9 Things You Should Know About Black Hebrew Israelites, the Group Behind Kendrick Lamar’s Religious References on ‘DAMN’

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Because of his talent and spiritual lyrics, rapper Kendrick Lamar has become a favorite hip-hop artist among Christian music fans. Lamar’s 2012 album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” has been called “deeply theological” (Women in Theology) and a “work of theological genius” that is “nothing short of a contemporary [Augustine’s] Confessions.” (Christ and Pop Culture). Christian magazine Relevant recently noted that Lamar is the “best reviewed artist of the 21st century.”

On his new album—which recently debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 charts—Lamar includes many references to a relatively unknown religious group called Black Hebrew Israelites. Among the references are a song titled ”Yah“ (the term the group uses to refer to Yahweh), a lyric that says, “I’m an Israelite, don’t call me black no more,” and voicemail from Lamar’s cousin, a Black Hebrew Israelite, that says that Lamar will continue to suffer in this world until he recognizes he is “an Israelite according to the Bible.”

Here is what you should know about the group behind Lamar’s religious references:

1. Black Hebrew Israelites (also called African Hebrew Israelites, Black Jews, Black Hebrews, Black Israelites, or Hebrew Israelites) is an umbrella term for various religious sects and congregations that believe that people of color, usually African Americans, are descendants of a lost tribe of ancient Israelites.

2. From the seventeenth to twentieth century, African Americans’ identification with Judaism was informed, as Edith Bruder and Tudor Parfitt say, “by the social and political orientations of black people in the United States and was often embedded in response to discrimination.” But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, certain African Americans began to not only identify spiritually with the ancient Israelites but to claim they were their direct physical descendants. This lead to the creation of several factions of Black Hebrew Israelites (hereafter BHIs) that spread across America, and later to Africa and Israel.

3. BHI groups do not align themselves with Judaism. Instead, as Jacob S. Dorman explains, “creatively manipulate traditions and ideas gleaned from a wide range of sources: Holiness/Pentecostal Christianity, the British Anglo-Israelite movement, Freemasonry, Mind Power, Theosophy, Judaism, the occult, and African American Christianity’s deep association with the Hebrews of the Old Testament.” African American BHI groups also have no significant history with Ethiopian Jews (aka Beit Yisrael or Falahas) even though, as Dorman notes, “New York’s main body of black Israelites called themselves Ethiopian Jews from the 1930s to 1960s.”

4. BHI groups tend to define an Israelite as a descendant of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, a “Hebrew Israelite” as the modern descendants of the ancient Israelites, and a Jew as a person who practice the religion of Judaism. Many BHI groups do not consider Jews to be true descendants of “Hebrew Israelites.” However, they also do not consider all people of color to be part of the “lost tribe” either. As one BHI website explains, “ Israel is just one black nation that exist among many. The Egyptians, Canaanites, Ethiopians, babyloians etc [sic] were black skinned but they were not Israelites. . . . To say all black skinned people are Israelites is like saying all Asians are Chinese, or All Europeans are French.” BHIs also believe that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was prophesied in Deuteronomy 28:68 (Lamar makes reference to this belief in his lyric, “And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed.”) which accounts for why so many “Hebrew Israelites” are found in America.

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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition
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