Misconception: The myth of the ten lost tribes: Jews were a tribal society with twelve tribes. Modern Jews are only descended from two of these tribes, the other ten are lost.
Truth: Jews were never a tribal society. There were originally twelve, later fourteen, Jewish family lines. Modern Jews are descended from all of them.

By definition, a tribe is a small ethnic group, isolated from other groups, with its own separate culture. This was never the case with the Jewish people. The Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived as part of the general society of the Middle East interacting with other peoples. Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. The Jewish people kept track their family trees and had originally twelve surnames based on paternal descent from Jacob's twelve sons. Such a surname was called a shevet or mateh meaning a staff or rod, used in the figurative sense of a family line. The King James Version renders these words as "tribe", a derogatory term used by Christians for non-Christian or pre-Christian peoples. However, one does not normally describe people with different surnames as belonging to different tribes! Failure to understand that the "tribes" were surnames not separate ethnic groups is a contributing factor in the myth of the ten lost tribes.

Descendants of Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh kept track of which son they were descended from, and the shevet of Joseph was subsequently divided into the two shevatim of Ephraim and Manasseh. This made thirteen shevatim. Jewish heraldic symbols for the shevatim combine Simeon and Levi into one so that there are twelve heraldic symbols associated with the shevatim.

From the time of Aaron and the mishkan (Tabernacle), the descendants of Aaron came to be counted separately to the Levites, forming a fourteenth family line in addition to the thirteen shevatim, called Beit Aharon (House of Aaron) or the Kohanim (Priests).

For the first four centuries that the shevatim existed, Jewish communities contained people belonging to all of them. People with different surnames intermarried in same way as we do today. This alone guarantees that the modern Jewish people have ancestors from all the shevatim. Failure to take into account the normal intermarrying of people from different shevatim is another factor contributing to the myth.

During the time of Joshua, the shevatim were given land as inheritance. The land was divided into portions which were allocated to the shevatim and subsequently named after them, thereby forming provincial divisions. The shevet of Simeon was given an inheritance within the portion of land allocated to Judah and did not have a separate province. The Levites and Kohanim lived in cities allocated to them within the provinces of other shevatim and also did not have separate provinces. The shevet of Manasseh had been given land on both sides of the Jordan, thus forming two divisions each referred to as chatzi shevet Menasheh (half of shevet Manasseh). The shevet of Dan was displaced from the territory assigned to it and moved to new territory in the north. The land originally assigned to Dan was subsequently incorporated into Ephraim and Manasseh. Around the time of the splitting of the kingdom, the territory of Benjamin became incorporated into that of Judah and no longer formed a separate province.

The division of the land did not stop people of different shevatim from marrying each other - a wife would usually move to the land of her husband's shevet. At one time all the men of Benjamin had taken wives from Shiloh in the territory of Ephraim (Judges 21:21-24). The continued normal marrying of people from different shevatim despite the division of land further guarantees the ancestry of modern Jews from all the shevatim.

The idea of there being ten lost tribes has its beginnings in the episode in Jewish history in when it was prophesied that G-d would take ten shevatim away from the house of David, giving them to Jeroboam, leaving only one shevet for the the house of David. This subsequently came to pass during the reign of Rehoboam, when it is said that only Judah followed the house of David, the remaining shevatim choosing Jeroboam as the king of Israel. (See 1 Kings 11-12.) This marked the split of the united kingdom of Israel into two: the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel.

The shevatim referred to in the above episode are the shevatim as provinces of the divided kingdom.  Several facts confirm this:

The ten shevatim that formed the northern kingdom would have been eight full shevatim together with the two half shevatim making up Manasseh. If Manasseh is counted as one shevet then there were in fact only nine shevatim in the northern kingdom. Failure to note that the southern kingdom contained the people of Simeon, Levi and Beit Aharon besides those of Judah and Benjamin further contributes to the myth.

The most important episode of history leading to the myth of the lost tribes is the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom and the transplantation of people. There were actually different occasions on which Jews were taken away captive by Assyrians: the invasion of Pul / Tiglath-Pileser (it is unclear from the historical sources if Pul and Tiglath-Pileser are the same king or two different co-regents), the invasion of Sargon and his subsequent conquest of Samaria.

