Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Lost Tribes of Israel

Posted by foryourfaith on January 13, 2010

 

During the reign of Rehoboam (ca. 928 – 911 BC), the monarchy established by David split into two – the southern kingdom, consisting of two tribes that remained loyal to the House of David (Judah and Benjamin), which took the name of the kingdom of Judah; and the northern kingdom, comprising the seceding tribes, which became known as the Kingdom of Israel.  In 722 or 721 BC the northern kingdom fell in final defeat to the mighty Assyrian army, and its population was led into exile in Assyria (present-day Iraq).  From that time on, the exiled tribes have disappeared from history.

Many myths and legends exist regarding the fate of the ten lost tribes, as they have become known.  Assyrian documents dating to the end of the 8th century BC and the 7th century BC contain several allusions to their existence in Mesopotamia.  The later prophets foretold their eventual return and reunification with the descendants of the Judean exiles.  However, nothing other than legend seems to exist about the fate of the ten tribes.  During the Second Temple and Talmudic periods, this was a subject of great interest and speculation.  The continued existence of the ten tribes was regarded as a given.  The historian Josephus states that “The ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an innumerable multitude and not to be estimated in numbers.”  Paul and James both refer to the existence of twelve tribes as fact.  In rabbinic tradition the ten tribes will eventually return but are presently unable to do so because of their exile beyond the mysterious river Sambatyon, with its strong currents, rolling stones, and sand, which make crossing impossible and prevent any outside contacts.

During Medieval times many scholars and travelers attempted to identify the whereabouts of the ten lost tribes.  For example, in the 9th century, the Jewish traveler Eldad ha-Dani visited Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa claiming to belong to the lost tribe of Dan, which, he said, together with the tribes of Naftali, Gad, and Asher, had established an independent kingdom somewhere in Africa.  The famous 12th century Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, writes in the account of his journeys to the East that he had been told that four of the tribes (Dan, Asher, Zebulun, and Naftali) resided in Persia.  In the 16th century, the adventurer and messianic pretender David Reuveni claimed to be a brother of a King Joseph who ruled in Arabia over the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh.  Similar tales of the existence of the ten tribes turn up in the writings of travelers and scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout the Middle Ages.

Legends abut the lost tribes continue to proliferate well into the modern era.  Some have suggested that the native Indians of the Americas were in fact their descendants.  One 17th century Jewish traveler returned home to Amsterdam from South America with tales of meeting Indians in remote areas who greeted him by reciting the Shema, the Hebrew prayer that devout Jews recite daily.  Others claimed to have identified Jewish practices among American Indian religions.  Yet another legend claims that the Jews of Ethiopia (known in Amharic as Falashas) are descended from the lost tribe of Dan; this idea in fact was used to justify their claim to be Jewish when they first began to arrive in Israel in the mid 1970’s.  Still others believe that the Bene Israel – an old and unique Jewish community in India – are a remnant of the ten lost tribes, who migrated east to India from their Assyrian exile.  As recently as the mid 1980’s, some scholars have claimed to discover “lost Jews” in remote areas of India.

There may be some kernel of truth in a few of these tales, as historical evidence of the existence of independent Jewish kingdoms in the Middle Ages – in Yemen in the 5th century AD, and in Central Asia from the 9th to the 12th centuries Ad, for example – has been uncovered.  it is also possible that the presence of crypto-Jews in some geographically remote countries, who in years past were forced underground by persecution and gradually lost all but a few vestiges of Judaism, gave rise to tales of the ten lost tribes.  It is much more likely, however, that those tribes carried off into exile by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC were simply assimilated into the local populations and, over time, became indistinguishable from them.  If so, we will never be able to trace what really happened to the ten lost tribes and their descendants.

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