There Are No Lost Tribes

Dead Sea, 2019

Paul the Apostle was from the tribe of Benjamin. In Luke 2:36a, we read about a widow named Anna who prophesied about the infant Jesus. “There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher.” The priests were from the tribe of Levi. The largest of all the tribes, however, was the tribe of Judah. We see these particular tribes mentioned in the New Testament (obviously excluding Revelation 7, where all the tribes are mentioned except Dan).

This raises a question: Were the “lost tribes” of Israel really lost? Or just depleted? The Old Testament answers this question, I believe.

Many Bible students do not realize the constant interaction between the faithful Jews from North Israel with Judah (what once would have been “Southern Israel”). Jerusalem was the capitol of Judah, and the location of Mount Zion, upon which the Temple was built. The word “Jew” is derived from the tribe, “Judah.”

Judah and Israel were a single united nation under King Saul. This unity was experienced for most of David’s reign, and all of Solomon’s reign. The united nation was known as “Israel,” for the twelve tribes had all descended from a man named “Israel” (whose former name was Jacob).

The nation split after Solomon’s death into Judah (the south, where Jerusalem was) and the north, which included the bulk of the nation. The northern divisions retained the name “Israel.”

Over the years, the two nations had their skirmishes but sometimes worked together as allies. Because of a common language, culture, and heritage, there were few barriers to migration. There seems to have been a stream of migrations from the north to the south (from Israel to Judah) because Israel’s leaders were unceasingly idolatrous (and often polytheistic), but some of Judah’s kings were faithful to Yahweh, the God of the universe and all Israel. Let’s look at a few of these migrations.

2 Chronicles 11:14-17a (ESV) reads,

For the Levites left their common lands and their holdings and came to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons cast them out from serving as priests of the Lord, and he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat idols and for the calves that he had made. And those who had set their hearts to seek the Lord God of Israel came after them from all the tribes of Israel to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord, the God of their fathers. They strengthened the kingdom of Judah…

Strengthening the kingdom of Judah suggests that many of these individuals remained in Judah, adding to her population, skills, military, and commerce.

During the reign of King Asa, we read,

And he gathered all Judah and Benjamin, and those from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon who were residing with them, for great numbers had deserted to him from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him (2 Chronicles 15:9)

We can notice several other migrations before and after the fall of (Northern) Israel to the Assyrians. Even during the early stages of the Assyrian conquest and afterward, both kings Hezekiah and Josiah made great effort to reach and accommodate the faithful Israelites from the north.

Hezekiah held a renewed Passover—unlike any other—and invited the northern Israelites to attend. Some did.

Note 2 Chronicles 30:10-11,

So the couriers went from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, and as far as Zebulun, but they laughed them to scorn and mocked them. However, some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.

2 Chronicles 30:18 talks about the special accommodation:

For a majority of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, “May the good Lord pardon everyone…”

The term, “a majority,” may refer to a combination of the faithful from Judah who were not ritually clean and many from the north (also not ritually clean); the most natural interpretation suggestion—in my view—is that there was at least a near parity between northern and southern worshippers.

This accommodation is a great example of putting the spirit of the Law above the letter. Jesus seemed to endorse this approach when he stated, “‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’” (Mark 2:27-28).

Josiah, Hezekiah’s great-grandson, did something similar: “And the people of Israel who were present kept the Passover at that time” (2 Chronicles 35:17).

This drives us to conclude that all the tribes of Israel were and are represented among the Jewish people, and that a number of faithful Jews still lived in the north—even after the Assyrian conquest and deportation.

Although some of these faithful Jews would intermarry non-Jews (who probably became Jewish converts) and, in time, become known as “Samaritans,” (and thus retaining a slight variation of the Jewish religion), others associated themselves with the temple in Jerusalem, relocated and became part of mainstream Judaism.

Although the word “Jew” comes from a shortened version of geographic term, “Judah,” the term “Jewish people” includes all the tribes of Israel, not just those from the tribe of Judah. Thus, the term Jew (in use throughout the Book of Esther) came to refer to any of the descendants of Israel, regardless of tribe.

Photo by Dave Herring on Unsplash.

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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There are 3 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Really, the habit of trying to put each tribe in an eternal, clearly marked region does us harm because the actual history of Israel does not really support this. I'd guess both believing people from the northern tribes, along with younger children of those tribes who found better trade opportunities in Judah, made this a lot more complicated than our neat little maps want it to be.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jeff Howell's picture

I would surmise that the clearly marked thinking comes from the initial tribal allotment stories of Joshua 14-21, would you agree? A reading of the lists of people in Ezra who return to the land also shows that most, if not all the tribes, were represented in the resettling post-captivity. I didn't take the time to check definitively. So, the point would stand regarding diminishment in total numbers would be supported.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Jeff Howell asekd:

I would surmise that the clearly marked thinking comes from the initial tribal allotment stories of Joshua 14-21, would you agree?


 Ezekiel 47:21-23 suggests that those living in the land of a certain tribe (from other nations, and, arguing from greater to lesser, from other tribes) would eventually be considered part of that tribe:

You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance," declares the Sovereign LORD.

I don't think that the whole tribe thing survived after the return from Babylon, at least not that I know of.  But it could be that, before the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, that an Israelite's tribe may have eventually  changed if he/she permanently relocated.  Of course some of this is natural: the heirs of one relocating would likely inter-marry with the locals.   So, if I am right, there may have been a certain "naturalization" process.

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