The sources regarding the transplanting by Pul / Tiglath-Pileser are as follows:


Reference Hebrew English
2 Kings 15:29   biymei Peqach melekh Yisrael ba' Tiglat Phil'eser melekh Ashur vayiqach et 'Iyon v'et Avel Beit Ma'akhah v'et Yanoach v'et Qedesh v'et Chatzor v'et Gil'ad v'et ha-Galilah kol eretz Naphtali vayaglem Ashurah In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel-beth-Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead and the Galilee, all the land of Naphtali and took them captive towards Assyria.
1 Chronicles 5:6  ... Be'erah b'no asher heglah Tilegat Pilne'eser melekh Ashur, hu' nasi' la-Re'uveni ... Beerah his son, that Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria took captive - he was president to the Reubenite
1 Chronicles 5:18-22 b'nei Reuven v'Gadi v'chatzi shevet Menasheh ... v'yasu milchamah 'im ha-Hagri'im viYetur v'Naphish v'Nodav ... vayinatnu b'yadam ... vayishvu tachteihem 'ad ha-golah Sons of Reuben, of Gad and of half of staff Manasseh ... and they made war with the Hagrites: Jetur, Naphish and Nodab ... and they were given into their hand ... and they settled in their place until the captivity.
1 Chronicles 5:26 vaya'ar elohei Yisra'el et ruach Pul melekh Ashur v'et Tilegat Pilneser melekh Ashur vayaglem la-Reuveni v'la-Gadi v'la-chatzi shevet Menasheh vayevi'em la-Ch'lach v'Chavor v'Hara v'N'har Gozan 'ad ha-yom hazeh And the G-d of Israel stirred the spirit of Pul king of Assyria and Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, and he took them captive, of the Reubenite, of the Gadite and of the half of staff Manasseh, and brought them to the Halah, and Habor of Hara and the River of Gozan even to this day


Reference Text

Victory Stele of Pul

...the wide land of Naphtali, in its entirety, I brought within the border of Assyria. My official I set over them as governor.
House of Omri ... all of its people, together with their goods, I carried off to Assyria.
Pekah their king, they deposed and I placed Hoshea over them as king. Ten talents of gold...talents of silver, as their tribute I received from them and to Assyria I carried them.

Some important points to note:

The effect of Tiglath-Pileser's transplanting of people was to re-establish a significant Jewish presence in Aram Naharaim, the region of Biblical Israel in which Abraham had lived many years (and which tradition says he was born), where the mothers of the Jewish people, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah had been born, where Jacob had lived after fleeing from Esau, where all his sons except Benjamin had been born, and which had also been part of David and Solomon's kingdom. There is no evidence that Jews were moved out of Biblical Israel.

The sources regarding the transplanting by Sargon upon his invasion are as follows:

Reference Greek English
Tobit 1:1-2 biblov logwn twbiy tou twbihl tou ananihl tou adouhl tou gabahl tou rafahl tou ragouhl ek tou spermatov asihl ek fulhv nefyalim ov hcmalwteuyh en taiv hmeraiv enemessarou tou basilewv twn assuriwn ek yisbhv h estin ek dexiwn kudiwv thv nefyalim en th anw galilaia uperanw asshr opisw odou dusmwn hliou ex aristerwn fogwr A book of words of Tobit, son of Tobiel, son of Ananiel, son of Aduel, son of Gabael, son of Raphael, son of Raguel from the seed of Asiel, of the staff of Naphtali, who was taken captive in the days of Enemessar [Sargon], king of the Assyrians, out of Thisbe, which is to the right of Kedesh of Naphtali in upper Galilee above Asher, after the way of the sunset, to the left of Phogor.
Tobit 1:3 egw twbiy odoiv alhyeiav eporeuomhn kai en dikaiosunaiv pasav tav hmerav thv zwhv mou kai elehmosunav pollav epoihsa toiv adelfoiv mou kai tw eynei mou toiv poreuyeisin met emou en th aicmalwsia eiv thn cwran twn assuriwn eiv nineuh I Tobit, walked upon ways of truth and in justice all the days of my life, and did many acts of charity to my brothers and my people who went with me in the captivity to the land of the Assyrians, to Nineveh.
Tobit 1:10 meta to aicmalwtisyhnai me eiv assuriouv kai ote hcmalwtisyhn eiv nineuh eporeuomhn kai pantev oi adelfoi mou kai oi ek tou genouv mou hsyion ek twn artwn twn eynwn With the taking of me captive to Assyria, and when I was brought captive to Nineveh, and all my brothers and those of my kin were eating of the bread of the nations ...

