What are the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel?

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The concept of the Ten Lost Tribes is partly mythical and partly truthful. It is partly mythical since, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote, “We lack precise information on the Ten Tribe’s fate,” and therefore:

A large body of legends has grown up speculating on what became of them. As a rule, any nation that has acted sympathetically to the Jews (for example, England after it issued the Balfour Declaration), or practiced any ritual that corresponds to some ritual in the Torah (as do some American Indian tribes), has been rumored to be descended from the Ten Lost Tribes. . . . In the darkest period of the Middle Ages, when almost all Jews lived under Christian or Muslim oppression, tales spread of a mighty kingdom beyond the legendary Sabatyon, inhabited by the Ten Tribes, which would someday come and rescue its suffering brothers.

This concept is partly truthful in that a large percentage of the inhabitants of the ten northern tribes of Israel went into exile and were scattered among the nations more than 2,700 years ago, and the identity of many of them has been completely lost. Let us retrace the relevant biblical accounts and then separate the myths from the reality.

Because of King David’s sin with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan declared to him, “The sword will never depart from your house” (2 Samuel 12:10). This, in a sense, was the beginning of the downfall of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah, and when King Solomon, David’s son, fell into gross idolatry, the Lord declared to Jeroboam, “See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes. But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe” (1 Kings 11:31-32). After Solomon died, the kingdom did split, being divided between the ten northern tribes, called the kingdom of Israel, and the two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin, called the kingdom of Judah. (The capital of Israel was Samaria; the capital of Judah was Jerusalem.)

In 721 B.C., the Assyrians decimated the ten northern tribes because of their sin, as described in 2 Kings 17:20, 23: “Therefore the Lord rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence. . . . So the people of Israel were taken from their homeland into exile in Assyria, and they are still there.” (This verse was written more than 2,500 years ago, so “they are still there” referred to that period of time.)

What happened to the tribes of the kingdom of Israel? (1) Some of the people remained in Samaria and became known as the Samaritans. They consider themselves to be true Israelites, but other Jews, especially in ancient times, have considered them to be half-breeds. (2) Some of the people may have made their way to Judah and became incorporated into the larger “Jewish” population (see especially 2 Chronicles 34:3-9, which indicates that a remnant of the ten northern tribes remained intact after the Assyrian exile). This is reflected in New Testament references that speak of “the twelve tribes of Israel” (see Acts 26:7; James 1:1), indicating that this was the conscious understanding of the Jews in New Testament times, namely that they represented the twelve tribes of Israel and not just Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. Note also that the twelve tribes of Israel remain part of God’s future plans (see, e.g., Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30). (3) Some of the people became completely assimilated into the nations where they were scattered and have become lost to history (but not to myth!). (4) Some may have actually retained their Israelite-Jewish origins, retaining their ancient traditions and continuing to preserve a conscious identification as Israelites or Jews. Among these would be groups such as the Ethiopian Jews.

Now, despite many myths and wild theories (including the “Two House Theory”), it appears that many Israelites who were scattered among the nations were, in fact, completely lost to history. It was part of God’s judgment on the nation, and from everything we can tell, for these Israelites, it was final. There is simply no truth to the claims of groups such as the “British Israelites,” who believe that “the Lost Ten Tribes of the Northern House of Israel’s descendants are to be found in the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic and kindred peoples of today,” nor is there any support for the Mormon claim that the Native Americans are descended from the ancient Israelites—despite the fact that no less a Semitic scholar than C. H. Gordon (1908-2001) pointed to possible links between the Israelites (or, more precisely, Judeans) and Native Americans, claiming that there was evidence for ancient Hebrew inscriptions in America. DNA evidence (among other things) is against such an identification, and, not surprisingly, the recent book by former Mormon bishop Simon G. Southerton, a molecular geneticist from Australia, entitled Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church, has generated a fierce backlash from Mormon apologists, so damning are its conclusions to Mormonism.

On the other hand, there are different groups around the world that have retained biblical Jewish commands such as circumcision and Sabbath observance—but not later, rabbinic traditions—and who trace their ancestry to the biblical tribes of Israel. While there is some dispute as to the authenticity of their claims—e.g., some traditions claim that the Ethiopian Jews are descendants of the biblical tribe of Dan while other traditions claim that they are the descendants of the alleged union of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—the State of Israel today embraces these different groups, either as people who converted to Judaism at different times in history and now need to get fully integrated, or as legitimate descendants of the ancient tribes of Israel.

Related to this was a report on World Net Daily, November 23, 2006: “‘Lost tribe of Israel’ returns home. Group from India ‘descended from Joseph’ arrives in Jewish state.” One of the main organizations involved with helping groups such as this return to Israel is called Shavei Israel (Shavei.org; the name means “those who return to Israel”; the organization was originally called Amishav). The website states, “Comprised of a team of academics, educators and rabbinical figures, Shavei Israel reaches out to ‘lost Jews’ and assists them in coming to terms with their heritage and identity in a spirit of tolerance and understanding.” This is a serious endeavor!

The head of Shavei Israel, Michael Freund said, “I truly believe this is a miracle of immense historical and even biblical significance. Just as the prophets foretold so long ago, the lost tribes of Israel are being brought back from the exile.”

All told, there are about, 8,000 such Indian Jews, called the Bnei Menashe, based on their belief that they have descended from the tribe of Manasseh (Menashe in Hebrew), and the great majority of them are still in India. But are they really true Israelites? There has obviously been some degree of intermarriage (the same can be said about Ethiopian Jews and other groups), but that can be said for other Jews (and Israelites) throughout history, albeit not on such a large scale.

Interestingly, there are ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel who have strongly disputed the claims of these different groups, one reason being that these groups are familiar with certain biblical commandments but have no knowledge of the traditions of the Oral Law. Yet according to rabbinic Judaism, God gave Moses both the written and oral laws, and if groups such as the Bnei Menashe were truly Jewish, they would have known the traditions of the Oral Law. Others, however, point to groups such as this as proof positive that no Oral Law was given to Moses and that the traditions of the rabbis postdated the biblical period. (I concur with the latter position, namely, that God did not give Moses an authoritative Oral Law, but I do not have an expert opinion on the “original Israelite” claims of these various groups.)

All this being said, the general consensus of the Israeli population is that these groups should be warmly welcomed back into their midst, and they support government operations such as the famous Operation Solomon, which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews back to the Land in 1991 in an extraordinary, well-planned effort in the midst of very unstable conditions in Ethiopia. Moreover, when the traditional rabbis insisted that these Ethiopian Jews had to undergo certain elements of Jewish conversion, the public sentiment was with the Ethiopians and against the traditional rabbis (although such anti-traditional sentiments are typical in Israel today). Similar requirements were made of the Bnei Menashe, namely, that they also formally converted to Judaism. Their history is quite touching:

According to Bnei Menashe oral tradition, the tribe was exiled from Israel and pushed to the east, eventually settling in the border regions of China and India, where most remain today. Most kept customs similar to Jewish tradition, including observing Shabbat, keeping the laws of Kosher, practicing circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life and observing Talmudic family purity.

In the 1950s, several thousand Bnei Menashe say they set out on foot to Israel but were quickly halted by Indian authorities. Undeterred, many began practicing Orthodox Judaism and pledged to make it to Israel. They now attend community centers established by Shavei Israel to teach the Bnei Menashe Jewish tradition and modern Hebrew.

Arbi Khiangte, one of the Bnei Menashe who arrived here Tuesday, said, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded us to live there. It is a mitzva (positive good deed), and it is one that my ancestors have been waiting for so long to fulfill.”

Are there other Israelite groups yet to be discovered? Only God knows.

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