Summary: Both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon talk about how in the last days God will gather the house of Israel together. But before that day comes, the scriptures also talk about how Israel will be scattered among all the nations of the earth. To this day the Jews remember these prophecies but to most people this gathering has very little meaning. This article traces the history of the house of Israel, including its dispersion and gathering, as well as what meaning it has for us.
Concerning the children of Israel, the Lord said to them, “For a small moment have I forsaken thee as a woman forsaken, but with great mercy will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7,8).
To understand the context of this statement, we need to go back to Jacob, the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham. Because of his faithfulness, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and over his lifetime, he begat twelve sons. These then became known as the children of Israel, but as time went on, the descendants of Israel proudly identified themselves as belonging to one of his twelve sons. As such, as their numbers grew, they became twelve different tribes, which then became known as the twelve tribes of Israel. Even so, they lived together and identified themselves as Israelites while still maintaining their tribal name.
In addition to this, they all worshipped the God their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had worshipped, which was a very different kind of God than the ones the other nations at that time worshipped. After Moses had led them out of Egyptian slavery, he gave them the law that God had given him, and not withstanding they were divided into twelve different tribes, they were all united in their belief in following the law of Moses.
After they had settled in the land that God had promised to Abraham, they continued worshipping who they believed was the one, true God, whose name was Jehovah. However, as time went on the Israelites didn’t always remain true to their beliefs but would occasionally join in worshipping the gods of the people who lived around them. When this happened, God would chastise them and they would, for a time, return to worshipping Jehovah. Therefore, what made someone an Israelite was both their lineage and their religious beliefs.
For more than five hundred years the Israelites remained a united people, but after the death of their king, Solomon, a dispute arose over who their next king should be, which resulted in the nation of Israel splitting into two separate nations, with ten tribes choosing to follow Jeroboam, while the remaining two tribes – Judah and Benjamin (along with the tribe of Levi) – choose to follow Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. At this point, the house of Israel split into two kingdoms – the kingdom of Israel, who were known as the Israelites, and the kingdom of Judah, whose people were known as the Jews.
Over the next two hundred year the Israelites drifted further and further away from the worship of Jehovah and instead worshipped other gods, even though Jehovah sent prophets to warn them that if they didn’t return to worshipping him that he would destroy them. However, the Israelites ignored these warning until they were conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.
Those who were not killed outright were taken as slaves and dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire. So complete was this dispersion that the Israelites were never able to gather themselves back together as a united people. Over time, they simply melded into whatever society they found themselves part of and their tribal identity became completely lost to their memory. Within a few generations, none of these descendants of Israel knew anything about their ancestry and for this reason, to this day, they are known only as the ten lost tribes of Israel.
But the kingdom of Judah was also failing to keep the law of Moses as they should and God sent prophets to warn them that what happened to the kingdom of Israel would also happen to them if they didn’t repent of their wicked ways. One of those prophets was Isaiah.
As we read the book he wrote, we see him detailing what the Jews were doing wrong, why this offended God, and, in graphic terms, explicitly told them what would happen unless they turned from their evil ways and returned back to properly worshipping Jehovah.
Because the Jews didn’t heed God’s warning, their Kingdom was destroyed in 587 B.C. by the Babylonians, and those who weren’t killed were taken captive and used as slaves. However, forty years later, a small group of Jews returned to their old city of Jerusalem and rebuilt it, and as time went on, they grew in numbers and became a very populous people who thrived and prospered.
However, when their God came to live among them in the flesh, they rejected him, and after he was arrested, Pilate asked the Jews what he should do with this man, Jesus. The Jews shouted, “Crucify him!” and said, “We have no king but Caesar.” Because of this rejection of their God, in less than forty years, the Jews were once more destroyed as a people and those who survived were taken into slavery.
Even so, these Jews never lost their national identity or their adherence to following the law of Moses. Even though they were completely scattered throughout the world, never more to return to their homeland, they fiercely remembered who they were, despite repeated and often horrific persecution.
