnote of history.
It was the other way with our ancient Israelite ancestors. Once they chose to become united with the tribes of Jacob’s sons, their previous identities became footnotes, lost forever in the sands of time.
The book of Numbers opens with Bamidbar (In the Wilderness) (Numbers 1:1-4:20), the account of the census of Israel’s tribes taken in the second month of the second year after the Exodus from Egypt. The total of the men age 20 and older who could serve as warriors was 603,550 (Numbers 1:44-46). If we add the 22,000 Levites, numbered from the age of one month and older (Numbers 3:39), whom the Lord set aside to serve Him as priests, the number of males is 625,550. Adding the women and children and others not counted, it is likely that the camp of Israel contained two to three million people.
Where did all those people come from? When the family of Jacob immigrated to Egypt there were only 75 of them (Genesis 46:26-34; Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10.22; Acts 7:14-15). How could they multiply to over two million by the time they left a little over two centuries later? One answer is that YHVH blessed them in Egypt, increasing their numbers supernaturally. That is the testimony of Scripture (see Exodus 1), and is a question Larry Pierce at Answers in Genesis addresses in his article, “The Amram Question”. Yet the Scripture also says that a mixed multitude of other peoples left Egypt with the Israelites (Exodus 12:38). Who were those people, and how many of them were there? As for who they were, we can guess that they would have been Egyptians who had seen the Hand of the Lord at work and recognized that their own salvation would come in uniting with Israel. Others would have reasoned the same way: Canaanites, Libyans, Ethiopians, Cretans, Hittites, in fact, people from every nation in the entire ancient world. Egypt was the superpower of the day, and thus would have included a population of merchants, diplomats, slaves, and laborers from other nations. That was the mixed multitude.
As to how many there were in this multitude, we have no way to say with any certainty. My personal opinion is that there would have been many of them, perhaps even a majority of the camp. Admittedly, that is only speculation, and it is not essential for the purposes of this article to know how many foreigners were in the camp. What is far more important is how they were counted.
And how were they counted? As Israelites, of course. Search the Scripture and you will not find in the census of Israel any category of “Other”. Every person was numbered among the thirteen tribes. Twelve of those tribes would inherit the land: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph (split into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh), Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. The thirteenth tribe was Levi, whose inheritance would be the Lord Himself. At some point, the foreigners would have had to align with one of the tribes. How would they do that? No doubt based on their previous affiliation with the House of Israel.
It is not difficult to imagine how this would have happened. Consider the hypothetical case of an Israelite woman of the tribe of Issachar who served in the household of an Egyptian official. She would have worked alongside other servants from other nations. Some of those other servants, and perhaps even members of her master’s household, could have come with her at the Exodus. They would have come to know her family and kin very well, traveling with them to Sinai and even living near them. Thus, when it came time to choose a tribe, it would make sense that they would affiliate with Issachar, having come to know and contribute to the welfare of the families and clans of that tribe. The story would be repeated thousands of times in every tribe, so that by the time of the census, these foreigners would no longer be foreigners, but full-fledged members of Israelite society. After a few more generations, no one would remember the exact origin of these one-time foreigners, and no one would care; they were Israelites, regardless of their skin color, accented Hebrew, and peculiar customs.
