Discovering Hebrew Roots
Discovering Hebrew Roots
by Shani Ferguson
If you’re a Christian, are you the New Israel? What does it mean to be Jewish? Is being a Messianic Jew an upgraded version of being Christian? These are age-old questions that have been argued over in living rooms and courtrooms around the world. These questions have fueled religious wars and the slaughter of entire villages. And yet, these questions hold within them a promise of hope and destiny for us all.
If you’ve spent any amount of time reading the history of the Children of Israel, you can’t miss the endless cycle of rebellion, judgment, repentance and redemption. It’s the same cycle we see individuals struggle with throughout the Bible from Adam and Eve to Peter. Any honest person can attest to the struggle of doing right and the consequences that comes when one fails. The understanding of sin, repentance and redemption are fundamental to Judeo-Christian thought, but it is only so because God chose a people who would demonstrate this process. However, sin and redemption are not all God wanted to show us when He gave us the stories of the Children of Israel in the Bible. There is so much more God has to say to us, and this is why connecting with Hebrew/Jewish roots is such an essential part of a deeper walk with God.
How did the Jews become who are they are today? Historians largely believe that, when 10 of the 12 tribes were exiled from the Promised Land due to centuries of repeated immorality and idol worship, these tribes assimilated into the conquering societies and were lost. The tribe of Benjamin was essentially absorbed into the Kingdom of Judah, and this left the name of Judah as the lone identifiable representatives of the lineage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Judah would also eventually be exiled for its departure from God’s law.
But despite exile, the people would maintain their identity as a unique people group, integrated but set apart from their surrounding population for 2,000 years after the life of Yeshua. Thus, the Israelites would become known as Jews.
There was good and bad that would come from this time in exile. Before exile, we see the repeated struggle within the nation of Israel wanting to be like other nations while residing comfortably in their Promised Land. For example, the people wrestled with the prophet Samuel, who knew their destiny was to be led by the voice of God; however, the people’s human craving to “be like everyone else” won out and they were given a king who would rule on his own terms (I Sam 8). Once they were established in their own land, only the insecurity of exile seemed to thrust the Israelites towards their destiny as a set apart people group. Despite, or perhaps because of their discomfort, Israel seemed to shine as the people of the Living God residing in foreign lands. It was in their role as different than the cultural norm (i.e., Daniel, Esther, etc.) that the Jews showed the God of Israel to be superior to all other gods.
However, the bad outcome that came from this aggressive maintaining of distinct identity while in exile was the ultimate shifted focus to outward traditions. As time passed, first hand stories faded of what life was like when the Temple existed. The clothes they wore, the food they ate, and the feasts and daily rituals they celebrated became the focal point of Jewish identity. However, Jews were not merely called to be nutrition advisors and models for outerwear. Rather, they were called to demonstrate life when the presence of the Living God dwells in one’s midst.
The Original Plan
Ideally, when God brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, they were supposed to practice living with the presence of God among them from generation to generation. They were to be a bright light set on a hill to the surrounding nations, modeling how to properly deal with sin and sacrifice for redemption and live a blessed life.
Non-Israelites were not prohibited from embracing the commandments in the Mosaic covenant, but rather were essentially in a separate “outsiders” category that had some restrictions, especially in terms of access to consecrated things such as the Temple. That is why when the New Covenant was offered, Jews who accepted it were challenged with the idea of unequivocally inviting non-Jews into God’s spiritual family. It took supernatural encounters from God, a council of elders and much prayer and fasting for believing Jews to collectively come to terms with the idea of non-Jews having the same access to God as they did. But Jewish believers finally consented seeing the Lord was truly in it.
The distinction between Jews and non-Jews wouldn’t be dissolved, however. Believing Jews would continue on with the same lifestyle their devout ancestors practiced, with the understanding that the issue of sacrifice has been taken care of once and for all. Gentiles would abandon their idols but were instructed to continue with their familiar lifestyle. They were given a few guidelines such as not to drink blood, eat strangled meat or food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication (Lev 17, Acts 15, Gal 2). Gentiles were also encouraged to help the poor as well as share their material blessings with Jewish believers in gratitude to them for sharing their spiritual blessings with Gentiles (Rom 15:27). The Gentiles’ status of ‘accepted before God’, however, would not be contingent on their engaging in any Jewish practices or commands from the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants. Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, celebrate the Feasts, learn Hebrew or go to synagogue.
