by Barry Strong
About 2,700 years ago the land of Israel was invaded by Assyria and ten of the nation’s tribes were carried away into captivity. No return of these tribes to their land has been recorded in the Bible or in secular histories. Nothing more has been heard of them. Apparently they vanished without trace. But the Bible says they have an important place in Israel’s future.
Many Christians understand that, just as he promised long ago, God is once again taking up his ancient people, the Jews, and is returning them to their land. But any understanding we may have of what God is doing in the Middle East today is incomplete if it ignores the question of the lost tribes. God’s programme for Israel involves the whole nation. So the question is: where are the lost tribes of Israel?
Hebrew, Isrealite and Jew
We must begin by being clear as to the true biblical meanings of the words Hebrew, Israelite and Jew. Contrary to what most people think, these words are not interchangeable. Abraham came from the city of Ur in ancient Chaldaea (Gen 11:27-28, Gen 15:7). He was called a Hebrew (Gen 14:13). Some say that this word comes from the name of Abraham’s ancestor Eber (Gen 10:21) or Heber (Luke 3:35). Others say that it comes from the word ibri which meant, in Abraham’s language, ‘a person from the other side’. All Abraham’s descendants are Hebrews.
Abraham’s grandson Jacob was renamed Israel (Gen 32:28). He became the father of twelve sons – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. These were the founding fathers of the tribes of Israel. All members of these tribes are Israelites since they are descended from Jacob. Since they are also descended from Abraham they are also Hebrews.
When the Israelites came out of Egypt to occupy the land God had promised them the conquered territory was divided among the tribes. The Levites, however, as the tribe from which the priests were exclusively appointed, received no tribal territory but were given cities of their own in various places throughout the land (Num 35:1-8). These cities had only limited amounts of land surrounding them. The Levites were subsidised by the other tribes (Num 18:24). The tribe of Joseph was subdivided into the two half-tribes of his sons Ephraim and Manasseh and these two half-tribes were promoted to the status of full tribes for purposes of land division. That was in accordance with an instruction of Jacob (Gen 48:3-6) that these two grandsons should be considered founders of separate tribes and should possess separate territories, ranking equally with his sons Reuben, Simeon and the others. If the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are considered separately and if the tribe of Levi is included there are actually thirteen tribes. When the Bible speaks of the twelve tribes of Israel it means, according to context, either (a) ethnically, all the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons or (b) territorially, the twelve divisions of the land and their inhabitants.
Jew comes from Judah
The word Jew comes from the name Judah and originally meant a member of the tribe of Judah. Both these words – Judah and Jew – came to have wider meanings. So did the word Ephraim. To discover how this came about we have to look at some of the nation’s history. After many military campaigns against other nations occupying the land, which had continued, on and off, for about 300 years since the Israelites’ entry under the leadership of Joshua around 1200 BC, the country was eventually consolidated and made secure by King David, who was of the tribe of Judah (Mat 1:3-6). David’s son Solomon thus inherited a kingdom at peace with its subjugated neighbours. It was during Solomon’s reign that the first temple was built in the capital, Jerusalem. Although God gave Solomon great wisdom (1 Ki 3:12), he was foolish enough to disobey God by taking many foreign wives. Predictably, these women brought their heathen religions with them and, under their influence, Solomon instituted officially approved worship of heathen gods in Israel (1 Ki 11:1-8). God was angry with Solomon for this and told him that he deserved to have the kingdom taken away from him. God remembered, however, a promise he had made to David that, come what may, he would never take the throne away from David’s son and descendants (2 Sam 7:12-16). God told Solomon that, although he would remain king, he would allow his son and successor, Rehoboam, to be king over only one tribe. The other tribes would be given to someone else (1 Ki 11:11-13).
Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim
Solomon had appointed a man called Jeroboam, of the tribe of Ephraim, director of forced labour gangs recruited to carry out certain building repair and construction work. The prophet Ahijah identified Jeroboam as the man God had chosen to be king over the tribes to be separated off after Solomon’s death. When Solomon found out about this he tried to have Jeroboam killed, but Jeroboam fled the country and took refuge with Shishak, king of Egypt (1 Ki 11:40).
Solomon died in 922 BC and was succeeded by his son Rehoboam. When Jeroboam heard that Solomon was dead he returned from Egypt and got an audience with the new king. He wanted to know whether Rehoboam would continue the harsh domestic policies of his father – forced labour and heavy taxation – or whether easier times could now be expected. Rehoboam first consulted his older, experienced advisers who recommended an easing of the burdens. Then he consulted inexperienced younger men of his own generation. The young men recommended a heavy-handed policy. Rehoboam took their advice, telling Jeroboam that the people could expect even harsher treatment from him than they had received from Solomon. Outraged, ten of the tribes rebelled and, forming a separate state in the north, made Jeroboam their king (1 Ki 12:1-18). They eventually established their capital at Samaria.