In addition the Chronicles of the Jews of Cochin mentions that 460 Jews were exiled to Yemen. It also mentions that a patriarch of the community in Yemen, Shimon Rabban, was of the shevet of Ephraim.

Important points to note:

Thus the effect of Sargon's transplanting was to produce a Jewish community in exile in the Assyrian capital Nineveh and a Jewish community in Yemen presumably acting as an Assyrian mission to the region.

The sources regarding the transplanting following Sargon's capture of Samaria are as follows:


Reference Hebrew English
2 Kings 17:6  bish'nat hat'shi'it l'Hoshea' lakhad Melekh Ashur et Shomron vayegel et Yisra'el Ashurah vayoshev otam ba-Ch'lach uv'Chavor N'har Gozan v'-'arei Madai In the ninth year of Hoshea, the King of Assyria captured Samaria and took Israel captive towards Assyria, and settled them in the Halah and in Habor of the River of Gozan and cities of Media.
2 Kings 17:23 vayigel Yisra'el me`al admato Ashurah `ad ha-yom hazeh And Israel was taken captive from upon its own ground, towards Assyria, even to this day.
2 Kings 18:11  vayagel Melekh Ashur et Yisra'el Ashurah vayan'chem ba-Ch'lach uv'Chavor N'har Gozan v'-'arei Madai And the King of Assyria took Israel captive towards Assyria and rested them in the Halah and in Habor of the River of Gozan and cities of Media.


Reference Text

Khorsabad Annals of Sargon

At the beginning of my rule, in my first year of reign....the people of Samaria...27,290...who lived therein, I carried away...

Display Inscription of Sargon

I besieged and captured Samaria, carrying off 27,290 of its inhabitants. I gathered 50 chariots from among them.

The book of Tobit specifically mentions a Jewish presence in the Median cities of Ecbatana and Rages during the reign of Sennacherib, following the reign of Sargon.

Important points to note regarding the transplanting by Sargon:

Thus the result of the transplantation by Sargon was the establishment of Jewish communities in exile in Media and the further bolstering of the Jewish presence in the Aram Naharaim region of Biblical Israel.

To summarize the effect of all three transplantations:

Thus at no point were people exiled to completely unknown regions. Nor was it the entire population of the northern kingdom that was exiled. We in fact have no clear evidence that anyone from Dan, Asher, Zebulun, Issachar or western Manasseh had been taken away. Even if there were captives from these shevatim or regions it is clear that it was nothing comparable to the transplantation of people from Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead which is specifically mentioned in the book of Chronicles. We therefore see that a major contribution to the myth of the ten lost tribes is failure to notice that not all the people of the northern kingdom were moved and that those who were, were taken to known regions (in some cases, to regions that were in fact considered part of Biblical Israel).

Moreover, we know of Jews returning from the Assyrian exile. The earliest case of a return was that of one of the priests. The Assyrians had settled people from Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim in the region of Samaria. After being attacked by lions these people requested that a Jewish priest be allowed to return to teach them them how to worship of the G-d the land. A priest who had been taken from Samaria was subsequently sent back and lived in Beth-El (2 Kings 17:28). The foreigners were converted to Judaism and became the Jewish sect known as the Kutim.

(to be continued ...) 


  1. Tanach

  2. Tobit

  3. Victory Stele of Pul

  4. Khorsabad Annals of Sargon

  5. Display Inscription of Sargon

  6. The Samaritan Chronicle

  7. Encyclopedia Judaica

Last updated 19/12/2006