Most of us learned in Sunday school the basics of Israel’s history—
- The call of Abraham (c. 2000 BC)
- The Exodus (c. 1500 BC)
- Establishment of the monarchy under David (c. 1000 BC)
- Civil War (c. 900 BC)
- Deportation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria (722 BC)
- Deportation of the Southern Kingdom of Judah by Babylon (586 BC)
- Return from Babylon (536 BC)
- Dedication of the Second Temple (516 BC)
And likewise most of us know what’s missing: the Return from Assyria. Because there was none.
The two exiles are fundamentally different in that respect. Judah comes back. Israel doesn’t.
Judah is re-established as a country—though never as an independent, self-governing entity, at least in biblical times. It exists as a vassal state under Persia, then Greece, then the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and finally Rome, which eventually destroys it (AD 70) and scatters it to the nations, not to reassemble until modern times as the State of Israel (AD 1948, to be precise). Self-governing once again. At last.
But the Northern Kingdom? It disappears.
Whatever happened to those 10 tribes?
Well, to begin with, we need to talk about the numbers. Jacob (named “Israel” by God [Gen 32.28]) had 12 sons—the 12 tribes of Israel—one of whom was Joseph. Jacob gave Joseph, in effect, the birthright, which included a double portion of the inheritance—which Jacob indicated by granting both of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, full standing as tribes.
So now there were 13 tribes—not counting Joseph as distinct from his sons.
After the Israelites conquered Canaan under Joshua, the land was apportioned among all the tribes (Josh 13-19)—except Levi (Josh 13.14, 33), which received no land inheritance but was given property within the apportionments of each of the other 12 tribes, so that they could serve as teachers of the Law throughout the Land (Josh 21.1ff).
To complicate matters, several tribes—Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh—requested land allotments east of the Jordan (Num 32.1-5), a request Moses granted (Num 32.33). So now we’re back to 13 allotments again, with a West and East Manasseh.
And further, Simeon’s land is placed inside Judah’s, as an enclave (Josh 19.9).
So how many tribes are there in the North? How many in the South? Three (Judah, Ephraim, Simeon)? Or four (Judah, Ephraim, Simeon, Levi)? out of 12, or 13? or 14, counting Manasseh twice?
I have no idea. 🙂
Well, however many tribes there were in the North, the Assyrians invade in 722 BC and take the leaders of the Northern Kingdom into exile, but not everybody. How do we know that?
- That was the normal practice; you distribute the exiled leadership across the empire, and move in people from across the empire, so that they’ll intermarry with those not exiled and lessen the likelihood that the nationalist / tribal spirit will endure, thereby lowering the likelihood of future rebellions. That’s what Nebuchadnezzar did a little more than a century later (2K 25.12).
- Sargon, the Assyrian king, claimed that he took 27,290 Israelites into exile. This is not likely to have been the entire Northern population, given that 70 years before the exile Judah’s King Amaziah had hired 100,000 Israelite troops as mercenaries to help him fight against Edom (2Chr 25.6). If the Northern army could spare 100,000 soldiers, their entire population must have been quite a bit larger than that.
- There’s evidence that at least some Israelites
migrated to the South before the exile, either for religious reasons—for easier
access to the Temple in Jerusalem—or to escape the impending Assyrian invasion.
There’s a debate
between a couple of well-known modern Israeli archaeologists as to how
extensive that migration was, but nobody says that no members of the Northern
tribes came South.
- Some from Ephraim and Manasseh had moved south during Asa’s reign, 150 years before the exile (2Chr 15.9).
- Ephraim, Manasseh, and “all the remnant of Israel” donated to the renovation of the Temple under Josiah in 621 BC (2Chr 34.9), a century after the exile.
- All 12 tribes were (apparently?) represented at the dedication of the Second Temple in 516 BC (Ezra 6.17, 8.35).
- Several passages in the New Testament speak of
the existence of the “exiled” tribes—
- Anna, the prophetess who welcomes the baby Jesus at the Temple, is of the tribe of Asher (Lk 2.36).
- In his speech to Agrippa, Paul seems to think of all 12 tribes as still in existence (Ac 26.7).
- James writes his epistle “to the twelve tribes that are in the Dispersion” (Jam 1.1).
What does all this mean? It means that there are no “ten lost tribes of Israel.” The tribes never left and thus were never lost.
But it’s clear that some from the ten tribes were exiled. Could they have traveled, over several generations, to Britain? We’ll take a look at that next time.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Elizabeth Munson says
The tribes were not lost because they still knew where they had gone. James knew where they were and they weren’t still in the general area because he says “Dispersion”. They had gone to Europe. Jeremiah knew there were Israelites in Ireland and that is where he took the royal princesses.
Dan Olinger says
If you want to assert that, you’re going to need some evidence–biblical, historical, something.
Jon C says
I believe Peter also writes to the tribes of the dispersion and lists specific locations in 1 Peter 1:1.
Dan Olinger says
Peter writes to “exiles,” which makes sense if he’s writing to Jews living outside of Israel, in the areas of modern Turkey that he mentions in the verse. But he doesn’t mention tribal names, so that doesn’t necessarily support any argument about the “lost ten tribes.”
Thanks, Jon, for the feedback.