According to the Bible Rehoboam was left with only one tribe, his own tribe of Judah (2 Ki 17:18). That statement, however, needs amplifying. Israel’s first king, Saul, had been of the tribe of Benjamin (1 Sam 9:21). In the days of Saul’s reign a close friendship sprang up between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. The story of Saul’s unjust hatred and pursuit of David is told in the first book of Samuel. During this period David and Jonathan made a solemn agreement that David, if he came to power, would not take revenge on Jonathan’s family (1 Sam 20:12-17). When David became king one of his first desires was to keep this agreement and be reconciled with any remaining members of the house of Saul. He showed special kindness to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, a cripple (2 Sam 9:1-13). From that time forward the two tribes were considered linked in a special way. When Jeroboam rebelled the Benjamites joined forces with Judah with the intention of recovering the other tribes for Rehoboam, but God blocked that plan (1 Ki 12:21-24). Rehoboam was left with Judah, Benjamin and, of course, those Levites who were resident in his territory. When God said ‘one tribe’ he was speaking territorially, Benjamin being regarded as incorporated in Judah.
Jeroboam thought it would be unwise to allow the subjects of his new kingdom to continue to visit the enemy capital, Jerusalem, to worship at the temple or keep the traditional festivals of Israel. They might be tempted to change sides. He established two new religious centres in his own kingdom, one at Bethel and the other at Dan, at which the worship of golden calves was instituted (1 Ki 12:25-33). He also established new heathen priesthoods in various other places (1 Ki 13:33). The Levites who lived in cities in his territory were forbidden to continue to go to the temple at Jerusalem to serve by rotation as priests. These Levites therefore left their cities and removed to Rehoboam’s kingdom where they continued to enjoy their priestly privileges. Some others of Jeroboam’s subjects followed the Levites’ example, removing to Rehoboam’s kingdom and clinging to their historic faith (2 Chr 11:13-17).
The southern kingdom
The southern kingdom thus came to contain not only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin but also the whole tribe of Levi and a smaller admixture of refugees from other tribes. (Later on, in the reign of King Asa, who instituted certain reforms, more refugees from the tribes of Simeon, Ephraim and Manasseh came over to the southern kingdom (2 Chr 15:9)). This kingdom called itself Judah after the name of its senior tribe. From that time forward the word Jew no longer had the restricted meaning of a member of the tribe of Judah but the wider meaning of a subject of the kingdom of Judah. All Jews you meet today are descendants of subjects of the southern kingdom of Judah, although they are not all of the tribe of Judah. When our Lord was presented as a child at the temple in Jerusalem his family was greeted by a woman named Anna who was a Jewess of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36-38). She would have been a descendant of one of the refugees who left Jeroboam’s kingdom for Rehoboam’s. The word Jew, in fact, is used in the Bible only in this sense of a subject of the southern kingdom or a descendant of one. The Bible calls the patriarchs Hebrews, not Jews. The people God brought out of Egypt were called Hebrews or the children of Israel, not the Jewish people. Subjects of the northern kingdom were Israelites but not Jews. If anyone doubts this, because he has been taught otherwise, he may check the fact in a concordance to the Bible (Authorised Version). He will not begin to find the words Jew, Jews or Jewish until he comes to verse 6 of chapter 16 of the second Book of Kings – nearly halfway through the pages of the Old Testament.
The northern kingdom
The northern kingdom was sometimes called Ephraim after the name of its senior tribe, to which Jeroboam belonged (e.g., Isa 11:13, Hos 6:4). But the prophets usually called the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah. The greater number of the tribes of Israel – ten of them – belonged to the northern kingdom. But now the possibility of confusion arises because Judah also called itself Israel. That was not incorrect since the subjects of both kingdoms were all descended from Jacob, who was renamed Israel. When Bible writers who lived after the time of Solomon use the expression ‘the house of Israel’ they mean the northern kingdom. When they use the terms ‘Judah’ or ‘the house of Judah’ they mean the southern kingdom. When they use the word Israel they could mean either or both but usually the northern kingdom (e.g., 2 Ki 15:1, 2 Ki 17:1). When they refer to all descendants of Jacob collectively they call them Jacob, all Israel or the whole house of Israel, but sometimes just Israel. When we see the word Israel we must study the context to see exactly who are meant. Similarly, when we see the word Ephraim we have to study the context to discover whether it is the whole northern kingdom which is meant or just the tribe of Ephraim. In a few rare instances the name of Joseph (Ephraim’s father) is substituted for that of Ephraim (e.g., Rev 7:8). Fortunately, the contexts make matters fairly clear, but I shall keep things simple by referring to the southern kingdom as Judah, and its people as the Jews, and the northern one as the ten tribes. These matters are summarised in the diagram appended to this paper.