More Gentiles Than Jews
It isn’t uncommon for a group of people who gains power as a majority, to shut out the minority – especially if that minority was previously in a perceived position of power. As Gentile believers began to vastly outnumber Jewish believers and the early generations of respected Jewish spiritual leaders died out. Sentiment towards the Jewish people drastically began to change. No longer did Gentile believers think of the Jewish people as the source of the Messiah, the Apostles and the message of salvation. No longer did Gentile believers care that Jewish believers had given their lives to get the message of salvation out to the rest of the world. Gentile believers began to focus on the vast majority of Jews who continued to reject Yeshua as their messiah.
DISTRUST BETWEEN CHRISTIANS AND JEWS WAS PREVALENT FOR CENTURIES. SOME CHRISTIANS VIEWED THE BLACK PLAGUE AS PUNISHMENT FROM GOD FOR TOLERATING THE PRESENCE OF THE CHRIST-KILLING JEWS IN THEIR MIDST. THE YELLOW STAR NAZIS REQUIRED JEWS TO WEAR WAS NOT A NEW IDEA. IN THE 13TH CENTURY CHRISTIAN EUROPE REQUIRED JEWS TO BE SINGLED OUT BY WEARING TWO TABLETS (AS DEPICTED IN THE PHOTO OF THIS ENGLISH MANUSCRIPT).
Convinced they would be better as representatives of God on the earth, Gentile believers appointed themselves as the “New Israel”, concluding God was eternally offended with the larger Jewish population’s centuries of disobedience and reaction to Yeshua. Despite admitting Yeshua’s death and resurrection was mysteriously God’s plan all along to bring about their salvation, Gentiles held Jews responsible for His suffering. Slowly but surely, Christians began to separate themselves from anything “Jewish”. They spent the following centuries demanding Jews renounce their “blasphemous heritage” and become Christians (non-Jewish believers) – or be slaughtered. While Christian violence against Jews today is rare, one can still witness remnants of the historical disconnect in the subtle disdain Christians show for the “Jewish Bible”, or Old Testament. Whether by not reading it, or by considering it “the Law of sin and death” they are no longer under, Christians have lost much background and context to the things written in the New Testament.
Change of Heart
Today the trend is changing. More and more Christians who have rejected the anti-Semitic perspective of the Church of the Middle Ages have become interested in where the story of their salvation began – all the way back to Genesis. While some Christian denominations maintain that God has abandoned the Jewish people and handed over His promises to the Gentile church, large numbers of Christians have become fascinated with and awakened to God’s ancient relationship with the Jewish people. This is great news for Jewish-Christian relations and the history-healing testimony that loving Christians can be to Jews. However, as the pendulum swings in favor of embracing the Jewish people and its culture, it is important to know where the boundaries lie between loving Israel and replacing Israel lay. Jews never needed to abandon their Jewish heritage to embrace the New Covenant God offered them. Equally, there is no need for Christians to become Jewish in order to experience the rich depths of this same covenant.
When a man and woman come together as a family, both are equally parents to their children but each parent has a distinct and necessary role in making them. If both parents tried to play identical roles in the making of the child, simply put, there would be no child. When Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female,” he clearly did not mean there was no difference between a man and woman. He meant that before God, man and woman are equally redeemed and have the same spiritual access to God. In the same way, under the New Covenant Gentiles would have the same access to God through Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish people, but each are called to play a different role in God’s plan.
While it’s true that individuals in Bible times did on rare occasions join themselves to the Jewish people like Ruth, most Gentiles who lived among the Jewish people maintained their own identity (e.g., Naaman, Cornelius). The overall idea was not to get the nations to become Israel and join themselves with the practices of the Mosaic Law, but rather to get the nations to worship the God of Israel as members of their own unique people group. Even in the instructions God gave to Moses, there were commands solely for the Israelites and then occasionally there would be instructions for “the foreigner among you.”
What are Hebrew Roots?
