Question: “What are the Lost Tribes of Israel? And why were they lost?”
Answer: One of the common myths arising out of biblical studies is that of the Ten Lost Tribes. The myth goes like this: When Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 b.c. they sent most of the Israelites into exile. These exiles were scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire. Some were apparently assimilated into the Assyrian culture. Others became wanderers. In general, the northern Ten Tribes of Israel were lost to history. No one knows what became of them. However, there are abundant legends about them. Some think they traveled north and west, and became the ancestors of the Celtic, Nordic, Germanic and English peoples. Others think they ended up in the East, in China or India. There are even people groups in Africa that claim they are the true descendants of ancient Israel.
Now, it may seem like that this is a rather unimportant topic to address. However, the answer to this question actually impacts the field of Christian apologetics. There are a number of cults who subscribe to the theory of British-Israelism. This is the idea that England and America are the modern descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. This theory feeds into the theologies of Armstrongism, Mormonism and the Christian Identity movement. So it is important to consider the actual facts about the exiled tribes of Israel.
The truth is that there is no one answer to the question of what happened to the Israelites conquered by Assyrians. Some were indeed assimilated into Assyria and Persia. Some were actually scattered to far regions of the world. Indeed, there is both historical and genetic evidence that links some people from as far away as southern Africa or India as being of Israelite origins. Many were truly lost to history. However, not all were lost. In fact, many remained in the land of Israel. The Bible actually records the presence of all Twelve Tribes of Israel even into the Christian era. Let’s review this biblical record.
When King Solomon died, his son Rehoboam became his successor. Early during the reign of Rehoboam the nation of Israel was split into two kingdoms (1 Kings 12). The southern kingdom maintained the Davidic dynasty, and was known as the Kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom had a succession of dynasties and rulers, and was known as the Kingdom of Israel. The Kingdom of Judah was comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. (Simeon had basically been assimilated into Judah already.) The other tribes of Israel who rejected Rehoboam and Davidic dynasty became the northern Kingdom of Israel. However, there were some Israelites who lived in the southern region of Judah, who remained under the rule of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:17, see also 2 Chronicles 10:18). Note, the term here “Israelites” cannot refer just to the Judeans. The word is plural. Obviously it was more than one tribe. It was at least Judah and Simeon, and likely others also.
As we read through the biblical history of these two we can begin a count of the tribes present in Judah. The southern kingdom of Judah was comprised of Judah itself, Simeon (which was contained within Judah), and Benjamin (see 2 Chronicles 11:12). This is three tribes, for sure—not counting the Levites (see 2 Chronicles 11:13). At the same time there were northern Israelites who moved to Judah (2 Chronicles 11:16) to escape the apostasy of Jeroboam and remain faithful to the worship of God. Notice that they “strengthened” the kingdom of Rehoboam by their immigration (2 Chronicles 11:17).
During the reign of Asa it is recorded that large numbers of Israelites moved to Judah when they saw the favor of God resting on his kingdom (2 Chronicles 15:9). Here specific mention is made of Ephraim, Manasseh and Simeon. Tribal count: Judah, Simeon, Benjamin, Manasseh, and Ephraim, in addition to the Levites. That’s six tribes. Also note that during the reign of Jehoshaphat many were brought back to the worship of Yahweh, including some in the hill country of Ephraim (2 Chronicles 19:4).
The northern tribes of “Israel” were taken captive by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:22-23, 18:11-12). The passage in 2 Kings 17 states that only Judah was left. However, as we shall see, there were others still in the northern land. The phrase “only Judah” probably refers to the existence of Israel as a nation-state, a sovereign entity.
