It was in May of 1986 that I first visited the great World War I battlefield at Verdun. Along with Auschwitz, Verdun is on my Top 10 list of places every human being should visit to learn the extent of evil that people can inflict on one another. Over the course of 10 months in 1916, nearly 2,500,000 French and German soldiers flung death at one another. Total casualties cannot be known, but the estimates range nearly as high as one million, of whom 300,000 were killed in action. The toll does not end with the soldiers; over the course of the battle nine French villages ceased to exist, and an area the size of Manhattan suffered such devastation that the French government deemed it unrecoverable and left it to nature to repair. To this day much of the battlefield remains a poisoned wasteland and graveyard for over 100,000 missing soldiers of both sides.
France has done its best to honor the dead. In 1932 President Albert Lebrun opened the great Ossuary at Douaumont, one of the villages destroyed in the battle. The Ossuary ranks among the most impressive monuments of Western civilization, attempting both to remember and honor the dead, and to remind the living of their sacrifice. Some might consider the reminders grotesque. Beneath the Ossuary is a crypt which contains the bones of at least 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers. They are there for all to see, together in death, having surrendered their lives that the lives of their nations might continue. Of course their nations did continue , and still do, although much diminished and much broken, even as the bones of their lost sons and daughters.
Last week a reader asked a very important question. It is so important that I want to share it:
A friend introduced me to your blog. I am a follower of Yeshua, not one of the twelve “lost” tribes but I am Torah pursuant. I am learning to be part of Abba’s tribe. In your writing I only hear you speak of Judah and Ephraimites (lost tribes) as being Israel. Do you see Torah pursuant followers of Yeshua who have no provable family lineage and are from “the nations” as part of the Israel family? Do they have a place at the table?
This question gets to the very heart of who we are. It addresses the very thing that the Apostles and the wider Jewish community wrestled with in the First Century. Specifically, what is the status of these people coming to faith in Yeshua from among the Gentiles? Are they still Gentiles, or are they Israelites? And if they are Israelites, are they also to become Jews? And if they are not Jews, what kind of Israelites are they?
Many writers and teachers have addressed this question, and it is in fact the central question addressed in my recent book,Give Me A Place Where I May Dwell. There is still much more to be said as we watch and participate in the unfolding of YHVH’s revelation on the subject. As a contribution to that dialogue, here is my response:
One of the biggest things Abba is doing right now is restoring to His people the awareness of their identity. Are you a believer in Yeshua, Son of God and Messiah? Do you obey His commands and follow Him as His disciple? Then you are indeed an Israelite regardless of your ethnicity or nationality. The Apostle Paul made that clear in his letters, particularly inEphesians 2 andRomans 9,10, and 11. When he writes about us of the nations being grafted into the olive tree of Israel, and of being part of the commonwealth of Israel, that’s what he means. The Jewish part of our nation (the House of Judah) have always retained their identity as Israelites and have kept the nation alive. That is the Father’s plan, and that is why we non-Jewish Israelites do not replace the Jews, but join with them in the nation as Abba rebuilds it. That is the meaning behind the prophecies of the Dry Bones and Two Sticks ofEzekiel 37, and of the entire book ofHosea, and ofIsaiah 11, and of many, many other prophecies.
When it comes to your physical heritage, it should be a great comfort to know that lineage is no obstacle to God (Matthew 3:7-10). Israel is His Kingdom and His vehicle of salvation for all the nations, so He has always invited people to join that nation from the time He made His first call to our father Abraham. Today He has revealed the means by which He can accept anyone into the nation, and by which He can accept the nation itself back into fellowship with Him. That, of course, is what Yeshua accomplished with His atoning sacrifice on our behalf, and that is why He is our King. The truth is, neither I nor anyone else can prove with beyond any doubt that we are descendants of any of the Tribes. Even our brethren of Judah are hard pressed to chart their lineage considering the things that have happened to the Jews over the centuries. We have the choice of looking at all of that as tragedy and as cause for division, or of looking on it as another astonishing revelation of our God’s glory. He is reconstructing His nation from broken pieces,gathering up the fragments just as Yeshua’s disciples gathered the fragments discarded by those who ate His bread and fish. In time this polyglot nation of many peoples will become the nation of one people, Israel, just as our King has promised. In fact, the nations of this earth will be absorbed into Yeshua’s Kingdom of Israel just as the prophets Daniel and John declared (Daniel 2:44-45; Revelation 11:15-18).
