Jewish Identity: A Game of Hide and Seek
A certain man walks into a Messianic congregation on Shabbat morning. He’s a total stranger, looks a little lost and, frankly, seems uninterested in what’s going on around him. The rest of us look askance at him, and, finally, at the oneg, someone asks him how he came to visit us. The man hesitantly begins his story:
“Well, I was adopted at a very young age and never knew my parents. I was raised in a well-to-do Gentile family, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out my parents were Jewish. I married a nice Gentile woman with whom I have two sons. I don’t really know anything about being Jewish or what that means. I never went to synagogue, and my boys haven’t had a bris or bar mitzvah. We’ve never even celebrated a holiday. I was just stopping by to see what you’re all about.”
We smile and nod, secretly asking ourselves, “Is he one of us?” How Jewish do you have to be to “count” as a Jewish believer in Jesus? What do you do with someone who is Jewish but has little or no Jewish identity?
It’s one of the buzzwords I hear most in Messianic circles. Like Jewish people of all backgrounds, we are intent on preserving Jewish identity. As Messianic Jews, the need sometimes seems even more pressing. We have to maintain a strong sense of identity as a testimony against those who would accuse Jewish followers of Jesus of not being “real Jews.” Yet I sometimes wonder whether this conversation drowns out all others. Is it possible our preoccupation with identity is a bit misguided?
Perhaps taking a second look at our visitor will help answer these questions. Adopted, never met his parents, discovered his Jewish ancestry late in life, married to a Gentile with two assimilated children . . . this story rings a bell, and not just because it bears such a striking resemblance to the stories of unaffiliated Jews in the twenty-first century.
Moses’ life started off the same way—in fact, the first 80 years of his life were one long case of concealed identity. Scripture tells us he was the great-grandson of Levi and was born a Hebrew slave to Amram and Jochebed, who had two older children, Miriam and Aaron. At the time of Moses’ birth, Pharaoh ordered that every newborn Hebrew boy be sentenced to death at once and thrown into the Nile. Moses might have perished with the rest of the infant boys, but Jochebed refused to give up her son. Instead, she hid him for three months and then set him afloat on the Nile, concealing Moses in a basket made of reeds and tar. Meanwhile, his sister Miriam followed closely along the shoreline to see where he would end up.
The basket floated up to the Egyptian palace where Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing herself. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent a maid to fetch it for her. Upon opening the basket, she found a crying baby boy and took pity on him.
The Bible does not actually tell us when or how Moses learned of his Jewish heritage. We know his mother Jochebed was allowed to nurse and wean him, but she eventually returned him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him in the Egyptian palace. Pharaoh’s daughter gave him an Egyptian name—Moses—likely replacing whatever Hebrew name his parents had given him.
According to historical sources, Moses likely changed hands sometime between his weaning and his third or fourth birthday. It is safe to say he was no older than four when he permanently entered Pharaoh’s household and likely did not remember much, if anything, of his Hebrew parents. He belonged to Pharaoh’s daughter from the age of three months on and probably spent the majority of his time with her since she took such a strong liking to him. His mother merely did the work of nursing him and weaning him before saying goodbye.
The Midrash, Talmud and even a bit of the Bible elaborate on Pharaoh’s daughter. It is said her name was Bithia (from the Hebrew bat-yah, meaning “daughter of God”). According to Jewish tradition, she shunned the idolatry of Egypt and “converted” to “Judaism” before she found Moses, married Caleb the spy and left Egypt in the Exodus. There is no way of knowing whether any of that is true. It is entirely possible that she did fear the God of Israel, and perhaps Moses was raised with some of that knowledge. Yet the Scriptures are clear that Moses was not raised as a Hebrew worshipping the one true God. Until Exodus 2:10, he is the son of the princess of Egypt.
Whenever and however Moses discovered his heritage, he began to empathize with the plight of his relatives and likely was driven by guilt as much as zeal when he killed the cruel Egyptian taskmaster. Regardless of his ancestral ties to the Hebrew slaves, he was not considered “one of the tribe.” In fact, the impression I get reading Exodus is that Moses was resented by his people, even after he killed the Egyptian to protect one of the Jewish slaves: “He [the slave] retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’” (Exodus 2:14).
Moses’ first reaction to the slave’s accusation was one of panic. When his crime was found out, Pharaoh attempted to capture and execute him, something the Midrash and Jewish tradition tell us he had been trying to do since Moses’ infancy. Afraid for his life, Moses fled to the desert, finding refuge in Midian. But, when he assisted the daughters of Jethro, they introduced him to their father as an Egyptian: “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds . . .” (Exodus 2:19, emphasis added).
The man who would one day lead the Jewish people to redemption and bring down the Torah from Sinai—a man who had just committed a crime of passion to avenge his people’s desperate cries—not only chose not to reveal that he was a fugitive Hebrew to Jethro’s daughters. He actively identified as an Egyptian, and to all appearances—dress, speech, and manners—he was one.
. . . and that’s how he would have gone down in history if God had not intervened in the next chapter and called out to Moses: “‘I am,’ He said, ‘the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6).
It is with this identity that Moses returned to Egypt and led his people out of slavery. Despite all attempts to outrun his Jewish identity, God reeled Moses back in, not only to live as an Israelite, but to enforce the Sinai covenant, author the Torah, and become the greatest leader Israel had ever known—that is, until the advent of Messiah.
That guy we’re talking to during oneg . . . he’s not all that different from Moses.
Yep, the same guy that the mainstream Jewish world calls Moshe Rabbenu had the same issues that so many endure today: an identity crisis and an unreceptive world to face.
So, the question must be asked: if Moses showed up at our Messianic synagogue this Shabbat, would we be receptive? Would we welcome him with open arms and include him in our community? Or would we analyze his identity to death and perhaps tell him he doesn’t belong, that he’s not one of us? Would we be guilty of turning away someone who is a part of B’nei Yisrael—one of those whom God has promised to restore despite centuries of muddled identity?
Our God says, “Return to Me, and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3; Malachi 3:7). People of all different backgrounds and identities often look to us as a Messianic Jewish community to help them reconnect with the God of their ancestors. Let us play an integral part in God’s plan to restore His people. May we embrace the words of God written by Moses: “Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back” (Deuteronomy 30:4).
The following sources were used in the composition of this article: Babylonian Talmud Megillah 13a; Leviticus Rabba 1:3; I Chronicles 4:15–18; Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 9.7; Genesis 1:3–4; John 1:5; Deuteronomy 30:4