Hebrew Roots are not an easy topic to discuss because some people can be very dogmatic about what is and isn’t appropriate for Christians in terms of practical application. Part of the issue is that the answer to some Hebrew Roots questions can differ depending on where you live, your family status and what your own preferences are in terms of adapting traditions you didn’t grow up with. Regardless of your take, it is crucial that at all times, the center focus of your journey is pursuing your relationship with God and loving people, not mastering traditions. More than once we have witnessed naive Christians pursue Hebrew Roots with the wrong focus and end up abandoning Yeshua and the New Covenant altogether and converting to rabbinical Judaism. Remember, as you journey into the history of God and the Jewish people, God forgave your sins and embraced you into His family before you discovered the shofar and the original Hebrew meaning of anything.
While it’s true that to some the image of a Jew in a prayer shawl at the Wailing Wall brings tears to the eyes, it’s also true that to many Christians – especially of the younger generation – the idea of Hebrew Roots is of little or no interest. To them, the image of a man with a cap on his head, a white cloak with dangling strings and awkwardly pronounced Hebrew blessings are bizarre, outdated and out-of-touch with modern culture. Most Christian youth would likely rather be hugged and kissed by their parent in front of their whole school than be caught in such an outfit. This is why it is important to clarify what the essence of Hebrew Roots is truly about.
Hebrew Roots are more about a deeper inner understanding rather than the outward traditions. I know several ministries who have built replicas of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for people to pray. Others have made banners or supplied congregants with Jewish prayer shawls. These are great visuals that can help our minds focus in prayer, but they carry no special mystical powers in of themselves.
Connecting with the Hebrew Roots of your faith is akin to looking through a childhood photo/video album of your spouse before you met them. Learning about your life-partner’s family history only enriches the relationship and gives you insight to where they are coming from or why they are the way they are. In the same way, engaging Jewish believers today and studying God’s relationship with Israel – His love, compassion, anger at betrayal and ultimate unending passionate pursuit of His chosen people – will only help you understand how deeply and passionately He will pursue you. Partaking of the outward Jewish traditions is like the icing on a cake – it is not the cake itself and you can enjoy the cake with or without it.
Should Christians Celebrate the Jewish Feasts and Festivals?
As Christians explore the beauty of Hebrew Roots, we are warned in Romans 14 not to create division among ourselves in regards to dates, holidays, food and drink. Meaning, no matter what prayerful conclusion we come to in ourselves, we should never use it as a reason to attack other people’s lifestyle. Secondly, while traditions such as keeping the Jewish Feasts can be an enriching experience to a Christian’s walk with God, it is not a requirement for salvation. The only requirements to enjoy the benefits of the New Covenant are to believe in Yeshua as the only way, repent from sin and be immersed in water.
Annual and weekly rhythms make up much of Jewish culture. Every year, certain feasts and festivals are observed and a weekly rhythm revolves around working hard during the week and then preparing for the Sabbath rest.
For example, every Friday dinner we have as a family, we sing songs about Creation and God’s redemption, bless each other and light candles as part of the tradition of welcoming the Sabbath. There is however, no place in Scripture that requires traditions such as lighting Sabbath candles. It is simply a Jewish custom we enjoy and a tool we use to fulfill what we are commanded to do – which is pass on the knowledge of God from generation to generation.
Having interacted with people from all over the world on the topic of Jewish traditions, it’s saddening when we come across people who make the Feasts a point of contention or religious obligation. We rarely make it through a Jewish holiday without someone emailing or posting on our social media page their take on the holiday and how it should be “properly” celebrated. Their opinions on “proper” celebration of a Feast is usually based in some obscure rabbinical tradition developed over centuries with little or no origin in Scripture. However, their greater error in such an approach is that in Scripture the Feasts are ultimately about celebrating landmark moments in the history of God and man. The celebration includes food, fellowship and a great rescue story to pass on to the next generation.
The same goes for the Sabbath regarding religious contention. Even back in the time of Yeshua, Jewish leaders made the Sabbath into a day of extra dos and don’ts as opposed to a day of rest to spend with family and friends before the Lord. Yeshua challenged their logic by asking if they would pull their child or animal out of a ditch on the Sabbath – because the Sabbath is a day for focusing on doing good, not a day for trying extra hard not to do bad.