In time we will all be numbered among the Tribes. As others have said, when we enter the New Jerusalem, we will be going through the gates named for each of the Tribes because there is no gate named for the nations. All we know for now is that Yeshua’s Kingdom of Israel consists of two parts: the houses of Judah and Ephraim. If you are not Jewish, but you are a believer in Yeshua, then you are of Ephraim. Tribal identification is of secondary importance. Based on the precedent set inNumbers 1 with the first census of Israel, and of the provisions for inheritance explained inEzekiel 47:21-23, I am inclined to believe that individual choice has a big role in tribal identity. The first step, though, is identifying with Israel as an Israelite currently living among the nations. If we can in all sincerity call Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob our fathers, then we are ready to move forward as God’s people.
The timeless appeal of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is in its depiction of selfless love. Cyrano’s bigger-than-life character captures our attention instantly. How could it not? He is a man’s man – no one wields a sword as brilliantly, nor as judiciously, as this noble French warrior whose sense of right and wrong guides him to uphold the cause of those less fortunate. Yet Cyrano is a sensitive soul, the greatest poet of his day, and one quick to win the confidence of the ladies. Even though his overly large nose draws immediate notice, Cyrano himself is larger than this one glaring defect, and in fact capitalizes on it to win greater acclaim and honor. But it is that defect which keeps Cyrano from the desire of his heart: the beautiful Roxane. Thinking himself unworthy of her, he keeps his distance, and this is the root of the tragedy that unfolds.
When Christian, a handsome cadet, newly assigned to Cyrano’s company, meets Roxane, he cannot help but fall in love. Sadly, the young man has no skill in the art of courtly romance, and thus must ask Cyrano’s help in wooing her. Cyrano agrees, seeing in Christian an avenue for communicating his heart to Roxane, even if she will never know the truth. The plan works. Cyrano’s words and Christian’s good looks win Roxane’s heart, and the two young lovers are married just as the army goes off to war. Christian dies a hero’s death, and the broken-hearted Roxane retires to a convent to live out her days in mourning. Cyrano visits her frequently, bringing news, yet never revealing his secret. Then one day assassins make an attempt on Cyrano’s life, wounding him mortally as he is on his way to see her. Knowing he is dying, he asks Roxane if he might read aloud the last letter she had received from Christian before his death. The words of course, were Cyrano’s; it was but the last of many letters he had penned on the battlefield in Christian’s name, but with his own heart. As Cyrano recites the letter’s contents, evening draws on and Roxane realizes it has become too dark to read the words. Then she understands, just as Cyrano breathes his last, that it was he, not Christian, who had been writing to her all along. With this new understanding, she exclaims, “Je n’aimais qu’un seul être et je le perds deux fois!” And while the translation may not be exact, the meaning of her words is clear: “I have only had but one love, and yet have lost him twice.”
God, like Roxane, has but one love, and He has already lost that love twice. Yet the tale of His love’s return is bound up in the account of the 14 blessings Grandfather Jacob pronounces over his sons at the end of his life.
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.
It is quite possible that the greatest literary accomplishment of the year 1844 was the publication of The Three Musketeers. The swashbuckling adventures of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan penned by Alexandre Dumas have delighted readers and audiences ever since, inspiring dozens of stage and film adaptations. Not quite so popular is the trilogy Dumas published as a sequel, which concluded with The Man In The Iron Mask. The story has been told in film, with such notables as Richard Chamberlain and Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, but it does not come close in popularity to its predecessor. Perhaps the subject matter is the cause. The tale concerns a man sentenced to life in prison behind a mask so that no one may know his identity. Dumas based his novel on an intriguing footnote of French history, but with much literary license. The mysterious man in Dumas’ story was Philippe, twin brother of King Louis XIV of France. As the king’s identical twin his very existence posed a threat to Louis. Therefore he was doomed by royal decree to live out his life anonymously behind a mask. This Baroque version of identity theft constitutes a fate worse than death. Not only is the man denied his rights as a member of the royal house, his very personhood is stripped from him, so that in time even he forgets who he is. No wonder The Man In The Iron Mask is so disturbing; this prince of the royal house suffers a fate none of us would ever wish to share.
And yet most Christians and Jews labor under precisely such an identity disability. We have all forgotten who we really are.