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TitleJudah through the Centuries
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1982
AuthorsMadsen, Ann N., and Barnard N. Madsen
Issue Number1
Date PublishedJanuary 1982
KeywordsDiaspora; Gathering of Israel; Joseph (of Egypt); Judaism; Kingdom of Judah; Scattering of Israel

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Judah through the Centuries

By Ann N. Madsen and Barnard N. Madsen

“I the Lord Have Not Forgotten My People”

On the night of 21 September 1823 the angel Moroni quoted these words to the young Prophet Joseph Smith, saying that they were “about to be fulfilled” (see JS—H 1:40):

“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people. …

“And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

“The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.” (Isa. 11:11–13.)

As latter-day events unfold we will understand more about the partnership between the descendants of Joseph and Judah. (See Ezek. 37:16–17, 22.) But in the spirit of preparation for that which is to come, it is clear that we of Joseph need to understand more about our brothers and sisters of Judah: to understand not only that we have a common father, a common heritage, and a common destiny, but to understand also the history and religion of those whom the Lord calls “my people.” (See 2 Ne. 29:5.)

The Origin of the Jews

The word Jew is derived from Judah, the name of the fourth son of Israel. In biblical times it was used with reference to those who were left in the southern kingdom (called Judah) after the downfall of the northern kingdom (called Israel) in 722 B.C., when ten tribal units were taken into captivity. Judah was therefore considered a geographical area and a nation; its inhabitants were Judahites, or Jews. It is for this reason that Lehi and his children were called Jews—they came from Judah. (See 1 Ne. 5:12; 2 Ne. 25:5–6.) Later, during the years of dispersion, the term Jew took on an ethnic connotation. With no homeland, the scattered Jews still retained their identity; they became a people in exile.

Jew, then, is not only a member of a particular lineage or of a religious group. Even by modern definitions, the term is applicable to a number of groups. For example, by Israeli law, a Jew is one who is born of a Jewish mother and who has not embraced another faith; however, a convert to the Jewish religion is “adopted in” through baptism in the same sense that we understand the adoption of Israel in the Church, and he, too, links himself with the collective past. This does not mean that all Jews are religious or that they all share common beliefs. It is possible to be both Jewish and an atheist. Indeed, Judaism today is more an ethnic affiliation and a religion of customs and practices than a faith of doctrines. Therefore, being a Jew, writes one rabbi (Morris N. Kertzer), can be a matter of belonging, believing, or behaving. (See Leo Rosten, ed., Religions of America, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975, p. 143.) More than anything else, being a devout Jew is a way of life.

The modern believing Jew traces his family and religious origins back to Abraham, who was promised that in him and his descendants “all the families of the earth [would] be blessed.” (Gen. 28:14.)

But if to modern Jews Abraham marks the beginning of the covenant people, Sinai marks the high point in the Jewish consciousness. The yearly Passover not only celebrates the sparing of Israel’s firstborn, but also recalls the Sinai covenant which made Israel a distinctive and chosen people. In Jewish history, Sinai marks the beginning of Judaism—the religion of the Jewish people.

Because of their wide dispersion (see Lev. 26:33; Deut. 4:27; Deut. 28:64) which modern Jews refer to as the Diaspora, Jews live in practically every nation in the world.

From Moses to the Exile (c. 1400 B.C. to 600 B.C.)

The history of Israel from Egypt to the Exile can be outlined briefly as follows: from slavery to tribal confederacy to monarchy to separation to captivity. After the Exodus, the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan, the land given to their father Abraham. (See Gen. 17:8.) The land was divided up among the tribes (see LDS Bible, map 5); the Levites, the bearers of the priesthood, were given no specific area of land because they were needed everywhere the Israelites gathered to worship.

After the period of the judges, a time of confederacy among the tribes, Saul became Israel’s first king. (See LDS Bible, map 6.) Later David and his son Solomon reigned as kings in Israel. (See LDS Bible, maps 7 and 8.) This period is still looked upon as the Golden Age of Israel’s history: the Israelites were in their land, the kingdom was united, and it was a time of general prosperity. In the days of Solomon, the great temple was erected to house the ark of the covenant, which, until that time, had been placed in another sanctuary. Jerusalem, both as the political and spiritual capital of Israel, became the lodestone of its faith.

