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Spring 1988 · Vol. 17 No. 1 · pp. 67–72 

Assimilation in Israel: Actual and Ideal

Allen R. Guenther

The people of God must live with a tension between faith and culture. Indeed, it is within this tension that the witness of the true Israel has been expressed. Our concern here is to suggest one of the ways in which ethnic Israel fulfilled its function of being a witness and blessing to all the nations of the earth.

Assimilation does not necessarily denote loss of ethnic character.

The specific question I wish to address is, How did Israel incorporate non-Israelites into the faith community? That question can be answered by giving attention to both the actual and the ideal in assimilating converts into Israel.


Even brief reflection on Israel’s practice of receiving Gentiles as converts raises a barrage of questions. When people of other faiths converted to Yahwism, did they abandon their ethnicity or nationality in favor of Israel’s or did they retain it? Was this equally true of men as of women? If assimilation was practiced, did it apply only to individuals who were living within the boundaries of Palestine or also to those within the communities {68} of the dispersion? Were proselytes absorbed into the tribal structure? Even more importantly, were they granted landholding rights in perpetuity like Israelite citizens?

I suggest that four criteria would need to be met for full assimilation to occur: 1) male converts would need to be circumcised, 2) they would be permitted to worship in the inner court rather than be restricted to the court of the Gentiles, 3) they would have the right to stand in the “assembly of Israel,” and 4) they would have a land grant within the “inheritance of Israel.”

There are some examples of assimilation of converts occurring to a greater or lesser degree. Caleb, Joshua’s fellow spy, is identified as the Kenezzite (Num. 34:12; Josh. 14:6, 14), suggesting a non-Israelite background. He is a true Yahwist who receives a land grant on entering Canaan (Josh. 14:6-15). The Midianite/Kenite relatives of Moses accompany Israel into Canaan and settle there (Num. 10:29; Judg. 4:11; 1 Chron. 2:55). They also appear to have been Yahwists (cf. Exod. 18). In neither of the above cases, however, does assimilation erase their distinctive ethnic identity. That is, they continue to be identified as Caleb the Kenizzite and the Kenites.

Ruth, the Moabitess, is a convert and the widow of a Jewish husband. Yet, even after settling down in Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi, she identifies herself as a stranger (2:10, 19: 3:14). This was the case even though foreign women were much more readily accepted into the nation than men. In fact, Deut. 23:7-8 may contain a reflection of the general difficulty men had in becoming fully assimilated. It declares that an Edomite or Egyptian may not be fully accepted into the assembly of Israel until the third generation. Presumably that refers to the third consecutive generation of Yahwists. And, finally, the book of Esther describes an event in which many people of other nationalities “became” or, better, “made themselves” Jews (8:17). The form of the verb implies circumcision as the rite of passage into Judaism.

Women captured in war and given in marriage to Jewish sons were not necessarily proselytes (Deut. 21:10-14). Nor were wives who were partners in political marriages, such as Solomon’s wives, Jezebel, or the women from other nations who were encountered by Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9-10; Neh. 13:23-38). And the sojourner (ger) was not necessarily a proselyte, even though he was expected to keep the basic laws {69} of the land (Lev. 17:10-15; 18:26; 20:2; 24:16). He was a resident alien who held a “green card” (immigrant’s visa), rather than citizenship papers (Ezek. 44:6-9). If circumcised, together with all the other males of his family, he received full acceptance into the assembly of Israel and was qualified to celebrate the Passover (Exod. 12:43-48).

The evidence from Israel’s practice suggests converts were assimilated into Israel through marriage or circumcision. However, they faced social hurdles. Inasmuch as there is only one reference to the issuance of a land grant, it may be that proselytes often experienced social and economic discrimination. Perhaps this is why the gerim were listed with the “widows, orphans and Levites” as economically distressed and those discriminated against. There is, however, no indication as to what the status of the Yahwistic ger was in contrast with the ger who worshipped other gods. It is possible that after conversion to Yahwism he and his family were no longer viewed as gerim, as in the case of Caleb. The evidence from Ruth’s experience and comments and from the legislation in Deuteronomy suggests that religious converts from other ethnic groups experienced social discrimination for a considerable period of time.


The remnant theme expresses the ideal, the promise for the future. It is important because a “remnant” is usually not co-extensive with any existing political entity. It consists of a minority of a people, sometimes the residue remaining after a judgment, but more often a minority who give their allegiance to Yahweh. While each prophet speaks of the remnant in the light of the political circumstances of his day, the remnant becomes increasingly detached from ethnic ties and appears more as the germ of a new future of divine action. “The disentanglement of the remnant from its national trappings makes it into a splendid reality open to the heathen, or rather to the remnant among them (Zeph. 3:9; Zech. 14:16)” (Jacob 324).

