What’s up with the ten lost tribes of Israel?


Dear Straight Dope:

What were the ten lost tribes of Israel, who lost them, and did they ever find them again?

SDStaff Dex replies:

Sit down, make yourself comfortable. This is going to take a while.

Let’s start with who the tribes of Israel were before they were lost. During the period of the Judges and the early kings (say 1200 to 1000 BC), the Israelites consisted of twelve tribes, named after the twelve sons of Jacob as recorded in Genesis: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. The term “children of Israel” is used to mean both the twelve sons of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) and collectively the twelve tribes. Joseph (the most famous of the twelve sons, he of the dreams and multi-coloured coat) did not actually have a tribe named after him; instead, his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, each gave rise to tribes… That would make thirteen tribes, not twelve, but the tribe of Levi became a priestly tribe (the only tribe to remain loyal to God and to Moses during the golden calf episode) without a specific region of settlement, and so is sometimes excluded from the count.

[Aside: The patriarchal tribal pattern was characteristic of seminomadic peoples throughout the ancient Near East: the Arameans and Ishmaelites and Midianites and Edomites were also conglomerations of clans with intertribal alliances expressed in terms of brotherhood. Modern archaeologists and historians debate whether the eponymous sons of Jacob did indeed give birth to the tribes, or whether the tribal alliances gave birth to the stories about common ancestry.]

The Bible describes how the twelve tribes were enslaved in Egypt, escaped during the Exodus (around 1250 BC), and settled in the land of Canaan, each tribe occupying a separate territory (except the tribe of Levi.) Over the next two centuries, the strength of individual tribes waxed and waned. For example, early on the tribe of Simeon had clearly lost its importance as an independent tribe and was largely swallowed up by Judah (see Joshua 19:1 and 1 Chronicles 4:24-43).

The Bible describes how the tribes were then united under King David (around 1000 BC), who set the capital in Jerusalem (an area under the control of the tribe of Judah). David’s son, Solomon, built the first Temple.

Following the death of Solomon, say around 931 BC, the ten northern tribes seceded. The book I Kings 12 describes the split arising on account of taxes, but there were also undoubtedly deep-rooted tensions between the northern and southern tribes, which had not been obliterated even after nearly a century of a united kingdom. So the Israelites were divided into two kingdoms:

– In the south, the kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital, consisting of the territory of the tribes of Judah and (most of) Benjamin. Much of the priestly tribe of Levi, affiliated with the Temple, also lived in the southern kingdom.

– In the north, the kingdom dominated by the tribe of Ephraim, with Shechem as its capital. Half a century later, during the reign of king Omri, the northern kingdom adopted the name of its new capital, Samaria; in the Bible, the northern Kingdom is usually referred to as Israel. Traditionally, the northern kingdom was the Ten Tribes.

Whew. Took all that to just get to who the Ten Tribes were.

After the split, the two kingdoms spent a decade fighting a merciless war between themselves, not only over territory, but over religion (the southern kingdom insisted that religion was centralized in Jerusalem) and culture. However, that aside, the two Israelite kingdoms existed side by side for about two hundred years until the invaders came.

In the year 722 BC, Sargon II, King of the Assyrian Empire, completed the conquest of the northern kingdom. Most of the population of Israel was led into exile.

This is one of the few events during the First Temple period that is documented by sources other than the Bible, and so provides a dating point as well as outside verification of the Biblical narrative. The story is recounted in II Kings 17 with considerable emotion, and is noted more drily in the annals of Sargon II, King of Assyria: “In the beginning of my royal rule, I have [besieged and conquered] the city of the Samarians . . . I lead away 27,290 of its inhabitants as captives and took some of them as soldiers for the fifty chariots of my royal regiments. I have rebuilt the city better than it had been before and settled it with people which I brought from the lands of my conquests. I have put an officer of mine as their lord, and imposed upon them a tribute as on other Assyrian subjects.”

Undoubtedly, a combination of social, political, and economic factors led to the decline of the northern kingdom before its military conquest. Five royal dynasties rose and fell within half a century, a sure sign of social instability. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a minority of landowners while the masses were pauperized. The prophet Amos, writing around 750 BC, predicted that social decadence would lead to national ruin and exile. That didn’t take a lot of insight, frankly.

That’s about as far as history and the Bible will take us. Now comes the speculation: what really happened to the ten lost tribes? There have been innumerable theories and legends over the centuries.