After Solomon’s death, in 922 B.C., the kingdom was divided between Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and Jeroboam, a rebel in the north. Israel in the north and Judah in the south alternately warred and allied with each other over a period of two hundred years. Then in 722 B.C. the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians; ten tribal units were taken into captivity, while northern refugees and the kingdom of Judah remained in the south.

Over this period, beginning with Moses and ending with Jeremiah, the distinguishing features of the religion were prophets, priesthood, the promised land, and the temple. But from the “holy nation” foreseen by the Lord at Sinai (see Ex. 19:6), Israel had become by the eighth century B.C. a “sinful nation” that had “forsaken the Lord.” (Isa. 1:4.)

“If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land,” wrote Isaiah. “But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isa. 1:19–20.)

The northern kingdom fell, and approximately 122 years later, in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, “there came many prophets,” among them Lehi, “prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” (1 Ne. 1:4.) Lehi and his family fled, and Jerusalem fell in 587 B.C. to the Babylonians—the temple was looted and destroyed and the people of Judah were taken into captivity. Judaism was further diluted in Babylon because the Jews were without a temple and were surrounded by an alien culture: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. … How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4.)

For more than 2,000 years after the Babylonian captivity of Judah, the Jews were largely a “people of the Diaspora” (dispersion), in exile throughout the known world and driven from land to land, only in modern times regaining a measure of national identity.

From the Exile to the Time of Christ

Lehi and the Nephites preserved not only the brass plates (the written word), but also the other features of the religion of Israel when they fled Jerusalem and came to the New World: they had prophets, priesthood, prophecy, and temples. And, in reliving the ancient history of their people, they had a new promised land with Lehi as an Abrahamic-patriarch. Descendants of Joseph, they fulfilled the prophecy given to Joseph by Jacob that his posterity would, like branches, “run over the wall.” (Gen. 49:22.) As the publication of the Book of Mormon shows, their history and achievements would play an important part in the Restoration in the last days. (See 2 Ne. 3:5, 12–24.)

Meanwhile, in the Old World, Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their land and rebuild their temple.

“And all the people gathered themselves together as one man … and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel. …

“And he read therein … from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law. …

“So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (Neh. 8:1, 3, 8.)

This began the major transformation of Judaism—from a temple-centered religion to one focusing on the synagogue; from one with an organized priesthood to one with rabbis (teachers) not claiming any priesthood; from sacrifices in the temple to a religious life centered around the synagogue, study, and prayer. In subsequent cultures came the Pharisees, who wanted the law directly accessible to the common people. They resisted the idea that one must be a member of the temple priesthood to study the law, and they interpreted the scriptures liberally.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, represented the “establishment,” including the temple priesthood and the aristocracy. Their more conservative views centered around the temple, the priesthood, and exact application of the Mosaic law.

A third faction, the Essenes, who inhabited the desert settlement called Qumran and authored the Dead Sea Scrolls, rejected both of the other groups, tracing their authority back to Zadok, David’s high priest.

These groups were in vigorous conflict at the time of Jesus, the primary conflict centering around the temple priesthood and authority of those whose records we now possess. Only the Essenes claimed to have revelation.

During this entire period, Judah was subject to foreign domination—first by Babylon, then by Persia (although they were fairly autonomous under Cyrus), followed by Greece (except for the period of the Maccabean revolt), then Rome.

During the Time of Christ

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

“Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

“For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (Matt. 23:37–39.)

Prior to the birth of the Savior, Judaism or the religion of Judah was in a state of apostasy similar to what was found in Christianity at the time of Joseph Smith. In fact, the Lord has brought the same indictment against churches of our day as he brought against Judah of his own time. (Compare JS—H 1:19 with Matt. 15:8–9.)

Lacking a living voice, the Jews were dependent on the written and oral traditions. In contrast, Christ taught “as one that had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22), who were always quoting others to support their views. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, …” Jesus taught on the Mount, “But I say unto you  …” (Matt. 5:21, 22, italics added.)

