The Ten Lost Tribes
In December, 1984, astounding news leaked to the World Press. For over a year the Israeli government had been secretly flying over ten thousand Ethiopian Jews out of their refugee camps in the Sudan to their new homes in the modern state of Israel. The Beta Israel, as they call themselves (“Falashas” in the Ethiopian language), claim that their Judaic faith originated after the Queen of Sheba returned from her famous visit to King Solomon, bringing with her the knowledge of the one true God. Rabbis in Israel, however, had another explanation — these Ethiopian Jews were descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the mysterious lost” tribes of Israel.
In a recent Jewish newspaper an article appeared describing the Jewish customs of the Pashtu — an Islamic tribe in Afghanistan. They circumcise their sons on the eighth day, wear four-cornered garments, perform levirate marriages and don traditional sidelocks and beards. These customs have convinced some researchers that the Pashtu tribe is a remnant of the ten “lost tribes of Israel.
In a far different vein, a prominent American radio and TV “evangelist” proclaimed for years that the ten “lost” tribes are not lost, but have reappeared as the British and American peoples, who are the inheritors of the promises to ancient Israel!
These various ideas appearing in the twentieth century have raised again some important questions in the minds of many: What did happen to the ten tribes? Have some of them survived until today? Can we identify these tribes with any of the many ethnic groups living on planet Earth today? This article will try to answer these and other questions about the “lost” tribes by sifting through the myths and ideas of men to ascertain the scriptural and historical truth about the so-called “lost” tribes.
The Meaning of the Phrase “Ten Lost Tribes”
Soon after the death of Solomon in 930 B.C., the united kingdom of Israel was ruptured into two separate kingdoms generally referred to in Scripture as the northern kingdom of “Israel” and the southern kingdom of “Judah.” Both of these kingdoms failed in their stand against idolatry, were eventually conquered by foreign powers and ceased to be independent kingdoms. The northern kingdom, consisting of ten tribal allotments, succumbed to the Assyrians around 721 B.C. “For the children of Israel walked in alt the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they departed not from them, Until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had said by all his servants, the prophets. So was Israel carried away out of their own land to Assyria unto this day” (2 Ki. 17:22-23).
Their southern brethren, the kingdom of Judah, consisting primarily of the tribal allotments of Judah and Benjamin, were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Some of these exiles returned under Zerubabbel and reconstituted their existence in 536 B.C.
Since, however, there never was a formal return of the northern tribes to reconstitute their kingdom, they have been popularly referred to as the “ten lost tribes.”
Ideas about the Identity of the Ten Lost Tribes
The television series, “In Search of… ,’ is an indication of how fascinated people are about the unanswered questions surrounding the existence of the mysterious, the unknown and the unexplained. The subsequent history of the remnants of the northern kingdom has fueled the imagination of many travelers, writers, romanticists and cultists. There are three basic ideas that have emerged about their subsequent identity.
First, one traditional Jewish explanation is that the ten tribes are forever lost, assimilated among their Assyrian captors, and never again will be found. The great second century rabbi, Akiba, expressed this opinion strongly: “The ten tribes shall not return again – they have completely disappeared” (Mishna Sanhedrin 10:3).
Second, another Jewish tradition is that the tribes were living beyond the mysterious river Sambatyon whose rapidly flowing waters prevented their crossing it. The Jewish historian Josephus stated at the end of the first century, “The ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude and not to be estimated in numbers” (Antiquities 11:133). Throughout the Middle Ages various pseudo-messiahs, like David Reubeni, appeared in Europe and claimed to be from a Jewish kingdom composed of the ten “lost” tribes. Legends circulated that fired the hope of their soon discovery, but no tangible evidence of their existence was ever produced. It was this tradition that motivated Israel’s rabbis to declare that the Jews of Ethiopia belong to the lost tribe of Dan.
Third, theories abound which identify various ethnic groups today as being the descendants of the ten lost tribes. The Encyclopedia Judaica states, “There is hardly a people, from the Japanese to the British, and from the Red Indians to the Afghans, who have not been suggested, and hardly a place, among them Africa, India, China, Persia, Kurdistan, Caucasia, the United States, and Great Britain (Vol. 15. p. 1006).
