Where the world comes to study the Bible

6. The Jew and the Gentile Background of the Jew in the Old Testament

Article contributed by

Following the flood of Noah humankind was divided into three major racial divisions descending from the three sons of Noah—Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The entire human race descended from these three sons of Noah.

The sons of Japheth formed the largest group descending from Noah and include the peoples mentioned in Genesis 10:2-5, especially the peoples in Asia Minor, Greece, Russia, Cyprus, and Southeastern Europe. These people later spread to other parts of the world.

The sons of Ham, mentioned in Genesis 10:6-20, in general inhabited Asia, except for Northern Asia, and lived in Southern Europe and Northern Africa. Like others, they scattered throughout the world in subsequent history. They were the original inhabitants of the land that God later gave to Israel.

The sons of Shem, mentioned in Genesis 10:21-31, in general occupied the Middle East. Important to the Bible is the fact that the descendants of Shem included Abram and Israel and also Jesus Christ. Genesis 10 remains the most ancient document detailing the movement of the nations and the location of various peoples, and even the secular world has to turn to it for information.

As the history of the Old Testament unfolded after the flood, humankind continued to rebel against God, culminating in the judgment of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). In Genesis 12 a new divine purpose of God was revealed creating a new division, beginning with Abram. The rest of the book of Genesis, from chapter 11 to chapter 50, deals with Abram and his descendants. God promised that a special blessing would come to the whole earth through Abram’s descendants. The line of this fulfillment went through Isaac, Abram’s son, and then to Jacob, the son of Isaac, who was the father of the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. Though Abram blessed the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac blessed Esau, the line of Isaac and Jacob alone inherited the promise of being a blessing to the whole world and the promises given to Jacob and his sons.

From the time of the emergence of Israel as a special people, God’s plans for them in fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant are unfolded throughout the Old Testament. Under the rule of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, Israel became a great nation, unexcelled for riches and glory. Following the death of Solomon, however, because of his intermarriage with many heathen wives, the kingdom was divided into two—the kingdom of Israel, including the ten tribes, and the kingdom of Judah, including the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Beginning in the book of Esther and continuing with a few references in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, the two tribes of the kingdom of Judah were called Jews and carried off into captivity. This designation of “Jews” continued through the captivities, and in Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jeremiah, and Daniel, and later in the New Testament. Though, strictly speaking, the title applied only to the tribe of Judah because it was the dominant tribe from which the kings came, eventually all twelve tribes began to be labeled as Jews. By contrast, all others became known as Gentiles, originally applied to some sons of Japheth (Gen. 10:5 KJV), but later to all those who were not descendants of Jacob (Neh. 5:8).

When the wise men came from the East seeking Jesus, they asked the question, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2). The Magi were referring to the promise of a king over all twelve tribes of Israel. Though Israel is referred to in approximately 80 New Testament passages, the nation is designated “the Jews” in approximately 190 New Testament references.

The Jews as a Separate People

The study of the Jew in the Old Testament clearly reveals that God has a special purpose for this people. Paul described this special place in these words, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Rom. 9:4-5).

As the summary in Romans 9 indicates, the Jews were a special people who were designed by God to be the channel of divine revelation to the world. From them would come the prophets, the writers of the Old Testament, and most of the writers of the New Testament. From them would come the twelve apostles and, supremely, Jesus Christ. The Jews were given the Law of Moses, which was not extended beyond Israel. To them were given the special rules for worship in the tabernacle and in the temple; and to them were given special promises that were not extended to the entire human race. Though Israel did not choose God, God chose them; and with extraordinary patience and tenacity, He fulfills His promises to Israel even in times of apostasy and departure from God. It is in keeping with this purpose of God that Israel had such a prominent place throughout the Old Testament, and the course of human history is developed in the Old Testament period as it revolves around Israel and the Holy Land. God’s dealing with them both in judgment and in mercy provided a divine revelation of the nature of God, His righteousness, His love, His grace, and His infinite wisdom. The major movements of the nation constitute the important divisions of the Old Testament. In the time of Jacob and Joseph the children of Israel went down to Egypt a family of seventy, and there, in several hundred years, they became a great nation of perhaps two to three million.

After the Jews fell into ill favor with Pharaoh and they became slaves, God raised up Moses to lead them from Egypt to the Promised Land. After Moses’ death Joshua brought the children of Israel into the land that they possessed.

