“Happy is the people whose God is Jehovah!”—PS. 144:15.
1. What do some think with regard to God’s having a people on earth?
MANY thinking people today readily admit that mainstream religions, inside and outside Christendom, do little to benefit mankind. Some agree that such religious systems misrepresent God by their teachings and by their conduct and therefore cannot have God’s approval. They believe, however, that there are sincere people in all religions and that God sees them and accepts them as his worshippers on earth. They see no need for such ones to quit engaging in false religion in order to worship as a separate people. But does this thinking represent God’s? Let us find the answer by reviewing some of the Scriptural history of Jehovah’s true worshippers.
A COVENANT PEOPLE
2. Who in time became Jehovah’s distinct people, and what distinguished them from other peoples? (See opening image.)
2 As early as the 20th century B.C.E., Jehovah had a distinct people on earth. Abraham, called “the father of all those having faith,” was the head of a household numbering into the hundreds. (Rom. 4:11; Gen. 14:14) Rulers in Canaan considered him to be “a great chieftain” and treated him with respect. (Gen. 21:22; 23:6, ftn.) Jehovah made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. (Gen. 17:1, 2, 19) God told Abraham: “This is my covenant between me and you, that you and your offspring after you will keep: Every male among you must get circumcised. . . . And it will serve as a sign of the covenant between me and you.” (Gen. 17:10, 11) Accordingly, Abraham and all the male members of his household were circumcised. (Gen. 17:24-27) Circumcision was a physical sign that distinguished Abraham’s descendants as the only people who were in a covenant relationship with Jehovah.
3. How did Abraham’s descendants develop as a people?
3 Abraham’s grandson Jacob, or Israel, had 12 sons. (Gen. 35:10, 22b-26) In time, these were to become the patriarchal heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. (Acts 7:8) Because of a famine, Jacob and his household took refuge in Egypt, where one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, had become Pharaoh’s food administrator and right-hand man. (Gen. 41:39-41; 42:6) Jacob’s descendants became very numerous, “a congregation of peoples.”—Gen. 48:4; read Acts 7:17.
A REDEEMED PEOPLE
4. At first, what relationship existed between the Egyptians and the descendants of Jacob?
4 The descendants of Jacob remained in Egypt for a little over two centuries, in a region of the Nile delta named Goshen. (Gen. 45:9, 10) It would seem that during approximately half of that time, they lived in peaceful coexistence with the Egyptians, dwelling in small towns and pasturing their flocks and herds. They had been warmly welcomed by Pharaoh, who knew and appreciated Joseph. (Gen. 47:1-6) As for the Egyptian people, they had a particular disdain for those who herded sheep. (Gen. 46:31-34) Nevertheless, they had to tolerate the Israelites’ presence.
5, 6. (a) How did the situation of God’s people change in Egypt? (b) How was Moses’ life spared, and what did Jehovah do for all of His people?
5 But the situation of God’s people was to change dramatically. “In time there arose over Egypt a new king, one who did not know Joseph. So he said to his people: ‘Look! The people of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we are.’ Consequently, the Egyptians forced the Israelites into harsh slavery. They made their life bitter with hard labor, as they worked with clay mortar and bricks and in every form of slavery in the field. Yes, they made them toil in harsh conditions in every form of slavery.”—Ex. 1:8, 9, 13, 14.
6 Pharaoh even decreed that all Hebrew male babies should be put to death at their birth. (Ex. 1:15, 16) It was at that time that Moses was born. When he was three months old, he was hidden by his mother in the reeds of the Nile, where Pharaoh’s daughter found him. She later adopted him. Providentially, during his early years, Moses was brought up by his faithful mother, Jochebed, and he became a loyal servant of Jehovah. (Ex. 2:1-10; Heb. 11:23-25) Jehovah “took notice” of the sufferings of his people and decided to deliver them from their oppressors, under the leadership of Moses. (Ex. 2:24, 25; 3:9, 10) They would thus become a people “redeemed” by Jehovah.—Ex. 15:13; read Deuteronomy 15:15.
A PEOPLE BECOME A NATION
7, 8. How did Jehovah’s people become a holy nation?
7 Although Jehovah had not yet organized the Israelites as a nation, he recognized them as his people. Thus, Moses and Aaron were instructed to say to Pharaoh: “This is what Jehovah the God of Israel says, ‘Send my people away so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”—Ex. 5:1.
8 It took ten plagues and the destruction of Pharaoh and his armed forces in the waters of the Red Sea to deliver the sons of Israel from Egyptian oppression. (Ex. 15:1-4) Less than three months later, Jehovah made a covenant with the Israelites at Mount Sinai and gave them this historic promise: “If you will strictly obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will certainly become my special property out of all peoples, . . . a holy nation.”—Ex. 19:5, 6.
9, 10. (a) According to Deuteronomy 4:5-8, how did the Law set the Israelites apart from other peoples? (b) How were the Israelites to prove themselves “a people holy to Jehovah”?
9 While in Egypt, before they were reduced to slavery, the Hebrews were organized as a tribal society, administrated by family heads, or patriarchs. These family heads, like the servants of Jehovah who lived before them, acted as rulers, judges, and priests to their households. (Gen. 8:20; 18:19; Job 1:4, 5) Through Moses, however, Jehovah gave the Israelites a law code that would distinguish them from all other nations. (Read Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Ps. 147:19, 20.) The Law established a separate priesthood, and justice was administered by “the elders,” who were respected for their knowledge and wisdom. (Deut. 25:7, 8) The Law codified the religious and social activities of the newborn nation.
