Q: You teach that the biblical definition of a Jew is strictly by bloodline, which means that one cannot, in the biblical sense, become a Jew, and that a Jew cannot become a non-Jew. Yet, Esther 8:17 states, “And many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.” This seems to allow for a second biblical definition of a Jew. Ryrie notes, “i.e., embraced the religion of the Jews as proselytes.” Please comment.
A: The translation of Esther 8:17 as “became Jews” is unfortunate since that is not the actual meaning of the term. The Hebrew word is hityahadim which would be better translated as “converting to Judaism.” That would be the reason Ryrie footnoted it as meaning the embracement of the Jewish religion and they became proselytes. The Hebrew text does not say they became Jews but that they became Judaistic and converted to Judaism.
Q: Is Jewishness carried through the male or female genealogy?
A: As with so many similar, controversial issues, the answer here differs between the Scriptures and Judaism. The Biblical rule is that Jewishness is traced through the father; according to Judaism, it is traced through the mother. But the Bible is for believers the determining factor: if the father is Jewish, the child is Jewish. In a situation where the father is Gentile and the mother Jewish, another Biblical priciple comes into play — the offspring of such a marriage have the option to identify with either side, just as Timothy did.
Q: Are there black Jews? I've heard that there are some in Ethiopia. Black people are supposed to be descended from Ham, but where did his descendants settle after the flood?
A: There are black-skinned Jews, and they are from Ethiopia. Up until three years ago, the majority of black Jews were still in Ethiopia, but most of them have now been airlifted to Israel — and this is where the majority of black-skinned Jews live today. It is correct that the black population descended from some of the sons of Ham, and, based upon Genesis 10, we know that these people settled in Central and South Africa. Other olive-skinned descendants of Ham, such as the Egyptians, settled in North Africa. And the descendants of Hamís fourth son, Canaan, also olive-skinned, settled in the land of Canaan which later became the land of Israel.
The origin of the black Jews comes from an intermarriage between the local Hamitic black and Jewish Semitic populations. After Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., many Jews fled to Egypt and later became Egyptian army members who guarded the cataracts of the Nile in regions that are today Ethiopia. These Jews from Israel intermarried with the local black population that had adopted Mosaic Judaism — such is the origin of the Ethiopian Jews, sometimes known as the Falasha Jews.