Why is this important to know? Because it will happen again in the restoration of all Israel. That is the promise the Lord provides through many of His prophets and apostles, not the least being Hosea. In his word to the people of Northern Israel (Ephraim), Hosea explains how the Lord had divorced them because of their unfaithfulness (Hosea 2:1-13). Then he offers these words of hope:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her. Then I will give her her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt. It will come about in that day,” declares the Lord, “That you will call Me Ishi [Husband] and will no longer call Me Baali [Lord]. For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, so that they will be mentioned by their names no more. In that day I will also make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, and will make them lie down in safety. I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion, and I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the Lord. It will come about in that day that I will respond,” declares the Lord. “I will respond to the heavens, and they will respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain, to the new wine and to the oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will sow her for Myself in the land. I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, and I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ and they will say, ‘You are my God!’” (Hosea 2:14-23 NASB; see also Romans 9:22-26 and I Peter 2:9-10)
The reconstitution of Israel began with the ministry of Messiah Yeshua, when He proclaimed that He had been sent to the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 15:24; see also Matthew 10:5-6). The Apostle Paul stated explicitly that all who come to faith in Messiah Yeshua, even Gentiles, would be counted as part of Israel:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:27-29 NASB, emphasis added; see also Romans 11:17-32 and Ephesians 2:11-22)
What has been lacking these last two millennia of the Christian era is the awareness that believers in Yeshua, along with Jews, are all part of Israel. They, and others who will come into the nation in time to come, will one day be organized into tribes, according to the Scriptures. Ezekiel 47:13-23 outlines the boundaries of Israel in the days of Messiah’s reign from Jerusalem, concluding with these words:
“So you shall divide this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You shall divide it by lot for an inheritance among yourselves and among the aliens who stay in your midst, who bring forth sons in your midst. And they shall be to you as the native-born among the sons of Israel; they shall be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. And in the tribe with which the alien stays, there you shall give him his inheritance,” declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 47:21-23 NASB)
Ezekiel does not specify how these aliens and strangers come to be living in the land of Israel. Perhaps they are already there, or perhaps they will join the tribes on their return to the land in the coming Second Exodus (Jeremiah 16:14-15; 23:7-8). Whatever the reason, it would seem that the Lord intends them to become part of the nation since they are to receive an inheritance with the tribes. We would infer from this that at least some of these foreigners would choose the place they live, and thus choose their tribal affiliation. Thus the organization of the entire nation along tribal lines in the Millennial Kingdom of Messiah will be a similar process to that which occurred in the First Exodus.
This passage in Ezekiel helps us understand the culmination of Israel’s reestablished tribal structure. The beginning of that process apparently shall be in the Great Tribulation that marks the transition from this current age to the Millennial Kingdom. This is the testimony of the Apostle John:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” 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 7:1-8 NASB)
There are two interesting points about this list. The first is the use of the name “Joseph” instead of “Ephraim” for the first of the two tribes established by Joseph’s sons. The second is the omission of the tribe of Dan, which has been replaced by Levi. Explanations for these peculiarities tend to emphasize the role of Ephraim and Dan in bringing institutionalized idolatry into Israel in the days of the Judges (see Judges 17:1-18:31). Perhaps so. This is not, however, a disqualification of Ephraim and Dan from their final status in the nation. Both tribes inherit territory, according to Ezekiel 48, and that Levi retains its accustomed place within the “Holy District” of Jerusalem. Moreover, the conclusion of Ezekiel 48 indicates that the city of Jerusalem will have twelve gates, corresponding to the twelve tribes (Ezekiel 48:30-35). The listed names of the gates include Joseph as a single entity (incorporating both Ephraim and Manasseh), and Levi. We may infer that those twelve names correspond to the names of the tribes on the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem described by John (Revelation 21:10-12).
Whatever the reason for these two peculiarities in the list of Revelation 7, it does not mean that Ephraim and Dan have no place in the events of the Tribulation. Ephraim is there, only under the name of Joseph. Dan is there as well, perhaps in the role of judge of his brethren, just as Jacob prophesied long ago:
Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, that bites the horse’s heels, so that his rider falls backward. For Your salvation I wait, O Lord. (Genesis 49:16-18 NASB)
What is not clear from Scripture is whether the tribes have formed before the Tribulation. It is entirely possible that they have not, and that the Lord “seals” these tribal members using a process such as that recorded in Ezekiel 9:1-11. In Ezekiel’s vision, the Lord’s instructions to His angel were to, “Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst.” (Ezekiel 9:4 NASB) Then again, it is possible that those sealed already have an idea of their tribal identity, perhaps by some revelation of their physical descent from the tribes, or perhaps by personal choice to affiliate with a tribe. What is apparent is that they serve as the core or cadre of the restored nation, gathering and protecting the multitudes that come out of the Tribulation. Immediately after the passage about the 144,000, Revelation 7 records this:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:9-17 NASB)
And then we see the 144,000 themselves welcoming Messiah upon His arrival at Jerusalem:
Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb. And no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless. (Revelation 14:1-5 NASB)
What are we to understand from this? At this point we cannot say exactly, but we can be certain that our destiny as the people of Israel is to dwell in tribes. If the pattern of the First Exodus is any indication, there will be a nascent tribal organization in existence before the Second Exodus so that the nation can form around it after the Lord explains His Torah to us again in the wilderness (Ezekiel 20:33-38). If so, then it is not too soon to start thinking about our tribal affiliation. And it is most certainly time to start thinking of ourselves as Israelites.