The theory attempting to explain the subsequent history of the ten lost tribes that has gained the greatest following is the view known popularly as British Israelism. First propounded in nineteenth century England, the basic premise of British Israelism is that the ten tribes captured by the Assyrians are, in reality, the Saxae, or Scythians, who surged westward through Northern Europe and eventually became the ancestors of the Saxons who invaded England. The theory maintains that the Anglo-saxons are thus the “Israel“ of the Bible.
Therefore, according to this view, the present day “Jews” are from the tribe of Judah who are under the divine curse and are not to be identified with Israel at all. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon peoples, including the British (i.e., “Ephraim”) and Americans (i.e., “Manasseh”), are the inheritors of the covenants and promises of the Old Testament.
In addition to some scriptural arguments based on the birthright of Joseph (Gen. 49:26) and the promises to his sons Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:20), British Israelism maintains that the “lost” tribes left landmarks on their trek across Europe. Thus, the Dan and Danube Rivers, as well as the city of Danzig and country of Denmark, are clear indications to them of the tribe of Dan! The term Saxons is really a contraction of Isaac’s Sons, and the term “British” is derived from two Hebrew words for covenant and man!
The original proponents of British Israelism, evangelical and orthodox in the rest of their theology, still exist today, not as a separate denomination, but as a small movement which is found in many different churches.
What should cause real concern, however, is how this view has been adopted into the teachings of two groups which are clearly out of line with the main tenets of biblical Christianity. The first of these is the so-called Worldwide Church of God, founded by the late Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong made British Israelism a vital part of his doctrinal system, which also denies the deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, as well as denying the bodily resurrection of Christ and the reality of everlasting punishment. Armstrong s theology further imposes the Old Testament laws on the believer as a means of salvation.
Another group today which has adopted British Israelism is the “Identity” movement of white supremacy. A number of groups affirming the Satanic character of Zionism and the so-called worldwide Jewish conspiracy have adopted British Israelism to prove the superiority of the white race over Jews, Asiatics and Negroes.
What is the Scriptural History of the Ten Lost Tribes?
A detailed refutation of the many explanations of the history of Israel’s northern tribes is impossible within the scope of this article. The great Hebrew-Christian scholar, David Baron, in his work The History of the Ten “Lost” Tribes has provided the most detailed and accurate answer to the question. The following is a summary of his main points with a few additional observations of the author.
The fallacy inherent in all of the theories about the “lost” tribes is simply this: they were never lost, but they continued as part of the body of the Jewish people. To illustrate the truthfulness of this statement, consider the following five points:
(1) At the time of the disruption of the United Kingdom in 930 B.C, faithful Israelites from all of the northern tribes joined their brethren in the south and continued their identity as part of the kingdom of Judah. Two of the books in Scripture that are strangely ignored by British Israelites are 1 and 2 Chronicles. These books make it clear that the tribes in the north continued their existence as part of Judah after 930 B.C. Consider 2 Chronicles 11:14,16: “For the Levites left their suburban lands and their possession, and came to Judah and Jerusalem; for Jeroboam and his sons had cast them off from executing the priest’s office unto the Lord;.. . And after them, out of all the tribes of Israel, such as set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel came to Jerusalem, to sacrifice unto the Lord God of their fathers.” These verses make it abundantly clear that godly individuals out of all the tribes of Israel who rejected Jeroboam’s idolatry joined the southern kingdom. During the reign of Asa others followed from Ephraim and Manasseh (2 Chr. 15:9). Thus, the kingdom of Judah absorbed many from the northern kingdom through the years.
(2) Although it is often assumed that all of the northern kingdom went into the Assyrian captivity, Scripture teaches that Israelites continued to live there after the captivity of 721 B.C. Again Chronicles helps us in this regard, At Hezekiah’s invitation many from the north again settled in Judah after the destruction of the northern kingdom (2 Chr. 30). Even late in 622 B.C. more godly Israelites came to Jerusalem to help repair the Temple (2 Chr. 34:9), and later to celebrate the Passover (2 Chr. 35:17-18). If the northern tribes had become “lost,” how could these representatives join in the worship in Jerusalem a hundred years after the Assyrian destruction? A reading of the chronicler’s account forces one to the conclusion that not all of the northern tribes went into captivity in 721 B.C.
