My initial thoughts coming out of my studies as of late regarding the descendants of Abraham. Please remember these are still forming and are not exactly concrete in my thinking, but they’re close! I reserve the right to tweak and change my thoughts as I continue.
Genesis 12 presents the Abrahamic Covenant with characteristics that should be noted:
“the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'”
Undoubtedly, God’s covenant with Abraham is also for Abraham’s descendants which leads us to the question,
Who constitutes Abraham’s descendants?
Abraham himself was a Gentile called out of the land of Ur, and there were also the Gentiles who became proselytes to the faith of Abraham (Genesis 12:5). They were not ethnic Israelites.
There was also the mixed multitude who went out from Egypt with the Israelites (Exodus 12:38). The term “mixed multitude” describes the people that were not Israelites who left Egypt, were saved with the Israelites, and included as Israelites.
“The sojourner who is in your camp” (i.e., the Gentiles who joined themselves to Israel) and even “with whoever is not here with us today,” describing some individuals who did not belong to that time, that place, or that people, and were included in the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:10-15).
Beside the fact the Gibeonites had deceived Joshua and the leaders of Israel into making a covenant with them, their lives were spared and they became “cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord” (Joshua 9:27) Their faith in God allowed them to enter into His covenant, although they were not Jewish (Joshua 9:9-10).
Further, let’s consider David. Who was David and to what extent was he ethnic Israelite? Looking at David’s Israelite ethnicity, Matthew 1 sheds light on this issue: “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.”
Rahab lived in Jericho which was a city in Canaan. She was a Canaanite woman and a prostitute. She had chosen the Jewish people and their God. From the perspective of her countrymen, had they survived, Rahab was a traitor and a betrayer. But ultimately, life is only judged by God’s standard. She was not an ethnic Israelite yet was the great grandmother of David and as Matthew 1 demonstrates, in the lineage of Jesus.
Ruth, a Moabite, chose the unknown of a new people and a new land, and a walk with God. Though she remained “Ruth the Moabitess,” she was grafted into Israel, both physically and spiritually and was the grandmother of David. This means David was at least one quarter Moabite and one eighth Canaanite. Both women were counted as Israelites and partook of the blessings which were designated for Abraham’s descendants.
During the exile, in the time of Esther and Mordecai, the Jewish people were about to be annihilated by the hatred of Haman. God turned things around, and preserved and prospered His people. Though there were great, numerous, and powerful enemies arrayed against them, many joined with the Jewish people for their defense. (Esther 9:27) Many of these allies actually became proselytes (Esther 8:17).
What then is the position of the strangers, gentiles and sojourners who truthfully joined themselves to the Lord and to His people? Can they only be servants as the Gibeonites were? Or can they expect to be honored as Ruth and Rahab were? We read in the book of Isaiah: “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; …For thus says the Lord, ‘…the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath, and holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.'” (Isaiah 56:3-7).
We can see in the Old Testament God called Gentiles “Israelites” or at the very least were counted as an Israelite- included IN THE COVENANT COMMUNITY. Even these converted Gentiles receive all the blessings of the promises of God just like someone who is an ethnic Israelite1.
So, does “Israel” always mean ethnic/genetic Israel? It can’t be- not every time. It means the covenant people of God who are spiritual Israel who has always comprised of both ethnic Israelites and Gentiles in the midst of a national Israelite economy. It’s always been to all those who believed in the Messiah (i.e. Jesus) both ethnic Israel and Gentiles. For without believing in the Messiah, they will perish. So not all Israel are heirs of promise unless they believed in the promised Messiah (Jesus the Christ) and partook of the faith of Abraham thereby becoming Abraham’s descendants. Ethnic lineage is not enough.
1On Israel and Promise