In those days, political conquest meant national annihilation. The northern tribes ceased to exist as separate entities when they lost independence on their land. The ultimate fate of the exiles is, in fact, unknown. But there are three possibilities:

(A) Some went south, fleeing to the still-surviving southern kingdom of Judah, and remained part of the Jewish people. Richard Elliott Friedman, in his wonderful book Who Wrote the Bible?, suggests that these exiles from the northern kingdom would have assimilated into Judea, producing a re-united culture and religion, and editing the different Biblical strands into one common text.

(B) Some stayed put. Those who remained in the northern territory were soon assimilated with the peoples that Sargon II brought to Samaria. Assyrian policy was to obliterate national entities by population transfer. Those who remained were mixed with other peoples brought in to the northern territory, to become the nucleus of a new people in the land of Israel, the Samaritans.

(C) Many were deported and lost their separate identity as Israelites. Judah in the south had been steadfast in its monotheism, but paganism had been prevalent and tolerated in the northern kingdom. Thus, after the conquest of 722 BC, the northern tribes had no cultural protection against assimilation. Within a generation or two following the Assyrian resettlement policy, the ten tribes had vanished, assimilated totally into the Assyrian empire.

[Aside: when the southern tribes of Judah were conquered by the Babylonians, 150 years later, things were very different — they retained their identity, even in exile, largely on account of their religion. But that’s another story.]

The Bible text says little: they were carried away and placed “in Halah and in Habor, on the river of Gozan in the cities of the Medes.” These places have not been identified with any certainty.

The Talmud presents contradictory opinions. One is that the ten tribes were assimilated and merged with the peoples among whom they lived; this is (as noted) by far the most likely explanation.

The second Talmudic opinion holds that the northern exiles survived and joined the exiles from Judah (6th century BC) who returned to their homeland from Babylon in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The prophet Ezekiel (about 580 BC) speaks of the ultimate reunion of the House of Israel and the House of Judah, consistent with this interpretation.

Some passages from the New Testament are interesting. For instance, the book of James starts out with a greeting “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” implying James not only thought the Jewish community of his time included twelve tribes, but that he had current addresses. Luke 2:36 specifically identifies Anna as being “of the tribe of Asher,” implying at least a few people maintained some tribal identity.

In one of the apocyphal books (rejected from inclusion in the canonical Bible), 2 Esdras 13:39-47 describes how the “nine tribes that were taken away from their own land into exile . . . formed this plan for themselves, that they would leave the multitude of nations and go to a more distant region, where no human beings had ever lived, so that there at least they might keep the statutes . . .”

That reference may have been the fuel for the notion of the lost tribes living somewhere far from “civilization.” Medieval Jewish writing is full of references to one or another of the lost tribes. Some travelers of the Middle Ages claimed to have visited among them, such as Eldad the Danite who claimed to have found them in North Africa, called the “sons of Moses,” guarded by a river made impassable six days in the week by its stone-throwing, turbulent waters. Ah, those early travelers, you gotta give ’em credit for imagination.

Yemenite Jews, the Beni Israel of Afghanistan, and the Ethiopian Jews all claim to be descended from one or another of the lost tribes of the ancient Israelites. Various theories have tried to identify the Tatars, the Shindai class of Japan, and native Americans as the lost tribes as well.

There is even a theory (with quite a few adherents) that identifies the early (pre-Roman) population of the British Isles with the Lost Tribes. When a country has treated Jews well (for example, England after the 1917 issuance of the Balfour Declaration), some Jews conjecture that its people are descended from the Lost Tribes.

Needless to say, these theories are purely speculative, and without historic (or Biblical) foundation.

Several decades ago, some scholars discovered striking similarities between the traditions of the Torah and of some North American Indian tribes (for example, a fall harvest holiday that involves building and living in huts), leading them to conjecture descent from the Ten Tribes.

Prior to 722 BC, all Israelites could identify themselves from the tribes from which they descended. But from the Babylonian Exile on, all Jews are assumed to descend from only from one tribe, Judah, except for those who trace their ancestry to the priestly tribe of Levi or to the Kohanim (a subgroup of the tribe of Levi.) Therefore, from the persepctive of Jewish geneaology, the Ten Tribes are assumed to have vanished without a trace.

So, to condense this massive summary all down to one sentence: the ten lost tribes were conquered, and, like almost every other conquered people in the ancient world, lost their separate identity and were assimilated away into the sands of history.

Sources: Eli Barnavi’s Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, Judah Gribetz’s The Timetables of Jewish History, Joseph Telushkin’s Biblical Literacy, and the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.


Comment on this Column