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New Horizons

Becoming an Israelite

Noel Weeks

"These are the regulations for the Passover: No foreigner is to eat of it.... It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house.... An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the Lord's Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land.... The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you" (Exodus 12:43-49).

If you were asked how people under the Old Testament became Israelites, you would probably answer: "By being born an Israelite." Yet, this would not be completely right, for there was provision in the law for a foreigner to become an Israelite.

It was not just a theoretical possibility, for we know of people who actually did become Israelites. One of these persons is a very well-known Old Testament character, Caleb, who was one of the two spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Palestine, who trusted in the Lord and urged Israel to attack. The Bible consistently calls him a Kenizzite (Josh. 14:6), and we know they were one of the clans of Edom (Gen. 36:11). We also read passages like 1 Chronicles 2:55 (the Kenites were a Midianite tribe [Num. 10:29; Judg. 1:16]). The significant thing about Caleb and these Kenites is that they were connected to tribes of Israel. Caleb was even a leader of a tribe. Hence, they had fully joined Israel, even to the point of being placed in a particular tribe.

Further, Israel had specific policies which would encourage aliens to come to them. Note particularly Deuteronomy 23:15-16. (Harboring refugees is a good biblical practice.) So Israel, rather than being closed to evangelism or to outsiders, as is often the impression, had an open door to those who came to Israel for refuge or who wanted to become Israelites.

Aliens at the Passover

We are also told what anybody who wanted to become an Israelite had to do, and the intriguing thing is that the whole matter comes up in the discussion of the Passover. It is not in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, after the Israelites have left Egypt and are looking forward to Canaan, that they receive all sorts of detailed instructions. Rather, it comes up in the first Passover. When the Scripture is saying that this is the crucial feast for Israel—when Israel will remember its roots, the most significant event in the whole history of Israel as a nation—at that time, you think about those from outside who will want to participate in it.

This is a significant point of debate. What is the connection between our own education of those within, and our bringing in the outsider? The whole point of the Passover was to remind Israel of their roots. Remember the emphasis: Your son will ask, "Why are we doing these things?" And you will say, "Because something special happened to us. We are the people whom the Lord redeemed by sacrificing the blood of the Passover lamb, when all the firstborn of Egypt were killed."

This was a covenant ceremony, emphasizing the faithfulness of God to his covenant promises. It was about the redemption which established a distinctive covenant community. It was a means to instruct the youth in what the covenant was all about.

It is anticipated that the alien will want to partake in this very ceremony. Notice that it was a very "inside" ceremony, even prohibited from being taken outside. It was not like a parade or a public performance which would attract attention. With everyone in Israel doing this, the alien would surely discover what was going on. Yet it is not as though they would all be lined up in some public place where the aliens might feel out of place because they would be the only ones wearing blue shirts instead of green shirts. It was a private ceremony.

Why then would the alien want to partake? I think that there is one obvious answer: in order to be part of that people who had the privilege of being singled out for redemption by God. David puts that sense of unique privilege so well in 2 Samuel 7:22-24. Israel, and Israel alone, are the nation that God went to redeem. Who would not want to be part of that if he were in his right mind? If the other side of your street were singled out by the local shopkeepers, and they were told they could have as many gift vouchers as they liked, to come and get anything they liked, at any time they liked, wouldn't you try to become an honorary member of the other side of your street?

I would like to use this clear and close connection that we see here to quash some fallacies commonly found among Christians.

Some see conflict between covenant consciousness and evangelism. Sometimes people will say: "We are busy training our covenant youth. That is our emphasis and it does not fit with evangelism. The two emphases cannot be mixed." Rubbish! Nonsense and rubbish!

Becoming like the World

Some say we can only attract the world if we become like the world—"Nobody will join us if we are somehow different; we must be like them to attract them." Rubbish again! Unless we are different, with something distinct to offer, there is no point in joining. Would you join a club if all that club offered was to sit and watch TV just as you can do at home? Being different and unique will not necessarily bring people to us in droves. What I would say is that uniqueness is the prerequisite to bring people to us.