Archaeology has confirmed this fact taught so clearly in Chronicles. Excavations have revealed that the population of Judah rapidly increased after the fall of the northern kingdom as a result of the many refugees mentioned in 2 Chronicles 11:14-16. Furthermore, archaeologists have uncovered the annals of the Assyrian Sargon in which he tells that he carried away only 27,290 people and 50 chariots (Biblical Archaeologist, VI, 1943, p. 58). Since estimates of the population of the northern kingdom at that time range from 400,000 to 500,000, it is clear that less than one-twentieth of the population was deported, primarily the leaders from the area around Samaria. The ten tribes, therefore, were never “lost,” because they were never deported! Their kingdom was destroyed and ceased to exist, but most of them stayed, some intermingling with new immigrants to form the “Samaritians.”’
(3) When the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity in 536 B,C. and in the following years, they returned as “al! Israel,” not just as the tribe of Judah. The chronicler viewed the restored community as the remnant of all Israel, both north and south. “Now the first inhabitants who dwelt in their possessions in their cities were the Israelites, the priests, Levites, and the Nethinim. And in Jerusalem dwelt of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin, and of the children of Ephraim, and Manasseh” (1 Chr. 9:2-3). According to these verses, we should look to find Ephraim and Manasseh not in England and America but in Jerusalem, following the return from Babylon.
Furthermore, the people at that time viewed themselves as part of all Israel for they offered “twelve he-goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel” (Ezra 6:17), Although British Israelism confidently asserts that Judah and Israel are always separate and distinct, a concordance shows that in the Book of Ezra the restored community is called “Jews” only eight times and “Israel” fifty times. The writer clearly viewed the terms as interchangeable, both applying to the same people after the captivity,
(4) The New Testament clearly indicates that there were individuals in the first century who still maintained their tribal identities — some of whom were part of those supposedly “lost” tribes. Consider, for example, the aged Anna who beheld the baby Jesus in the Temple. Luke 2:36 states that she was of the “tribe of Asher.”
When Paul spoke of his Jewish brethren, he spoke of a common promise and a common hope: “Unto which promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God day and night, hope to come” (Acts 26:7). James addressed his epistle “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad (Jas. 1:1). He made no distinction between “Judah” and “ten tribes.” All Jews were part of a common body, the only difference being that some were in the land of Israel and some in the Diaspora.
The New Testament uses the term “Jew” one hundred seventy-four times and the term “Israel” seventy-five times, clearly applying them to the same body of people. It is also striking that the Apostle Paul referred to himself as both a “Jew” (Acts 22:3) and also as an “Israelite” (Rom. 11:1), and there is never a time when he distinguishes between “Jews” and “Israel,” as modern British Israelism does. If the so-called “lost” tribes indeed resurfaced as the British people, and if Jeremiah eventually traveled to Britain to establish David’s throne there, one would expect some trace of these matters to be mentioned in the New Testament. The silence of the New Testament writers in this regard, however, is deafening. The New Testament knows only one Jewish people, “Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen (Rom. 9:4-5).
(5) Biblical prophecy concerning the end times also indicates continuing tribal distinctions. Although Jews today do not know what tribe they are from (with the possible exception of the Levites), Scripture declares that God knows. Such passages as Revelation 7:4-8 and Ezekiel 48 declare that representatives of restored Israel will be present in the Tribulation and also in the Millennial Kingdom. More complete consideration of these and other prophetic passages about the tribes will be given in the next article.
To summarize our findings, it can be said, on the basis of Scripture, history and archaeology, that there is no such thing as the “ten lost tribes.” What was lost was the separate existence of the kingdom of Israel in the north. The tribes, however, continued to exist in the body of the southern kingdom with the terms “Jews” and “Israel” applied to all after the captivity.
Furthermore, any claim that some ethnic group is the descendant of the ten tribes rests on shaky foundations. British Israelism, in addition to distorting the Scriptures according to its preconceived bias, fosters national pride and is helping to fuel the white supremacist, anti-Semitic groups that are spreading their poison today. Satan’s attempts to destroy the Jewish people have taken various forms in history from the Crusades to the murderous plan of Hitler. Now the evil one is promoting the lie that the Jews are not the Jews after all, thus robbing Israel of its promises and covenants and transferring them to the Anglo Saxon race!
Let us continue to be confident in the plain promises of Scripture and not be led astray by the misinterpretations and fanciful imaginings of man!