The Pharisaic Jews who prided themselves in their knowledge of law and tradition were fervent in their rejection of Jesus. What did he mean, they wondered, when he said he had tried to gather the children of Israel in the past? They didn’t understand that the God at Sinai, the Holy One of Israel, was Jesus Christ, that observance of the law of Moses was to prepare them and point them to Christ. (See Matt. 5:17–18; John 5:46–47.) They were expecting a mighty king-Messiah to come and release them from political bondage under the Romans; not understanding the freedom the Lord offered, they rejected him as the true Messiah.

This period was characterized by religious confusion and disintegration. There had been a renewal of prophecy in the period prior to the Savior’s birth and for a short time following his ascension, but it was largely ignored or discounted. The scriptures of this period were produced almost entirely by Christ’s disciples, who were seen as a small Jewish sect—only one of many schisms. Then, with the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, the Jewish Levites and priests of Judaism were left without a function, with no way to fulfill the parts of the law which deal with sacrifice and temple ritual. Forty years after the Savior’s crucifixion, what remained of Judaism were the Jews and their law.

However, on the American continent a faithful remnant of Israel—Nephites and some Lamanites—had prepared for the coming of the Messiah. (See 3 Ne. 10:10–19.) When he came, he taught them that the law of Moses had been fulfilled (see 3 Ne. 9:15–22; 3 Ne. 11:10–15; 4 Ne. 1:12); the Atonement foreshadowed in the ancient records had taken place. It was a historical fact. No longer were types and shadows necessary to prepare the minds of the people. The act of redemption had taken place in a lonely garden and on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem. The Son of God had been crucified and resurrected. The suffering Servant had given his life for the sheep. (See Isa. 53.)

During Judaism’s Interpretive Period

“Be careful in judgment: set up many scholars, and make a hedge about the law.” (Motto of the Great Assembly.)

According to Jewish tradition, the written commandments, found in Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Law, or Torah), were accompanied by oral interpretations when they were given to Moses on Sinai. Jews believe that the oral law passed down by word of mouth from Moses to Joshua, and on to the leaders, to the prophets, and to the Men of the Great Assembly which, according to tradition, consisted of Ezra and one hundred twenty eminent scholars. This oral law eventually took precedence over the prophets, since after the Babylonian captivity the Jews considered prophets only as messengers or spokesmen who reminded them to keep the Law of Moses. Consequently, the members of the Assembly rose to prominence as sources of wisdom and knowledge who could interpret the written word. The letter of the law thereafter became more important than the spirit.

The oral law developed in the synagogues of Judaism for over five and a half centuries until it was compiled by Rabbi Judah the Prince in Jerusalem in the second century A.D. His compilation is called the Mishnah (“to repeat”) and consists of a commentary on the five books of Moses, explaining in great detail how Mosaic laws are to be applied in everyday life.

During the final stages of development of the Mishnah and for several centuries thereafter (until about A.D. 500) other rabbinical scholars interpreted the Mishnah just as those who contributed to the Mishnah had interpreted the Torah. In the end, they produced the Gemara (“completion”), a commentary on the Mishnah. Together, the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud, which is considered almost as sacred as the Torah (the Law).

A Gentile once asked one of the early Talmudic scholars to teach him all there was to know about Judaism while standing on one foot. The scholar replied: “What is offensive to you do not do to others. That is the core of Judaism. The rest is commentary.”

The Midrash, compiled in A.D. 1040, includes anecdotes, parables, and allegories which make the scriptures understandable to the common man. However, to the Jews the Midrash is not as authoritative or as binding as the Talmud or Torah.

During this period the Jews were scattered among the nations, with some few remaining in Palestine, but without national identity. In the lands of their dispersion, they were persecuted for their Jewishness by Christians. Survival was of primary concern to many during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. They were separatists to begin with (no inter-marrying, no contact with Gentile things), but persecution strengthened the Jews’ consolidation and unification. Forced to reinterpret their tradition in light of persecution, they separated themselves ideologically from Christianity because they received their most bitter and violent persecution under the banner of the Cross and in the so-called name of Christ.

Judaism Today

“In the year one thousand nine hundred and thirty-three of the Christian Era, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. In his time the [Nazis] and their accomplices murdered six million Jews, among them a million and a half Jewish children. Imprisoned in ghettoes the victims fought desperately for their lives while the world stood by in silence.” (Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, Israel.)