However, Isaiah also prophesied that even though these two kingdoms would be destroyed, that in the last days God would gather Israel back together again into one people. This is what the Lord meant when he told Isaiah “For a small moment have I forsaken thee as a woman forsaken, but with great mercy will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.”
When most people read the prophecies about the gathering of Israel, the impression they have is that the lost people of the house of Israel will one day start to migrate back to their former homeland in the Middle East and become one nation, living in one specific geographic location, and it will be after they’ve been gathered together that Christ will appear unto them and then they will finally acknowledge him as their Messiah, Redeemer, and the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In 1948 the Jews were given back the land of their fathers, and they flocked there from all corners of the world. Many Christians see this as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, however, those who’ve returned to the land of Jerusalem are those who are professing Jews. What we don’t often think about is that the great majority of the Jews who were taken captive in 600 B.C., remained in Babylon and, like the Israelites, they too melted into whatever society they found themselves, and lost the memory of their ancestry. Since their descendants are also Jews, then what about them?
When doing genealogy work, it is impossible to trace one’s lineage back more than a few hundred years. That means, today, 2,600 years after the Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians, there are innumerable people in the world who are descendants of these ancient Jews but who are completely unaware of their lineage. But, although that knowledge has been lost to them, it hasn’t been lost to God. And the same is true for the descendants of the other ten tribes of Israel.
When Jesus appeared to the Nephites after his resurrection, he told them about the prophecies of Isaiah, of how God would scatter the entire house of Israel because of their unbelief (3 Nephi 16:4,9) and how he would “gather them in from the four quarters of the earth” (3 Nephi 16:4).
Jesus later told them, “Ye remember that I spake unto you, and said that when the words of Isaiah should be fulfilled–behold they are written, ye have them before you, therefore search them– And verily, verily, I say unto you, that when they shall be fulfilled then is the fulfilling of the covenant which the Father hath made unto his people, O house of Israel. And then shall the remnants, which shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth, be gathered in from the east and from the west, and from the south and from the north; and they shall be brought to the knowledge of the Lord their God, who hath redeemed them” (3 Nephi 20:11-13).
At the time Jesus said this, the Jews living in and around Jerusalem had not yet been conquered by the Romans. What Jesus is saying to the Nephites is that the house of Israel will be scattered over the entire face of the earth, but then tells the Nephites, “When you see the prophecy of Isaiah where God will gather Israel from the east and from the west, and from the south and from the north, then you will know that he is keeping the promise he made to not forsake Israel but with great mercy will I gather them.”
When God speaks about Israel, he’s referring to all the descendants of Jacob, meaning all twelve tribes, of which “the Jews” are only two of them. But how is God going to do this, especially when the great majority of Jacob’s descendants don’t even know they are children of Israel?
Jesus answered that question by saying “and they shall be brought to the knowledge of the Lord their God, who hath redeemed them.” In other words, the way they will be gathered is by being brought to the knowledge of who their Redeemer is, and that Redeemer is Jesus Christ.
Jesus had earlier explained to the Nephites saying “[That] which ye shall write shall be kept and shall be manifested unto the Gentiles, that through the fulness of the Gentiles, the remnant of their seed, who shall be scattered forth upon the face of the earth because of their unbelief, may be brought in, or may be brought to a knowledge of me, their Redeemer. And then will I gather them in from the four quarters of the earth; and then will I fulfil the covenant which the Father hath made unto all the people of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi 16:4,5).
The Nephites had kept a record of the words Jesus taught them as well as the words he gave to their prophets, from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. Here Jesus is saying that this record would be revealed to the Gentiles and the Gentiles will share it with the Nephite’s future posterity, who will have dwindled in unbelief, just as the rest of the house of Israel had done. In this way they will “be brought to a knowledge of… their Redeemer.” Then Jesus adds, “And then will I gather them in from the four quarters of the earth, and then will I fulfill the convent which the Father hath made unto all the people [who are] of the house of Israel.”
