WILL THE TEN LOST TRIBES EVER BE FOUND?
(From “Jacob’s Dozen,” by William Varner)
In December, 1984, astounding news leaked to the world press. For over a year, the Israeli government had been secretly flying over ten thousand Ethiopian Jews out of their refugee camps in the Sudan to their new homes in the modern state of Israel. The Beta Israel, as they call themselves (Falashas in the Ethiopian language), claim that their Judaic faith originated after the Queen of Sheba returned from her famous visit to King Solomon, bringing with her the knowledge of the one true God. Rabbis in Israel, however, had another explanation – these Ethiopian Jews were descendants of the tribe of Dan, one of the mysterious lost tribes of Israel.
In a recent edition of a Jewish newspaper, an article appeared describing the Jewish customs of the Pashtu – an Islamic tribe in Afghanistan. They circumcise their sons on the eighth day, wear four-cornered garments, perform levirate marriages and don traditional sidelocks and beards. These customs have convinced some researchers that the Pashtu tribe is a remnant of the ten lost tribes of Israel.
In a far different vein, a prominent American radio and TV “evangelist” proclaimed for years that the ten losttribes were not lost but had reappeared as the British and American peoples, whom, he claimed, were the inheritors of the promises to ancient Israel!
These various ideas appearing in the twentieth century have again raised some important questions in the minds of many: What did happen to the ten tribes? Have some of them survived until today? Can we identify these tribes with any of the many ethnic groups living on planet earth today? This chapter will attempt to answer these and other questions about the lost tribes by sifting through the myths and ideas of men to ascertain the scriptural and historical truth about the so-called lost tribes.
THE MEANING OF THE PHRASE TEN LOST TRIBES
In 930 B.C., soon after the death of Solomon, the united kingdom of Israel was ruptured into two separate kingdoms, generally referred to in Scripture as the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Both of these kingdoms failed in their stand against idolatry, were eventually conquered by foreign powers and ceased to be independent kingdoms. The northern kingdom, consisting of ten tribal allotments, succumbed to the Assyrians around 721 B.C. “For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they departed not from them, Until the LORD removed Israel out of his sight, as he had said by all his servants, the prophets. So was Israel carried away out of their own land to Assyria unto this day” (2 Kings 17:22-23).
Their southern brethren, the kingdom of Judah, consisting primarily of the tribal allotments of Judah and Benjamin, were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Some of these exiles returned under Zerubabbel and reestablished their existence in 536 B.C.
Since, however, there never was a formal return of the northern tribes to reestablishtheir kingdom, they have been popularly referred to as the ten lost tribes.
IDEAS ABOUT THE IDENTITY OF THE TEN LOST TRIBES
The television series “In Search of …” is an indication of how fascinated people are about the unanswered questions surrounding the mysterious, the unknown and the unexplained. The subsequent history of the remnants of the northern kingdom has fueled the imagination of many travelers, writers, romanticists and cultists. There are three basic ideas that have emerged about their identity.
First, one traditional Jewish explanation is that the ten tribes are forever lost, assimilated among their Assyrian captors, and never again will be found. The great second-century rabbi Akiba expressed this opinion strongly: “The ten tribes shall not return again – they have completely disappeared” (Mishna Sanhedrin 10:3). This, however, seems to be a minority opinion among the rabbis in the Talmud.
Second, another Jewish tradition is that the tribes continued to exist beyond the mysterious river Sambatyon whose rapidly plowing waters prevented their crossing it. The Jewish historian Josephus stated at the end of the first century, “The ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude and not to be estimated in numbers” (Antiquities 11:133). Throughout the Middle Ages, various pseudo-messiahs, such as David Reubeni, appeared in Europe and claimed to be from a Jewish kingdom composed of the ten lost tribes. Legends circulated that fired the hope of their soon discovery, but no tangible evidence of their existence was every produced. It was this tradition that motivated Israel’s rabbis to declare that the Jews of Ethiopia belong to the lost tribe of Dan.