The fall of Samaria occurred 721 b.c. This was the ninth year of the reign of Hoshea, king of Israel, and the sixth year of the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah. (See 2 Kings 18:1, 9-10.) During the reign of Hezekiah a great Passover celebration occurred. Hezekiah invited all Israel to come to this (2 Chronicles 30:1), with specific reference to Ephraim and Manasseh. This must have been after the fall of Samaria, or at least the conquering of most of Israel, for Hezekiah’s letter of invitation refers to “you are left, who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria” (2 Chronicles 30:6). Obviously there were Israelites left in the land, although probably only the common people and lower strata. The couriers carrying the invitation went as far as the tribal area of Zebulon (v. 10). Although most spurned the invitation, some from Asher, Manasseh, Ephraim, Issachar and Zebulon did humble themselves and go to Jerusalem for the Feast (vv. 11 and 18). Two matters require mention: 1) There is also reference made to the aliens from the northern tribal regions (30:25) and 2) The people from the northern tribes returned to their own lands, thus establishing the fact that there would be Israelites in this region after the time of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 31:1). It is also interesting to note that the Israelites destroyed the emblems of idolatry not only in Judah and Benjamin, but also in Ephraim and Manasseh (31:1). Obviously this would not have been possible if the northern kingdom were still in existence—thus further proof that this was after the fall of Samaria.
Tribal count within Judah: Judah, Simeon, Benjamin, Manasseh, and Ephraim, in addition to the Levites; in addition: Zebulon, Issachar and Asher. Now the total is eight, exclusive of Levi.
During the reign of Josiah there is mention made of the “entire remnant of Israel” (2 Chronicles 34:9). Also, specific mention is made here of a collection being given by Manasseh and Ephraim, in addition to Judah and Benjamin. It was also during the time of Josiah’a refurbishing of the Temple that he refers to the “remnant of Israel and Judah” (2 Chronicles 34:21). This remnant of Israel and Judah celebrated the Passover together (2 Chronicles 35:18). Thus, it is again evident that there is a remnant of Israel in the north.
The Kingdom of Judah was finally conquered by the Babylonians in 586 b.c. Many of the people of Judah were led into captivity. However, under the Persians, they began to return to the land. The returned exiles consisted of many people from Judah. However, the biblical record also indicates that exiles from all twelve tribes were part of the return to the land.
During the reign of Cyrus the Jews began to return to their homeland (Ezra 1). Included in this immigration were people from Judah, Benjamin and Levi (Ezra 1:5). Later the Persian king Artaxerxes decreed that “any of the Israelites in my kingdom” could return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:13). Admittedly, most didn’t. However, any Israelite within the Persian kingdom was given permission to return. Consider how extensive the kingdom of Persia was. It was huge. In response to this decree, Ezra says that he “gathered leading men from Israel” to return with him (Ezra 7:27).
When Ezra reached Israel he brought with him an offering from the Israelites in exile. This offering was only to be presented before the priests and the “family heads of Israel” in Jerusalem (Ezra 8:29). Ezra was concerned over the Israelites intermarrying with pagans (Ezra 9). This sin was committed by “the people of Israel” living in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:1). When the people had confessed their sin, Ezra put “all Israel” under an oath to obey God (Ezra 10:5).
Nehemiah prayer in Nehemiah 1:5-11 reminds God of his promise to return all the exiles “from the furthest horizon” back to their own land (1:9).
The post-exilic prophet Zechariah, prophesying in Jerusalem, speaks of “Judah and Israel” (Zechariah 8:13) and “all the tribes of Israel” (9:1). He specifically mentions both Judah and Ephraim in his prophecy of the coming of Messiah (9:10, 13). Malachi also refers to Israel in very inclusive language, making mention of “Judah” and “Israel” (Malachi 2:11) and the “tents of Jacob” (2:12). He speaks of the descendents of Jacob and the “whole nation” (3:6, 9).
The account of the tribes of Israel does not end with the close of the Old Testament. We see evidence of the presence of all twelve tribes in the New Testament also. For example, at Jesus’ presentation in the Temple we see a prophetess named Anna, who was from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36). Paul himself was of the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1). In Paul’s address to King Agrippa he speaks of the twelve tribes of Israel waiting for the promise of God (Acts 26:7). Although thousands of Israelites did return to their native land during the Persian period, most still remained in exile, becoming the Diaspora. However, these also were not lost to history. Indeed, James can refer to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1). Finally, Paul states that the promise of God is that “all Israel” will be saved (Romans 11:26). Final tribal count: 12!
Thus, it is clear from the record of Scripture that there really were no lost tribes in ancient Israel. Although many Israelites would disappear to history, literally millions did not. All twelve tribes were known even after the establishment of the church. For Joseph Smith, Herbert W. Armstrong or any other cult leader to claim otherwise is simply not supported by either history or the Bible.