Jewish Voice Ministries International (JVMI) has encouraged Nigeria’s Igbo people to undergo genetic testing to confirm if they are descendants of the biblical Israelites as they claim. If they are, this would quadruple the global Jewish community, as the 40 million Igbos join the 13 million known Jews worldwide.
“In the same way as the texts [of the Bible] were preserved, I believe that the Jewish people have been preserved — it’s a sovereign preservation of Israel,” JVMI President and CEO Jonathan Bernis told PJ Media in an interview. He argued that the rediscovery of “lost tribes” of Israel, like the Igbo might be, constitutes the fulfilling of Bible prophecy.
“The Bible talks, particularly in the prophets, a great deal about a time when God will regather the Jewish people back to the land that he promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” Bernis explained. He noted that Israel was “restored” in 1948, and Jerusalem came back under Jewish control in 1967, after almost 2,000 years.
“At that time, the Jewish communities began to return to the state of Israel,” the JVMI president added. He listed Jewish groups from Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, and Syria, in addition to those from European countries. More recently, Ethiopian Jews in “Operation Moses” and “Operation Solomon” went north to settle in the Holy Land.
Bernis cited Jeremiah 16:14-15:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers.
While some might argue this prophecy was more focused on the return of the exiles from Babylon (an event Jeremiah prophesied multiple times), Bernis explained that “something that could initially be talking about a period of time in context has a deeper meaning.”
The JVMI president noted that when the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon, “that was a remnant returning, not all of the exiles.” As such, “I don’t see that fulfilling the magnitude of God being the God who returns us.” The Exodus was a huge event in Jewish memory, a founding of their entire people based on God’s specific action to preserve them.
For Jeremiah to prophesy an event even larger than the Exodus suggests something extremely monumental, not just in the life of the Jewish people, but also in defining God’s character. What could be more fitting for that prophecy than the return of millions of Jews from across the world?
Bernis pointed out that Jeremiah 16 does not just suggest a return “from the north country,” but also from “all the countries where he had driven them.” The JVMI president also referenced “dozens of prophecies that talk about a wholesale return of the Jewish people from the world, from the nations of the Earth.”
Such a passage is Isaiah 11:11, which prophecies that God will return his people “from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.”
JVMI sees this great return as part of its grand mission to reach Jewish people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But that also makes their calling as an organization very difficult.
“What I do believe is that Jewish believers in Jesus have a unique calling to preserve their God-given heritage,” Bernis told PJ Media. He cited Romans 1:16, saying that “Jewish Voice has a specific mandate to reach the Jew first.”
It matters a great deal to these Messianic Jews (Jews who believe Jesus was the promised Messiah) whether or not people like the Igbo are actually Jewish. “If these people aren’t Jewish, and they’re very strong adherents to keeping the law and a strong emphasis on the divine name, we would be possibly creating a Judaizing environment, which we’re very cautious about as a ministry.”
He noted the story of the Acts of the Apostles, when the early Christians ruled that believers did not have to become circumcised or become cultural Jews to accept the faith of Jesus Christ. “I absolutely agree that gentiles shouldn’t be encouraged to become Jews and also that there is spiritually no distinction between Jew and Gentile in the body of Messiah, the church.”
JVMI aims to reach Jews with the gospel, and it does not intend to force Christians or non-Jews to become Jews in doing so. “We don’t have any sort of a calling to make Gentiles into observant Gentiles or pseudo-Jews,” Bernis said.
While the organization wishes to embrace the Igbo people of Nigeria as Jews, welcoming them to the promised land and preaching the gospel of Jesus to them, the group would stand outside of JVMI’s specific calling if they are not truly Jews. Therefore, a great deal of significance rides on the genetic testing to determine whether or not the Igbo are descended from the Bible’s Jews.
Some have criticized this effort as fundamentally racist. A video blogger known as Chukwuemeka said, “It’s really, really sad” that the Igbo are “running to get a DNA test and you won’t believe you’re the people of the Bible till the white man says so,” Forward reported.
But Chukwuemeka misunderstands the nature of the testing, Bernis argued. “It’s not about finding ancient DNA from Abraham and the tribes and then matching it up, it’s guilt by association,” the JVMI president explained.
He noted the Kohen, the traditional Aaronic priesthood, which was preserved through last names and family identity over centuries. “The Levites were the only ones who preserved those family lines as well as the scriptures,” and analyzing their genetic makeup allowed scholars to identify common DNA markers.
Contrary to Chukwuemeka’s doubts, the original test subjects ranged from those with very dark skin from Morocco to those with very light skin from Poland. Over time, scholars have determined “some sort of DNA sample that we believe is authentically tied to the priesthood.” Bernis explained that this “doesn’t have anything to do with race.”
The Igbo have already submitted to genetic testing, and the JVMI president announced that the results will be available “somewhere in the first two weeks of August.” He explained that JVMI will not release any information to the public until the organization has met with the Igbo and notified them of the results.
This test will prove very consequential — it could potentially quadruple the number of Jews worldwide, and expand JVMI’s mission to millions more people. If the test determines the Igbo are not Jews, however, JVMI will still help the struggling communities of Nigeria with goods like purified water, but the organization will scale back attempts to unite the Igbo with the rest of Israel.
In August, the world may gain 40 million more official Jews, but even if it does not, the Igbo are still a vital part of Nigeria and JVMI will welcome them as potential fellow members of the Christian church, just perhaps not as Messianic Jews.