One of my readers who goes by the name Maal wrote the following comment in Is Jesus Prophet Isa:
Wasn't Jesus/Isa an Israelite (Bani Israel) as his lineage was through Levi/Lawi on to Jacob/Yaqub (a.k.a Israel)? He would have been a Jew only if it was through Judah/Yahuda.
My short reply on the above question is already sufficient, but I thought a little history on these people and the usage of the term would help.
But first, it has to be mentioned that the term Jew is being used to refer to many things. Sometimes it refers to people, such as the Jews of America, the Jews of Israel, and the Jews of Russia. Sometimes to behavior, and this is often used derogatorily, such as “you would be screwed if you deal with a Jewish merchant.”
At other times, it refers to culture, a culture which is distinct from other culture, in the sense that the Jews always maintain their unique cultural identity. In this sense, the Chinese are observed to have more or less similar characteristic, which lead them to be labeled as the Jews of the East. It also refers to religion, for the Jews as people and Judaism as religion are inseparable. You can be a Malay, a Chinese, an Arab, an Indian, and be a Muslim or a Christian at the same time, but you must be a Jew too if you want to convert to Judaism.
As you can see, the term is not used for one thing only, but for multiple usages. There are many more to the above, but let’s limit to that for now.
Why such multiplicity of meanings and usages? The reason is historical.
The Jews belong to ancient people, said to be the descendants of Abraham, through his grandson Jacob, known as Israel. Abraham was said to have lived around 4,000 years ago. Jacob probably lived around 3,800 years ago, thereabout. He had 12 sons. The most well known ones are Joseph, Levi and Judah.
Joseph is famous because he was also a prophet, and because he had an interesting life. We have already narrated his story in Surah Yusuf: The Story That Brings Comfort. As for Levi (Lawi) and Judah (Yahuda), they are not famous because of themselves, but made famous by their descendants. Levi is the ancestor of Prophet Moses, Aaron and most of the Israelite prophets. The priestly caste among the Israelites belongs to Levi tribe. Judah is famous because his descendants later on became the kings for the Israelites, starting from David and Solomon. It was also from his name that the word Jew came into existence.
From the story of Joseph, we know that Jacob had twelve sons. Some of you might have thought that he got these sons from only one wife, because I did not narrate it there. Actually, he got these twelve sons from four wives. It is said that he had 17 children altogether, the other five being daughters.
What is interesting about his wives is that two of them were sisters, and the other two were bond maids of each of these sisters. These two sisters who were his wives were his cousins, for they were the daughters of his uncle Laban, who was the brother of his mother Rebecca. What is more interesting is that, if the Biblical story is accurate, he wanted to marry only one of them, Rachel, the younger and more beautiful sister, but ended up marrying the elder sister, Leah.
Well, he got tricked so to speak, by his own uncle no less. Angry for not getting what he coveted in the first place, he went to complain to his uncle, who simply replied that it is improper for him to give the younger one when the elder is still unmarried. If you want Rachel, his uncle said, you have to continue working for me for another seven years. Jacob was already serving his uncle for seven years, which was a condition for him to marry Rachel, but instead was given Leah. In any case, since it was Rachel whom Jacob desired, he had to serve his uncle for another seven years, making it altogether 14 years.
When Jacob married his cousins, it is interesting to note that he got to marry their bond maids as well. Thus, instead of having only one wife, he got four. As many men would say, it is not a bad deal indeed, in spite of having to wait for seven more years.
If one thinks that the story of Joseph is interesting, the story of his father is even more so, for it was full of intrigues. We may write about him one day, God willing.
For the moment, let’s stick with the matter in hand.
As we have also seen in the story of Joseph, Jacob had migrated to Egypt from Canaan. He brought all his family members, 70 of them. They lived as respectable citizens in Egypt because Joseph was the leading minister there. Two or three generations later, the memory of Joseph faded from the minds of the Egyptians. Some said the dynasty had also changed.
The new dynasty, whose king was known as Pharaoh, did not look at the descendants of Jacob kindly. This dynasty was also affected by grandiosity. They liked to build majestic monuments, mega projects. To do that, they needed many slaves. So they enslaved the descendants of Jacob as well, whom they called Habiru, probably their variation of what we know as Hebrew, or Ibrani in Arabic. It seems possible that during that time, the name Israelite was not yet in common use. The name of Jacob’s distant ancestor, Eber, from which came Hebrew, was used instead. But since the Quran used the term Israelites, we might as well go by that name.
In bondage, the Israelites were looking for the deliverer. God answered their call by sending Moses. Moses brought them out of Egypt, crossing the sea and encamped in the Sinai Desert. Their final destination was Canaan (current Israel and Palestine, and part of Jordan), the Land of Promise, the land of their forefathers. It was in this land that Abraham finally resided, and it was in this land that Jacob lived before he brought his whole family to Egypt. And it was also in this land that both Abraham and Jacob were buried.
As was inspired to him, Moses went to Mount Tur, searching for new revelation, seeking guidance from God as to what to do next. He left his people under the charge of his elder brother, Aaron (Prophet Harun). Once in the desert, the Israelites felt the pain of living in the harsh desert.
In Egypt, they were in bondage, yet food was not only aplenty, but had many varieties as well. In the desert, they felt hungry. Moses was also not around to give them guidance as to what they should worship. They were the descendants of Jacob, and it was the God of Jacob that they worshipped. But in Egypt, they observed that the Egyptians worshipped idols. In this state of confusion, a man by the name Samiri, who was wealthy and was reluctance to leave Egypt, agitated the masses and blamed Moses for causing all the difficulties they were experiencing. Without Moses, Aaron was too weak to prevent Samiri from making mischief.
It didn’t take long before many of them fell into disbelief. Taking all the gold they brought from Egypt, they smelt it and shaped it in the form of a cow. This is our god, Samiri and his goons shouted. Perhaps looking for excitement, or perhaps because many of them had weak faith, they joined the party of Samiri and had the days of their lives—dancing, drinking and did all sort of things. Aaron and others who had stronger faith looked at them in agony, but were helpless to prevent the orgy.
When Moses finally came back, he was shocked to see his people whom he had just delivered from the bondage in Egypt. Legend has it that Moses threw the stone engraving the Ten Commandments, and the earth split and swallowed the offenders. Quran commentators say that for this terrible behavior, the Israelites were made to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. They were allowed to survive by feeding only on the “manna” and “salwa”, which, according to commentators, were quail and mushroom.
For that behavior and many others, which we do not need to narrate here, their final destiny to the Promised Land was made to delay by almost three centuries. It was only by the year 1050 BC, or thereabout, that they finally managed to have a king and started to grow powerful.
End of Part 1