In other words, it’s after the Gentiles have revealed the Nephite record (the Book of Mormon) to the scattered house of Israel, who have dwindled in unbelief, that the gathering will begin. And, what will cause them to be gathered together is that they will “be brought to a knowledge of [Jesus], their Redeemer.”
The reason why Jesus spent so much time teaching this doctrine to the Nephites is because they were part of the house of Israel. Since their forefather, Lehi, came from Jerusalem, was a citizen of the kingdom of Judah, and believed in the law of Moses, that technically made him a Jew. However, Lehi’s actual lineage came from the tribe of Manasseh, one of the two sons of Joseph, who was the son of Jacob.
When we say that the house of Israel will be gathered, the normal impression is that they will all come and live together in one place, however a person who is Jewish is defined by both their lineage as well as their religious beliefs, rather than by where they live. For example, in the days of Jesus, the Jews lived not only in and around the city of Jerusalem, but they also lived in Egypt, Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica, and many other places. What made them Jews was their lineage along with their adherence to the law of Moses.
In the same way, what makes someone a member of the house of Israel is that they are a descendant of Jacob, and that doesn’t change because of where they live. Originally, they all believed in the same God, and it was that belief that united them, not their location. However, over time they lost that common belief, and when that happened, although they were biologically still a descendant of Jacob, yet they were no longer a follower of Jehovah, and that separated them from God.
The apostle Paul illustrated this by likening Israel to an olive tree whose branches were cut off because of their unbelief (see Romans 11:20). He also explained, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israelites. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children” (Romans 9:6-7, NIV). “A person is not a Jew who is one only by outward signs… A person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit” (Romans 2:28,29, NIV).
But the gathering of the entire house of Israel doesn’t mean that all twelve tribes will one day live next door to each other. It means they will once more come together and be united in their belief and obedience to the same God that their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped. It’s when the descendants of Jacob come to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and follow him as they once followed the law of Moses, that they will become true children of Israel. And the way that will happens is when they come to learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ and accept him as their Messiah and Redeemer.
Jesus told the Nephites that when their descendants see the record of their forefathers, that will be the sign that God has set his hand to begin gathering Israel. The stated purpose of the Book of Mormon is to convince both the Jew and the children of Israel living among the Gentiles that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It’s easy to tell when someone becomes a follower of Jesus, but how do they know if they’re a descendant of Israel, since there’s no test that can give them that answer? For us humans, gaining that kind of knowledge is impossible, but God is able to trace anyone’s bloodline through thousands of years, all the way back to Adam. Therefore, the only way someone can know if they are a descendant of Jacob is by revelation from God, and that kind of knowledge comes primarily through the blessings we receive from divinely appointed patriarchs.
But what if someone who is not a descendant of Jacob (i.e., a Gentile) accepts Christ as their Lord and Savior? What becomes of them? The blessings God promised to Abraham also extends to his seed, but not necessarily to the Gentiles. However, when a Gentile accepts to faithfully worship the God of Abraham, then they too will be counted as being part of the house of Israel and will be entitled to all the blessings promised to Jacob’s descendants. (see Galatians 3:7).
When Jesus visited the Nephites he explained, “But if they (the Gentiles) will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance; 3 Nephi 21:22
This would be no different than if a Gentile converted to Judaism. Even if they were not born to Jewish parents, they would become united with, and be counted as a part of the Jewish community, and enjoy all the benefits of being a Jew, not because of their lineage but because of what they believe.
It’s when someone comes to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord by entering the waters of baptism and becoming a member of his church, thereby committing themselves to following him and keeping his commandment, that they become gathered together unto Christ, no matter where in the world they live. This is the purpose of the Book of Mormon and why it is being preached throughout the world, because it is through this means that it will bring about the gathering of Israel.
Related article can be found at The Nature of Covenants