10 Just before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Jehovah repeated his laws to them, and Moses told them: “Today Jehovah has obtained your declaration that you will become his people, his special property, just as he has promised you, and that you will observe all his commandments and that he will put you high above all the other nations that he has made, giving you praise and fame and glory as you prove yourself a people holy to Jehovah your God.”—Deut. 26:18, 19.
FOREIGN RESIDENTS WELCOME
11-13. (a) Who became associated with God’s chosen people? (b) What would a non-Israelite want to do if he wished to worship Jehovah?
11 Although Jehovah now had a chosen nation on earth, he did not forbid the presence of non-Israelites among his people. He allowed “a vast mixed company” of non-Israelites, including Egyptians, to accompany his people when he delivered them from Egypt. (Ex. 12:38; ftn.) At the time of the seventh plague, some “among Pharaoh’s servants” feared Jehovah’s word and doubtless became a part of the mixed company that left Egypt with the Israelites.—Ex. 9:20.
12 Just before the Israelites crossed the Jordan to take possession of Canaan, Moses told them that they “must love the foreign resident” in their midst. (Deut. 10:17-19) God’s chosen people were to accept in their community any foreigners who were willing to observe the basic laws given by Moses. (Lev. 24:22) Some foreign residents became worshippers of Jehovah, sharing the feelings of the Moabite Ruth, who declared to the Israelite Naomi: “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) These foreign residents became proselytes, and the males submitted to circumcision. (Ex. 12:48, 49) Jehovah welcomed them as members of the community of his chosen people.—Num. 15:14, 15.
13 When Solomon’s temple was dedicated to Jehovah, provision was made for non-Israelite worshippers, as reflected in Solomon’s prayer: “Concerning the foreigner who is not part of your people Israel and who comes from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm, and he comes and prays toward this house, may you then listen from the heavens, your dwelling place, and do all that the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as your people Israel do, and may know that your name has been called on this house that I have built.” (2 Chron. 6:32, 33) As was still true in Jesus’ day, any non-Israelite who wished to worship Jehovah would want to associate with His covenant people.—John 12:20; Acts 8:27.
A NATION OF WITNESSES
14-16. (a) In what way were the Israelites to be a nation of witnesses for Jehovah? (b) What are Jehovah’s present-day people morally obligated to do?
14 The Israelites worshipped their God, Jehovah, whereas the other nations worshipped their own deities. At the time of the prophet Isaiah, Jehovah compared the world situation to that of a court trial. He challenged the gods of the nations to produce witnesses to confirm their divinity, declaring: “Let all the nations assemble in one place, and let the peoples be gathered together. Who [of their gods] among them can tell this? Or can they cause us to hear the first things? Let them present their witnesses to prove themselves right, or let them hear and say, ‘It is the truth!’”—Isa. 43:9.
15 The gods of the nations were unable to produce any evidence of their godship. They were mere idols that were speechless and that needed to be carried around. (Isa. 46:5-7) On the other hand, Jehovah told his people Israel: “You are my witnesses, . . . yes, my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and have faith in me and understand that I am the same One. Before me no God was formed, and after me there has been none. I—I am Jehovah, and besides me there is no savior. . . . So you are my witnesses, . . . and I am God.”—Isa. 43:10-12.
16 In what would amount to a universal court case over the issue “Who is the Supreme God?,” Jehovah’s chosen people were to attest loud and clear that Jehovah is the one true God. He called them “the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” (Isa. 43:21) They were the people who bore his name. Redeemed from Egypt by Jehovah, they were under a moral obligation to support his sovereignty before the other peoples of the earth. In effect, their stance was to be like that later set forth for God’s present-day people by the prophet Micah: “All the peoples will walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of Jehovah our God forever and ever.”—Mic. 4:5.
A RENEGADE PEOPLE
17. In Jehovah’s eyes, how did Israel become ‘a degenerate foreign vine’?
17 Sadly, Israel did not prove faithful to their God, Jehovah. They allowed themselves to be influenced by nations that worshipped gods of wood and stone. In the eighth century B.C.E., the prophet Hosea wrote: “Israel is a degenerate vine . . . He multiplies his altars . . . Their heart is hypocritical; now they will be found guilty.” (Hos. 10:1, 2) About a century and a half later, Jeremiah recorded these words of Jehovah to His unfaithful people: “I planted you as a choice red vine, all of it pure seed; so how have you turned into the degenerate shoots of a foreign vine before me? . . . Where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them rise up if they can save you in your time of calamity . . . My own people have forgotten me.”—Jer. 2:21, 28, 32.
18, 19. (a) How did Jehovah foretell that he would produce a new people for his name? (b) What will be examined in the following article?
18 Instead of producing fine fruitage by practicing pure worship and acting as Jehovah’s faithful witnesses, Israel produced the rotten fruitage of idolatry. Thus, Jesus told the hypocritical Jewish leaders of his day: “The Kingdom of God will be taken from you and be given to a nation producing its fruits.” (Matt. 21:43) Only those in the “new covenant,” foretold by Jehovah through his prophet Jeremiah, could be part of that new nation, spiritual Israel. Of the spiritual Israelites who would be brought into that new covenant, Jehovah had prophesied: “I will become their God, and they will become my people.”—Jer. 31:31-33.
19 After fleshly Israel proved unfaithful, Jehovah made spiritual Israel his people in the first century, as already noted. But who are his people on earth today? How can honesthearted ones identify God’s true worshippers? This is the subject of the following article.