The Ten Tribes of Israel: Lost or Found?

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.

Occasionally an article will describe 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 wear traditional sidelocks and beards. These customs have convinced some researchers that the Pashtu tribe is a remnant of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

A prominent American radio and TV “evangelist” proclaimed for years that the ten lost tribes 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 post attempts to answer these and other questions 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 ruptured into two kingdoms, generally referred to as the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Both 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 tribes, fell 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 Ki. 17:22–23). Their southern brethren, the kingdom of Judah, primarily 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 reestablish their 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 flowing 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 ever 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 19th-century England, the basic idea 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” (brit) and “man” (ish)! These linguistic arguments have been rejected by every reputable Hebrew scholar as absolutely groundless.

The original proponents of British-Israelism were evangelical in the rest of their theology, and some still exist today as a small movement found in many different churches. What should cause real concern, however, is the way in which this view has been absorbed into the teachings of two groups which are clearly out of line with biblical Christianity. The first of these is known as the Worldwide Church of God, founded by the late Herbert W. Armstrong, who made British-Israelism a vital part of his doctrinal system, and also denies the deity of the Holy Spirit and the reality of everlasting punishment. Armstrong’s theology further imposes OT laws on the believer as a means of salvation. (The current Grace Communion International has repudiated these teachings.)

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.”

So, where are those ten tribes? Continued…

[node:bio/will-varner body]

3942 reads

There are 2 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I have written a paper on "Why no mention of Dan in Revelation 7?"  It relates indirectly to this article. Here is the link for those interested: 

I wonder if Will Varner has any reason to suggest why the Rabbis believe the Ethiopian Jews to be DAN in particular?  Why is the emphasis on Dan, I wonder?

I'd appreciate information on this to possibly improve my paper!


"The Midrash Detective"

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.