Third, theories abound which identify various ethnic groups today as being the descendants of the ten lost tribes. The Encyclopedia Judaica states, “There is hardly a people, from the Japanese to the British, and from the Red Indians to the Afghans, who have not been suggested, and hardly a place, among them Africa, India, China, Persia, Kurdistan, Caucasia, the United States, and Great Britain” (Vol. 15, p. 1006).
The theory attempting to explain the subsequent history of the ten lost tribes that has gained the greatest following is the view known as British-Israelism. First propounded in nineteenth-century England, the basic premise of British-Israelism is that the ten tribes captured by the Assyrians are, in reality, the Saxae, or Scythians, who surged westward through Northern Europe and eventually became the ancestors of the Saxons who invaded England. The theory maintains that the Anglo-Saxons are thus the Israel of the Bible.
Therefore, according to this view, the present-day Jews are from the tribe of Judah, are under a divine curse, and are not to be identified with Israel at all. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon peoples, including the British (i.e., Ephraim) and Americans (i.e., Manasseh) are the inheritors of the covenants and promises of the Old Testament.
In addition to some misunderstood scriptural arguments based on the birthright of Joseph (Gen. 49:26) and the promises to his sons Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:20), British-Israelism maintains that the lost tribes left landmarks on their trek across Europe. Thus, the Dan and Danube Rivers, as well as the city of Danzig and country of Denmark are clear indications to them of the tribe of Dan! The term “Saxons” is supposedly a contraction of “Isaac’s Sons,” while the term “British” is actually derived from two Hebrew words for “covenant” and “man”! These linguistic arguments have been rejected by every reputable Hebrew scholar as absolutely groundless.
The original proponents of British-Israelism were evangelical and orthodox in the rest of their theology, and some still exist today, not as a separate denomination, but as a small movement which is found in many different churches. What should cause real concern, however, is the way in which this view has been adopted into the teachings of two groups which are clearly out of line with the main tenets of biblical Christianity. The first of these is known as the Worldwide Church of God, founded by the late Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong made British-Israelism a vital part of his doctrinal system, which also denies the deity of the Holy Spirit and the reality of everlasting punishment. Armstrong’s theology further imposes the Old Testament laws on the believer as a means of salvation.
Another group which has adopted British-Israelism is the “Identity” movement of white supremacy. A number of groups, affirming the Satanic character of Zionism and the so-called worldwide Jewish conspiracy, have adopted British-Israelism to prove the superiority of the white race over Jews, Asiatics and Negroes. These groups have often led demonstrations against the supposed Jewish control of money and the media, as well as engaging in violent actions against so-called Jewish “enemies.”
WHAT IS THE SCRIPTURAL HISTORY OF THE TEN LOST TRIBES?
A detailed refutation of the many explanations of the history of Israel’s northern tribes is impossible within the scope of this chapter. The great Hebrew-Christian scholar, David Baron, in his work The History of the Ten “Lost” Tribes has provided the most detailed and accurate answer to the question. The following is a summary of his main points with a few additional observations of the author.
The fallacy inherent in all of the theories about the lost tribes is simply this: they were never lost, but continued as part of the main body of the Jewish people. To illustrate the truthfulness of this statement, consider the following five points:
One. At the time of the disruption of the united kingdom in 930 B.C., faithful Israelites from all the northern tribes joined their brethren in the south and continued their identity as part of the kingdom of Judah. Two books in Scripture that are strangely ignored by British-Israelites are 1 and 2 Chronicles. These books make it clear that the tribes in the north continued their existence as part of Judah after 930 B.C. Consider 2 Chronicles 11:14, 16: “For the Levites left their suburban lands and their possession, and came to Judah and Jerusalem; for Jeroboam and his sons had cast them off from executing the priest’s office unto the LORD; … And after them, out of all the tribes of Israel, such as set their hearts to seek the LORD God of Israel came to Jerusalem, to sacrifice unto the LORD God of their fathers.” These verses provide irrefutable proof that many godly individuals out of “all the tribes of Israel” rejected Jeroboam’s idolatry and joined the southern kingdom. During the reign of Asa, others followed from Ephraim and Manasseh (2 Chr. 15:9). Thus, it is evident that the kingdom of Judah absorbed many from the northern kingdom through the years.