The remnant concept also directs attention to future salvation, thus presenting us more with an ideal than with practice. The ideal, at the very least, points us in the direction in which the process of assimilation might move. The texts on which I {70} base the following observations refer, in context, either explicitly or implicitly, to two remnants, that of Israel as well as that of the nations (Isa. 11:10-16; 45:20; 56:8; 66:18-21; Ezek. 16:53; 36:36; Amos 9:12; Zech. 9:7; 14:16).

The remnant of Israel is sometimes viewed as a fringe group at the borders of religious or ethnic acceptability. Thus, in Isa. 66:5 the remnant of Israel is said to have been cast out by unbelieving Israel “for my [Yahweh] name’s sake.” The subsequent verses (66:15-17) indicate that the hostile, the ungodly, and those Israelites practicing a hypocritical religiosity will fall under divine judgment together with the nations. The scattered faithful few, however, will have a share in the glory of the changed world order (66:18-23).

The Gentile remnant is generally identified as a group which comes out of the judgment of Yahweh. This remnant is called by the name of Israel’s great historic national enemies: Egypt and Assyria (Isa. 11:11), Canaan (Ezek. 16:53), Edom (Amos 9:12), and Philistia (Zech. 9:7). At other times, the salvation of the Gentile remnant is cast in universal terms. There are references to “all the nations that are called by my name” (Amos 9:12), “the nations that are left round about you” (Ezek. 36:36), and “all nations and tongues” (Isa. 66:19-20). This remnant of the Gentiles is described as the product of Yahweh’s summons to the nations to reject the worship of idols and to serve the true God (Isa. 45:20, 22).

The salvation of the two remnants is described in terms of the great divine manifestations in Israel’s history. The coming events in which both Israel and the Gentiles will share are depicted under the motifs of a new creation, a new exodus, and a new Davidic kingdom.

The new creation motif appears in Isaiah 45 and Ezekiel 36. It depicts the great work of God with the remnant of Israel for the honor of the divine name. The Gentiles, viewing this work of re-creation, are drawn to reverence and worship Yahweh as the only true God.

The new exodus of the latter days will include Gentiles with Israel. Repeatedly this conjunction is described as “spoiling” the enemy and of engaging in a holy war (Isa. 11:10-13; Amos 9:12; Zech. 14:14; cf. Exod. 12:35-36). In the wilderness Yahweh will betroth Israel and the Gentiles to himself in a new covenant (Ezek. 16). This covenant is distinctive in that it will include the remnants of Samaria (the apostate Northern {71} Kingdom) and Sodom (representing the unbelieving Gentile and Canaanite nations). These three groups will be united, “but not by thy covenant [or, though they are not members of your covenant]. And I will establish my covenant with thee” (Ezek. 16:61,62). The restoration occurs through forgiveness (v. 63).

The new covenant people will be served by a mixed Israel Gentile priesthood (Isa. 56:6-7; 66:19-21). Every one who names the name of Yahweh will worship the Lord without distinction as to nationality (Zech. 14:17-21).

The promised new Davidic kingdom will be governed by a king of the Davidic line (Isa. 11:10-16; Amos 9:12; Zech. 9:7). This king will marshall the remnants of both Israel and the Gentiles (Isa. 11:10,12) beneath his banner. He will conquer and take possession of the people of God throughout the world (Amos 9:12).

Thus the collocation of the remnants of Israel and of the Gentiles introduces an ideal of the people of God to be realized under the new David, by a new covenant, in the form of a new creation. Whether ethnic distinctions become a thing of the past or no longer are an obstacle in the existence of God’s people is not clear. But this people—of every nation—is fused into a whole new being.


  1. The Old Testament depicts peoples, no matter what their faith, basically in ethnic or national terms. It acknowledges these social realities. Ethnicity is a part of who we are as people.
  2. The assimilation of converts or Yahwists from outside Israel occurs rarely, but it does occur. For men (because they are males and because they are leaders of households) there appear to be defined procedures and symbols to denote assimilation. Assimilation does not necessarily denote loss of ethnic character.
  3. The language of future salvation on occasion transcends ethnicity and nationalism, while usually acknowledging the realities of these social or political distinctions as being transcendable. Most frequently the language of future salvation draws on the concept of “incorporation into Israel” even while it refers to individual nations to symbolize the nature of the unity. {72}


  • Jacob, Edmond. Theology of the Old Testament. Trans. Arthur W. Heathcote and Philip J. Allcock. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958.
Allen Guenther teaches Old Testament at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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