As Purim approaches the Jewish people prepare yet again to remember a time of redemption and salvation. We remember “the Holocaust that never happened,” wishing, of course, that the same could be said of the Holocaust that did happen, when Germany annihilated two-thirds of Europe’s Jewry in the 1940s.
We hope that any future attempts at a Holocaust will be likewise thwarted as in the days of Esther and Mordecai. In both Holocausts—the one that didn’t happen and the one that did—the children of Israel were labeled and stamped for destruction with the name “Jew.” However, over two thousand years ago during Purim such designs were foiled! While we celebrate and shout hoorays at the name of Mordecai the Jew—the first individual who was called a Jew in the Tanach—perhaps we can find a further depth to this title given to Israel’s children.
While the three names “Israelite,” “Hebrew,” and “Jew” all represent the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the emergence of the term “Jew” is of foremost importance. In ancient Persia, when Hadassah (Esther) and Mordecai were in Shushan, the children of Israel were called Jews. Today many believe this term to be almost exclusively a religious designation, while others correctly recognize that it is also an ethnic group. However, in ancient times, the term contained a few other primary definitions beyond just religious. “Jew” of course comes from “Judah” or “Judaea.” This means the people [of Israel] who resided in the ancient land of Judaea. Since this term stems from the name “Judah,” it also represents the tribe of Judah specifically, the tribe to whom belonged this portion of land.
Strangely enough, even in dispersion from the Land of Judaea, both in Mordecai’s day as well as our own, the children of Israel have not lost the appellation of Jew. An overwhelming number of Jews were born outside the land, and the land today is called Israel and not Judaea. Why are we still called “Jews” then? “Israelite” and “Hebrew” are now antiquated terms for describing the ethnic Jewish people and have fallen out of modern usage. Nevertheless, even though none of the children of Israel know their tribal affiliation for sure, with the exception of many Levites (which include priests [kohanim]), every modern-day Hebrew is called a Jew and is identified with the kingly tribe of Judah.
Although Mordecai was the first individual we see in Scripture who was called specifically by the name “Jew,” he was not a Judahite—a member of the tribe of Judah—but rather a Benjamite. While his tribal status is mentioned in the book of Esther, the most important identification he bears is that of a Jew. Some may believe that this is merely because of the country from which he hailed, but the Midrash to Genesis 49:8, the portion where Jacob is blessing all of his children, has a different take:
“So admired will you be by all your brothers that Jews will not say, I am a Reubenite or a Simeonite, but I am a Yehudi [Judahite; Jew].” Thus we find that Mordechai, in the Book of Esther, was known as a Yehudi, even though he was from the tribe of Benjamin.
In Jacob’s blessing, he prophetically distinguishes Judah as the bearer of the kingly and messianic line. Thus, in their comments on this passage, the rabbis essentially are saying that due to HaShem’s identification of the Messiah coming from Judah’s line, all Jews everywhere would seek to identify with Judah, and thus with the Messiah who would eventually come forth from him.
The term Jew, far from being a curse word or a term of derision, is a beautiful one that binds the identity of all Israel—regardless of which of the twelve tribes they belong to—with the Messiah who comes from Judah, and who himself is the head of this royal tribe. He was promised to Judah, he came as the greatest king that Judah has ever produced, and he will return sovereign yet again.
Those of us who are Jewish, whether we believe in Yeshua or not, have our name and fate inextricably bound to the King and Redeemer from the tribe of Judah. The Messiah is a part of our name, our flesh, and our identity. The Messiah can never be amputated from our collective identity, nor we from him. This gives me boundless hope for my Jewish people. While I long daily to see my entire people accept upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom, the yoke of the Messiah, I know that the Messiah is ever so near to them, on their lips and in their name. The Messiah himself tells the Samaritan woman “salvation is of the Jews.” Messiah has never left his people, and even while the vast majority may not recognize him as Messiah and King, he still comes forth from them, belonging to them, and making his home among them. As Messianic Jews we can enjoy the beauty of the dual identification with the Messiah of Judah.
Though the name “Jew” has been spoken in hatred and rage, stamped on people’s arms and sown upon their chests as a badge of shame, this title for the ever-wandering descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is no byword, but a blessing. May we Jews merit to bear this name along with the Messiah, the ideal Jew of Jews.