Over the next 200 years nineteen kings, from Jeroboam to Hoshea, reigned over the ten tribes. Not one of them returned to the worship of the God of Israel. God sent his prophets to the ten tribes – Elijah, for example – but any success they had was only temporary and limited. The story of the reigns of the northern kings is one of unbroken spiritual and moral degeneration. Eventually God’s patience was exhausted. The ten tribes would be rejected and driven out of their land. God announced that decision through the prophet Hosea in a particularly graphic way. He told the prophet to take an adulterous woman to wife, symbolising the infidelity of the ten tribes to himself. Three children were born of this union. God told Hosea to call the third Lo-ammi which means ‘not my people’ (Hos 1:2-8). The ten tribes would no longer be God’s people and he would no longer be their God. That, however, would not be a permanent state of affairs. A day would come when God would bring their descendants back to their land and be reconciled with them. This statement is very important for our understanding of what God is doing in the Middle East today and I quote it here in full:
Then said God, Call his name Lo-ammi, for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God. Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered: and it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God. Then shall the children of Judah and the children of Israel be gathered together, and appoint themselves one head. (Hos 1:9-11a.)
It is important to realise that the words ‘Ye are not my people and I will not be your God’ were addressed to the ten tribes, not to the Jews. The Jews remained God’s people. Not only would God reject the ten tribes, but also the ten tribes would no longer acknowledge the God of Israel. In effect they would entirely cease to be recognisable as an Israelite community. The unity of Israel was based on a spiritual unity. Without spiritual unity there can be no lasting social or political unity. The Bible teaches this lesson repeatedly. The reason why, for the last 2,700 years, no one has been able to identify the ten tribes is that they have, unlike the Jews, utterly lost sight of their spiritual roots and have therefore also lost their social cohesion. They did not have to wander far from Israel, or from each other, to lose that cohesion. They began to lose it the moment they crossed the border. The Jews, on the other hand, although they have been scattered to the ends of the earth, have retained their sense of communal identity wherever they are found. The Jews know who they are, but the ten tribes do not. If, throughout the last 2,700 years, members of the ten tribes have not known who they truly are then it follows that no one else, apart from God, can have known either. That is why we must dismiss all the romantic theories which have been put forward about descendants of the ten tribes being represented among the North American Indians, in communities in China, in the British royal family or anywhere else. They became completely indistinguishable from their new compatriots and we cannot know who they are until they reappear in the land of Israel.
The words ‘in the place’ and ‘there’ contained in the statement can bear only a geographical interpretation. The ten tribes must one day return to their land, resume their ancient faith and be gloriously reunited with their brothers the Jews. If they returned to their faith before they returned to their land there would be no problem of spiritual, social and political reunion with the Jews. If, however, they returned to the land before they returned to their faith there could be no real social or political unity with the Jews for as long as that situation lasted. Which of these two possible conditions must we expect to turn out be the actual one? The answer is, the second. God said in this statement that he would re-adopt the ten tribes ‘in the place’ where he had rejected them. They must obviously be in the land again before this happens. The ten tribes must return to the land of Israel still in ignorance of their real identity, and until God opens the eyes of both the ten tribes and the Jews we would not expect any fraternal feelings to develop between the two sides.
The final thing to notice about the statement is that, on or following the return of the ten tribes, both they and the Jews will be united under one king. That king will of course be that Son of David who declared himself to be ‘greater than Solomon’, namely the nation’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Kings of Israel
In the reign of King Pekah (737-732 BC) the Assyrian king Tiglath-Peleser invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and carried some of the population into captivity in Assyria (2 Ki 15:29, 1 Chr 5:26). In 722 BC the army of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser again invaded the land and captured the capital Samaria after a three-year siege. Then his forces went throughout the northern kingdom taking the entire population captive. The people were forcibly removed and resettled in other territories administered by Assyria (2 Ki 17:1-6). They were replaced by colonists brought there from other parts of the Assyrian Empire. These colonists did not at first prosper. In fact they were continually attacked by wild beasts. They attributed their difficulties to the opposition of the God of the land, so they found among the exiles someone with some knowledge of the Israelite religion and brought him to Bethel to establish a form of it there. They continued, however, also to worship their own heathen gods (2 Ki 17:24-41). These newcomers came to be known as the Samaritans, after the name of the capital Samaria. They were despised by Judah as supplanters of their Israelite brothers and practitioners of an inferior form of worship of the God of Israel not centred on the temple system (John 4:9, John 4:20). There are Samaritans in Israel today who claim to be members of the ten tribes. They are mistaken. The Samaritans replaced the ten tribes, taking over their vacated lands.
Read the study where are the 10 lost tribes?