We are the people God came to redeem. Who else can say that? The humanist cannot say it. The Marxist cannot say it. The Muslim cannot say it. The Buddhist cannot say it. The pagan witch doctor cannot say it! We are the people the Lord Jesus came specifically to make his people. Does this sense of that wonder and privilege shine out of us? I suspect it does not; otherwise, we would not have people arguing that we have to be like the world to attract unbelievers. Those who say that do not believe we have something unique. If I believed that I was marketing a soap powder which cleaned better than all the others put together, then would I say to my packet designers: "Let's see if we can design a packet that looks like Fab or Cold Power. Maybe they will purchase some of ours by mistake and we might get some sales after all"? No! I would want a distinctive box.

What are Christians really saying in such words as: "We have to show that Christians can have fun too"? The same kind of comment can be heard with many variations: "We must have a rock band to attract them," or, "Well, people aren't likely to become Christians in our church because we're too rigid. We make them come to church. They can't play sports on Sundays." People who speak like that are really saying that they envy the world. They see the world as having something they are missing. Will that attitude attract the outsider? It is a denial that the believer is the one with unique privileges.

The Same Standard

Note the emphasis placed in this passage on the fact that the same standard is to be applied to foreigners as to Israelites. Obviously there would be a temptation to say that if a foreigner wanted to keep the Passover, then he could do that without conforming to all that was required of Israel. That is not the position of Scripture, however, because it really runs contrary to God's holiness. The foreigner cannot come into relationship to God on an easier basis, because the demands upon Israel are the demands of a holy God, not arbitrary demands made for no real reason. They are connected to God's very character.

Perhaps we should go back a step before that and note that the same standard can be applied to both. To apply the same standard is not seen as a problem. People, though not born Israelite, could become fully Israelite under the law of God. Indeed, as the example of Caleb shows, they may be even more Israelite than most of Israel, because being Israelite was a matter of faith and obedience.

A romantic view of race and nationality has been very strong in the modern world. Nationality is seen as something you acquire with your mother's milk. You cannot really feel and appreciate the culture of a country unless you are born into it. That same thinking has infected the church. If you are born into a Christian family, and especially a Reformed one, then you will appreciate what it is to be a Christian to a degree that no foreigner ever could. That is not biblical. Although there may be examples which seem to prove it, there are also many which could be used to disprove it. It is wrong, because to be a faithful Christian is a matter of faith and obedience to the revelation of God, and not something like accent, which, unless you learn it as a child, you may have trouble ever learning.

We may need to exercise patience with new converts, but we can never say that because they did not have a Christian background, we can never expect them to reach our standard. That would really be a form of pride: "We have it; they will never have it."

Conversely, Scripture forbids the hypocrisy of having a lower standard for the insider than for the outsider. To put it another way: you cannot tolerate something in a member of the church which you would use as an argument against accepting somebody into church membership. This is something which should really make us search our own consciences, because we may often fall into this hypocrisy. Let me give a few examples to drive the point home. Suppose somebody began attending our church from outside, and eventually wanted to join, but that they said either of the following: "We do not agree with the teaching of the church," or, "We do not see why any more involvement in church activity is required other than a formal attendance on Sunday mornings," or, "We are in the process of obtaining a divorce." Would we say "Yes, we will accept you into membership"? I suspect that we would not. Are we not then caught in hypocrisy if we tolerate such attitudes among our members? I do not say that the answers to these problems are simple. I am saying that we are in great danger of hypocrisy, and a hypocrisy displeasing to God and inhibiting to evangelism because people will see the double standard. I am convinced that weak churches, tolerant of sin in their midst, often have two levels of approach to a new convert. Officially they are in favor of evangelism, but unofficially and personally they do everything they can to discourage the new converts because they find their zeal an embarrassment.

This may be why internal reformation and revival are closely connected to evangelism. Any church with double standards must avoid having the double standards exposed: it must avoid evangelism. If we take a look around, we will see that this is the tendency. Is this the real explanation of why Reformed congregations can die?

Finally, what was required of the man who wished to keep the Passover? He and his household had to be circumcised. He had to take on the external badge of an Israelite. You could not be an Israelite without open identification with Israel. The abolition of circumcision has not changed that in any respect. To be a Christian and to join the church go together. These are the redeemed people. The whole point is to become one of them.

The author is senior lecturer in history at the University of Sidney. This article is excerpted with the author's permission from his book Gateway to the Old Testament (Banner of Truth Trust). Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2001.

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