Two. Although it is often assumed that all of the northern kingdom went into the Assyrian captivity, Scripture teaches that Israelites continued to live there after the captivity of 721 B.C. Again, Chronicles helps us in this regard. At Hezekiah’s invitation, many from the north settled in Judah after the destruction of the northern kingdom (2 Chr. 30). Even later, in 622 B.C., more godly Israelites came to Jerusalem to help repair the Temple (2 Chr. 34:9), and later to celebrate the Passover (2 Chr. 35:17-18). If the northern tribes had become lost, how could these representatives have joined in worship in Jerusalem one hundred years after the Assyrian destruction? A reading of the chronicler’s account forces one to the conclusion that not all of the northern tribes went into captivity in 721 B.C.
Archaeology has confirmed this fact which is so clearly taught in Chronicles. Excavations have revealed that the population of Judah rapidly increased after the fall of the northern kingdom as a result of the many refugees mentioned in 2 Chronicles 11:14-16. Furthermore, archaeologists have uncovered the annals of the Assyrian Sargon, in which he tells that he carried away only 27,290 people and 50 chariots (Biblical Archaeologist, VI, 1943, p. 58). Since estimates of the population of the northern kingdom at that time range from 400,000 to 500,000, clearly less than one-twentieth of the population was deported, primarily the leaders from the area around Samaria. The ten tribes, therefore, were never lost because they were never deported! Their kingdom was destroyed and ceased to exist, but most of them stayed, with some around Samaria intermingling with new immigrants to form the Samaritans (2 Ki. 17:24-41).
Three. When the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity in 536 B.C. and the following years, the chronicler viewed the restored community as the remnant of all Israel, both north and south, and not just the tribe of Judah: “Now the first inhabitants who dwelt in their possessions in their cities were the Israelites, the priests, Levites, and the Nethinim. And in Jerusalem dwelt of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin, and of the children of Ephraim, and Manasseh” (1 Chr. 9:2-3). According to these verses, we should look to find Ephraim and Manasseh, not in England and America, but in Jerusalem following the return from Babylon.
Furthermore, the people at that time viewed themselves as part of all Israel, for they offered “twelve he-goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel” (Ezra 6:17). Although British-Israelism confidently asserts that Judah and Israel are always separate and distinct, a concordance shows that in the Book of Ezra the restored community is called “Jews” only eight times and “Israel” fifty times. The writer evidently viewed the terms as interchangeable, both applying to the same people after the captivity.
Four. The New Testament clearly indicates that there were individuals in the first century who still maintained their tribal identities – some of whom were members of those supposedly lost tribes. Consider, for example, the aged Anna who beheld the baby Jesus in the Temple. Luke 2:36 states that she was of the “tribe of Asher.”
When Paul spoke of his Jewish brethren, he spoke of a common promise and a common hope: “Unto which promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God day and night, hope to come” (Acts 26:7). James addressed his epistle “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (Jas. 1:1). He made no distinction between Judah and ten tribes. All Jews were part of a common body, the only difference being that some were in the land of Israel and some in the Diaspora. Evidently, members of all the tribes existed both inside and outside the Promised Land.
The New Testament uses the term “Jew” one hundred seventy four times and the term “Israel” seventy-five times, clearly applying them to the same body of people. It is also striking that the Apostle Paul referred to himself as both a “Jew” (Acts 22:3) and an “Israelite” (Rom. 11:1), and there is never a time when he distinguishes between Jews and Israel, as modern British-Israelism does. If the so-called lost tribes indeed resurfaced as the British people, and if Jeremiah eventually traveled to Britain to establish David’s throne there, one would expect some trace of these matters to be mentioned in the New Testament. The silence of the New Testament writers in this regard, however, is deafening. The New Testament refers to only one group of people who descended from Jacob: “Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 9:4-5).