After Israel went through the apostasies recorded in the book of Judges, they became a great nation, beginning with Samuel the prophet and then Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. After Solomon’s death, however, their continued sinfulness against God not only resulted in the division of the two kingdoms—the ten tribes, the kingdom of Israel, and the two tribes, the kingdom of Judah—but God caused them to be taken out of the land. The ten tribes were carried off by Assyria in 722 B.C. (1 Chron. 5:25-26), and the remaining two tribes, the kingdom of Judah, were conquered by Babylon in 605 B.C. Judah was subsequently carried off to Babylon, and Jerusalem, along with its beautiful temple, was plundered and destroyed in 586 B.C. (2 Chron. 36:17-20).

In 538 B.C. under Ezra, fifty thousand came back to try to reestablish Israel in the land (Ezra 1:1-2:70). After many years of struggle Nehemiah arrived on the scene in 445 B.C. and encouraged them to rebuild the wall and rebuild the city (Neh. 1:1-6:16; 11:1-2). When Christ was born, Jerusalem was once again a thriving city.

The subsequent rejection of Christ ultimately resulted in the dispersion of the children of Israel all over the world, beginning in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem was conquered and burned by the Romans.

In the twentieth century the children of Israel have begun their return to their ancient land, signaling what may well be the beginning of the final regathering of Israel prophesied in Scripture. Almost four million Jews now live within the bounds of the land of Israel and are in their place to fulfill their prophetic destiny.

The Gentiles as a Separate People

While the Old Testament gives major attention to the people of Israel and portrays their special place in the plan of God, the revelation of God’s special purpose for the Gentiles also is unfolded in the Old Testament.

The large place that the Gentiles would play in subsequent history has as its background the ethnological table of the descendants of Noah found in Genesis 10. No other ancient document gives the material of the origin of the various races as does this chapter. From a biblical standpoint it is important because it provides a background for history and prophecy as they relate to all other peoples who are not descendants of Jacob.

The Egyptian Empire

The major role of the Gentiles is traced first to the nation of Egypt, which at one time was the most powerful nation in the world. Abram, according to Genesis 12:10, went down to Egypt, where he attempted to gain favor by saying that Sarai was his sister, not his wife (Gen. 12:10-13). Actually, she was his half-sister. This almost proved disastrous as Pharaoh took Sarai into the palace to become his wife (Gen. 12:14-16). Though Sarai was more than sixty-five years of age, she was declared to be a beautiful and desirable woman. When Abram’s deceit was discovered, he left Egypt (Gen. 12:17-20), but not without some of the riches that he had accumulated in the short time there. Unfortunately, he also took with him a slave girl, Hagar, who later became the mother of Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-15).

When Isaac later wanted to go down into Egypt, God appeared to him and told him to stay in the land and he would inherit the promises that God gave to Abram (Gen. 26:1-6).

The most important chapter in Israel’s history occurred in the time of Jacob and Joseph when the children of Israel went down to Egypt to escape the famine (Gen. 46:1-7). Joseph, because he had interpreted Pharaoh’s dream concerning the coming famine (Gen. 41:1-43), was able to care for his people (Gen. 46:28-47:12), and in the several hundred years that they dwelt in Egypt they became a nation of two to three million. Subsequently, under Moses they left Egypt (Ex. 12:31-51), and under Joshua they conquered most of the Promised Land (Josh. 21:43-45), though some sections remained unconquered (Judges 1:21, 27-28).

The Assyrian Empire

As the years passed, Assyria rose in power and supplanted Egypt as the most dominant nation in the Middle East. The Assyrian armies were those who carried off the ten tribes into captivity in 722 B.C. (1 Chron. 5:25-26).

Assyria, however, was defeated in 612 B.C., and its capital city, Nineveh, was burned. The Assyrian empire was then succeeded by the empire of Babylon.

The Empires Revealed to Daniel: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome

The Babylonians played an important part in the history of Israel because they were responsible for the conquering of Jerusalem in 605 B.C. and the subsequent captivity of Judah.

Most significant in the revelation of God’s purposes for the Gentiles was the truth revealed through Daniel that beginning with Babylon there would be four great world empires prior to the kingdom that would come from heaven. In Daniel 2 this was revealed to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, in a gigantic image that had a head of gold, the upper part of the body of silver, the lower part of the body of bronze, the legs of iron, and the feet of iron and pottery. As Daniel interpreted this dream for the king (Dan. 2), the various elements of the image revealed the four empires—the head of gold being Babylon, the upper part of the body of silver being that of the Medes and the Persians, the lower part of the body of bronze referring to the kingdom of Greece or the conquest of Alexander the Great, and the legs of iron and the feet of iron and pottery representing the empire of Rome. The first three empires are named in the book of Daniel (2:36-38; 5:30; 8:20-21). The fourth empire most naturally represents Rome, which succeeded the Grecian Empire.