So should Christians celebrate Jewish Feasts and Festivals? After all, these are the Feasts and Festivals Yeshua celebrated when He walked the earth. The short answer is, yes, but only if Christians want to. Even in Old Testament times, Numbers 9:14 explained if “foreigners” living among the Israelites wished to celebrate the Passover, they were welcome to, but there would be no consequences if they didn’t. I know from experience that trying to celebrate Jewish holidays when traveling abroad is difficult, so you have to consider to what degree you can celebrate in your surroundings. Many of the holiday songs are in Hebrew, so you may have to endure a learning curve – or find substitute songs. However, when we are able to take the essence of the holiday and celebrate it while abroad, we inevitably have Christians come and tell us how much they enjoyed connecting with the ancient culture of the Bible. This is truly the benefit of discovering with the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.
I was born and raised in Israel where the culture as a whole celebrates the Feasts so celebrating to me is a second nature as any holiday you grew up with. But, aside from the fact that it’s fun to have a holiday or two almost every month of the year, the rotation of holidays kept God’s faithfulness in front of our eyes year round. Every holiday has songs, dances and fun traditions. Even the Day of Atonement where Jews fast and pray for redemption is an incredible day to set aside to fast and pray for the salvation of the Jewish people and your own loved ones.
So do you need to be Jewish to get the most out of your walk with God? The early church in Corinth had this same question, and Apostle Paul insightfully recommended – if you were saved as a non-Jew, stay as you were and know God made you that way for a reason (I Cor. 7). At the same time, remember that you are a part of a long story – the story of a mighty and loving God who has a plan from start to finish for Israel – and for you. So get to know the full story. And walk with God with confidence knowing that nothing has been or will be able to derail His original plan to make Israel His light to the nations and be in communion with Christians from every tribe and tongue for eternity. ~END~
Hebrew: The official language of Israel and the original language the Old Testament was written in.
Hebrew/Jewish Roots: Hebrew Roots and Jewish Roots are different terms for the same thing. It simply depends on your cultural surrounding as to which term you are more familiar with.
Israeli: Legal term for any citizen of the modern state of Israel, usually but not necessarily of Jewish origin nor adhering to any Jewish code.
Israelite: A descendant of the one of the 12 tribes of Israel before their exile and assimilation.
Jewish: Often used universally to refer to modern descendants of ancient Israelites. It is largely accepted that when 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel were exiled from the land of Israel after a slew of evil kings and centuries of grotesque idol worship – these 10 tribes assimilated into the foreign societies and were essentially “lost.” (There are some people groups around the world today who claim to be of these lost tribes, but it is very hard to prove.) This left the tribe of Judah and the tiny tribe of Benjamin as the lone identifiable representatives of the lineage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The tribe of Benjamin suffered massive losses in battle and eventually absorbed itself into the tribe of Judah, or Yehuda, and the remaining descendants would become known as “Jews”, or Yehudim. A Jew from birth cannot not “convert” from becoming Jewish no matter what his/her belief system is because their heritage is of blood. Therefore, Jews who believe in Yeshua call themselves Jewish believers or Messianic Jews and not “Christians” – a term reserved for Gentile followers of Yeshua.
Judaism: An often misunderstood term that refers to the religion or belief system originating from the Children of Israel and the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) written by Moses. The term is confusing because many, especially in the Muslim world, are erroneously taught Jews in Israel are merely European converts to Judaism and thus don’t actually have historical lineage in the Land. Anyone can convert to this religion and there are many streams within the religion, from strict and orthodox to modern and mystical. The religion also has numerous additional books written by rabbis. These additional books, written thousands of years after the time of Moses, are intended to be practical applications of the Torah and are often held in higher regard and studied more than the Torah itself.
What do Hebrew Roots tell us about God?
Longevity – Our God and His plan for the ages has been around a long time.
Dominance – Our God bows to no one. He is more powerful than any other force in existence.
Superior Wisdom – Our God’s wisdom has proven to outlast and outshine any and all methods and philosophies mankind has come up with.
Mysterious Ways – Our God likes to win, and He likes to do it creatively.
Consistency – Our God doesn’t give up or change His mind once He’s promised something.
Perspective – God interacts with man on a personal level while magnificently observing and orchestrating the big picture
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