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How many Israelites held prominent government positions in non-Israelite countries?

TitleHow many Israelites held prominent government positions in non-Israelite countries?
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1973
AuthorsLudlow, Victor L.
Issue Number10
Date PublishedOctober 1973
KeywordsAssimilation; Daniel (Prophet); Nehemiah (Prophet); Scattering of Israel

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It appears that quite a number of Israelites in the Old Testament eventually held prominent government positions in non-Israelite countries, such as Joseph who becomes governor of Egypt and Esther who becomes queen of Persia. Is this so, and how many such persons are there known to be?

Victor L. Ludlow: To the listing of Joseph and Esther we should add the names of at least three other Old Testament individuals who achieved influential positions in non-Israelite countries: Moses, Daniel, and Nehemiah. Moses tells us surprisingly little about himself in his Old Testament writings, summarizing 40 years in Egypt into 15 short verses. (See Ex. 2.) Numerous Jewish traditions attempt to fill this void as they tell of his life in Pharaoh’s court. While these legends don’t always describe Moses as the crown prince in the film The Ten Commandments, they at least indicate that he was fairly important. Since he had repeated access to the Pharaoh when he returned 40 years later, Moses evidently knew the court well.

Daniel and his three friends of noble birth were selected as Jewish lads to be trained in Babylonian culture. They were, however, able to maintain their religious beliefs and Daniel’s dream interpretations made him the third highest ruler in Babylon just before it fell to the Persians. Darius, the Median king, made Daniel the first president over a council of 120 princes who ruled the entire kingdom.

Nehemiah, a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes in the Persian court, was commissioned to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls. He was appointed civil governor of Palestine while Ezra was the great religious spokesman.

Actually, such prominence by Israelites is the exception rather than the rule in non-Israelite countries. While in captivity, either in Egypt or Babylon, the Israelites became clannish and often isolated themselves. In later generations, especially in Babylon, significant numbers of Israelites lost their Jewish identity through assimilation. Some may have held important positions, but only after they had accepted Babylonian or Persian customs and gods. Since such persons were probably ostracized from the Jewish community, we have no examples recorded in the Old Testament.

Assimilation was always the most challenging problem for Israelites in exile. Even when they controlled Palestine, they found it difficult to maintain their identity. The tribe of Simeon merged very early with the tribes of the south, especially Judah. Asher took to the sea and was lost among the Phoenicians. Even Judah received a large infusion of Canaanite blood. When the Israelites were scattered, they kept their religious identity only by maintaining very close ties with each other in their synagogues and homes.

Because the Jews have always been a minority in every land except Israel, they have found it difficult to reach positions of influence in gentile countries until the modern separation of church and state.