In Daniel 7 the prophecies of the future of the Gentiles were further revealed in the form of four beasts. In Daniel 7 the lion represents Babylon, the bear represents Medo-Persia, the leopard represents Alexander, king of Greece, and his conquests, and the beast with great iron teeth represents the empire of Rome. Greece is named in Daniel 8:21 and represented as the goat with one prominent horn, referring to Alexander, and Medo-Persia is pictured as a ram with two horns (Dan. 8:2-4, 20). The fourth beast represents Rome.

The Future Revival of the Roman Empire

Most significant are the details furnished concerning the Roman Empire. Though most of the prophecy concerning Rome has now been fulfilled in history, the final stage is represented by a beast having ten horns, according to Daniel 7:7. A little horn (7:8) arises, however, which uproots three of the ten horns, and this is interpreted as a ruler who eventually will gain control of the Roman Empire. As this ten-horned stage has never occurred in history, it seems that the vision leaps to the present age without taking into consideration the time between the first and second coming of Christ and centers on the final form of world government in the end time preceding the second coming of Christ.

The ten-horn stage of the beast represents the revived Roman Empire composed of ten kingdoms in and around the Mediterranean Sea. The “little horn” of Daniel 7:8 represents its ruler who eventually becomes a world ruler. As stated in Daniel 7:23, “It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it.” The truth represented in Daniel’s prophetic vision is given further detail in the book of Revelation, especially in Revelation 13.

The Prophetic Program for Jews and Gentiles Culminates in the Second Coming

The program for Israel as well as for the Gentiles in Daniel’s prophecies culminates in the second coming of Christ, when Gentile dominion will be destroyed and Israel will be restored to her ancient land.

God’s special purposes for Israel included that through them would come the Messiah and the Savior in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ in His first coming, and that through them would come divine revelation to the world in the form of prophetic utterance and biblical writings. Through Israel God would reveal Himself as He had never revealed Himself before.

In the history of the Gentiles and in their ultimate prophetic future, God demonstrates His sovereignty over the world, and the Gentiles form the special vehicle that shows the power and wisdom of God that ultimately will bring every race and every people into subjection to Himself. Gentile history in the Old Testament as well as the prophecy of its future, accordingly, forms the graphic background for what God has accomplished in and through Israel. These lines of truth will continue and ultimately be fulfilled at the Second Coming and in the millennial kingdom.


    1. What were the names of Noah’s three children?

    2. What is their importance to the history of the race?

    3. From what son of Noah did Christ and the people of Israel descend?

    4. What form did rebellion against God take among the descendants of Noah?

    5. What new divine purpose of God is revealed in Genesis 12?

    6. What is the significance of the fact that God devotes from Genesis 11 to Genesis 50 to the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

    7. What was the line of fulfillment of the promise to Abram’s seed?

    8. What happened to Israel under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon?

    9. Why did the kingdom after Solomon divide into two kingdoms?

    10. Trace the designation “Jews” to the people of Israel.

    11. When the Magi came from the East seeking Jesus, what did they have in mind in reference to the promise of a king?

    12. What are some of the outstanding features that God bestowed on Israel as a separate people according to Romans 9?

    13. To what extent did God use Israel as a channel of divine revelation? What did God reveal in His dealings with Israel through the centuries?

    14. What caused the children of Israel to go down into Egypt?

    15. How did they travel from Egypt to the Promised Land?

    16. What was the moral situation in Israel prior to Samuel the prophet?

    17. What did God do to the ten tribes who had rebelled against Him?

    18. What did He do to the two remaining tribes?

    19. When did the people of Israel go back to their land? Describe the struggles of the pilgrims who returned to Jerusalem and the ultimate outcome.

    20. What happened to Israel in A.D. 70 and in the following years?

    21. Trace the relationship of Egypt to the children of Israel?

    22. What was Abram’s experience in Egypt?

    23. State briefly Assyria’s rise to power and subsequent decline.

    24. What four empires were revealed prophetically to Daniel?

    25. What part did the Babylonians play in the history of Israel?

    26. In regard to the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, describe the identification of the head of gold, the upper part of the body of silver, the lower part of the body of bronze, the legs of iron, and the feet of iron and pottery.

    27. What will succeed the fourth empire?

    28. In Daniel’s vision of the four beasts in Daniel 7, how do you identify the four beasts?

    29. How much of this has been fulfilled?

    30. In regard to the unfulfilled prophecies concerning Rome, what may we expect to emerge in the end time?

    31. When will the period of Gentile power finally end?

    32. What, in general, does God demonstrate in His handling of the Gentile world?

Report Inappropriate Ad