It is an understatement to say that the Holocaust has had the greatest impact on the Jewish people and Judaism in modern times. But it has been by no means the only persecution modern Jews have faced. Confronted with such pressures, three branches of Judaism have emerged as reinterpretations of the historical past: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Another branch of Judaism more political than religious is Zionism.

Reform Judaism has prospered in recent times and together with Conservative Judaism represents most of religious Jewry. Reform and Conservative share a similar theology but differ in their interpretations of certain aspects of ritual. Conservative Judaism holds to a liberal theological position while maintaining that certain outward forms of traditional observance, particularly the dietary laws and Sabbath regulations, ought to be observed because of their historical centrality to Judaism. Reform Judaism has liberalized many of these practices and actively encourages its members to select from the many ritual options open to them.

Although most Orthodox Jews lead modern and involved lives, they tend to resist changes in religious practices. Thus they are stricter in the way they interpret traditional rabbinic law than other branches of Judaism.

Zionism is a political philosophy which holds that life in exile (outside of Israel) is intolerable. Though there are religious Zionists, the spirit of Zionism can be summed up in the words of Yigael Yadin, a prominent Jewish statesman and archaeologist: “My religion is the land.” This is the attitude of much of the population of the state of Israel today.

The main components of Judaism today are the Law (Torah), the interpretation of the Law (Talmud and Midrash), and the land of Israel, which is battling to remain a Jewish state.

One Fold

As Latter-day Saints, we see ourselves as restored Israel. Genealogically we tie ourselves to the same blood line as the Jews—we, as they, are the descendants of Abraham and Israel. But most importantly we are a restoration of the true biblical religion: we are blessed with a continuation of prophecy and prophets, the two priesthoods, Levitical and Melchizedek, temples, latter-day scriptures including the Book of Mormon, and a new—though very ancient—land of promise.

The restored gospel has as its foundation modern as well as ancient revelation. We possess a unique record of a prophetic people leaving Jerusalem before the Exile and migrating to the New World, who preserved the religion of their patriarch fathers. In the Book of Mormon, we see a group of Israelites living the law of Moses with the intent of preparing to receive Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

Several similarities still exist between the modern families of Judah and Joseph:

  1. Conversion: A new convert is adopted into the house of Israel by immersion and receives a new name after conversion. Jews receive a Hebrew name; Latter-day Saints take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ.
  2. Covenant people: We claim to be a renewal of the covenant made with Abraham—the “new and everlasting covenant.”
  3. Heritage of persecution: We have both been mobbed, hated, and persecuted.
  4. Family worship: Sabbath services held Friday evenings in Jewish families for two thousand years can be seen as similar to the LDS family home evening.
  5. Dietary laws: Kosher, Word of Wisdom.
  6. Emphasis on doing: Observant Jew, active Latter-day Saint.
  7. First-last, last-first: “Wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.

“And the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations, both unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles; and after he has manifested himself unto the Jews and also unto the Gentiles, then he shall manifest himself unto the Gentiles and also unto the Jews, and the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” (1 Ne. 13:41–42.)

The day of the Jews gave way to our day: the day of the Gentiles. Again, our day will give way to the Jews.

President Kimball has taught us,

“We are neither Greek nor Italian nor Mexican nor Jew. We are all … —brothers and sisters—just fellowmen, with the same overpowering responsibility. …

“The Lord said to the Nephites, ‘O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people.’ (2 Ne. 29:5) …

“I repeat that scripture because it seems to me that it fits us who have, in some degree at least, forgotten them. …

“They must hear the gospel; they must accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Master, and that day, I think, cannot come until we, the witnesses of Jesus Christ, get busy and present the message to them.” (Regional Representatives’ seminar, 3 Apr. 1975; see also 3 Ne. 20:29–40.)

Our ancient progenitor Joseph is a type for us—a savior to his father’s house. Paraphrasing Joseph, we may collectively say to our brethren of the house of Israel, especially to our brethren the Jews: “I am Joseph your brother. Our Father yet lives!”

Ann N. Madsen, mother of four and part-time Old Testament instructor at Brigham Young University, is a writer for the Church Curriculum Committee.

Her son [Ann N. Madsen’s], Barnard N. Madsen, a pre-law student at BYU, is elders quorum instructor in his ward.