Five. Biblical prophecy concerning the end times also indicates continuing tribal distinctions. Although Jews today do not know from which tribe they are descended (with the possible exception of the Levites), Scripture affirms that God knows. Such passages as Revelation 7:4-8 and Ezekiel 48 declare that representatives of restored Israel will be present in the Tribulation and also in the Millennial Kingdom.
To summarize, it can be said, on the basis of Scripture, history and archaeology, that there is no such thing as the ten lost tribes. What was lost was the separate existence of the kingdom of Israel in the north. The tribes, however, continued to exist in the body of the southern kingdom with the terms “Jews” and “Israel” applied to all of the covenant people after the captivity.
Furthermore, any claim that some ethnic group descended from the ten tribes rests on shaky biblical and historical foundations. British-Israelism, in addition to distorting the Scriptures through its preconceived bias, fosters national pride and is helping to fuel the white supremacist, anti-Semitic groups that are spreading their poisonous propaganda today. Satan’s attempts to destroy the Jewish people have taken various forms in history, from the days of Antiochus Epiphanes to the murderous plan of Hitler. Now the evil one is promoting the lie that the Jews are not truly the Jews, thus robbing Israel of its promises and covenants and transferring them to the Anglo-Saxon race!
Let us continue to be confident in the plain promises of Scripture and not be led astray by the misinterpretations and fanciful imaginings of man!
EDITORIAL NOTE: “Jacob’s Dozen – A Prophetic Look at the Tribes of Israel” by William Varner – was printed in 1987 by “The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc.” Bellmawr, New Jersey 08099, ISBN 0-915540-39-8.
THE BOOK – Near the end of his life, Jacob uttered a series of prophecies concerning his twelve sons and their progeny – the twelve tribes of Israel. Those prophecies were of tremendous importance. They were far-reaching and impacted all of mankind.
Were Jacob’s prophetic utterances true? Have they been fulfilled? Is so, how and when? Are some of Jacob’s prophecies still awaiting final fulfillment?
Jacob’s Dozen is a study of the biblical history and prophecies associated with each of the twelve tribes. The remarkable manner in which each prophecy was fulfilled in that tribe’s history is clearly explained.
Other fascinating subjects – such as the lost tribes of Israel and the role of the tribes in the end times – are explored. You will be amazed and blessed by this scholarly yet readable prophetic look at the tribes of Israel.
THE AUTHOR: Dr. William C. Varner ministered with The Friends of Israel from 1979 to 1996, most of that time as Dean of The Friends of Israel’s Institute of Jewish Studies. He now serves as Professor of Old Testament at the Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California.
If his handling of the lost tribes of Israel has fascinated you – you owe it to yourself to purchase his book, and read his complete presentation!
Since this book was published, “The Worldwide Church of God” founded by Herbert W. Armstrong has dissolved, though remnant churches have continued with some adjustments. However – the damage of his incorrect and fallacious teaching in British-Israelism unfortunately continues to this day.
Also, a new cult of Messianic Jewish congregations has recently arisen. There are various fellowships among them, the chief of which are "The Two House Messianic Congregations” and “Ephraimites.” They teach a not too subtle form of Anti-Semitism, even though Jews are involved in it. They are like Josephus. Though they differ from British-Israelism, yet it is easy to see the similarities.
It is interesting to note that Replacement theology in the church at large – is dynamically focused on British-Israelism. Here is Replacement Theology in its most blatant form.
This chapter will be included in the biography of George R. Hawtin. I do not believe he would have slipped into this error had he not had these 2-fold hurts. Because of them he withdrew from the type of “Benjamin Team Spirit” that functioned in 1948. - J.A.W.