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:
There are a total of eleven shevatim
The Levites and Kohanim are not
counted as part of these eleven shevatim. They are not part of the ten
shevatim who rejected the house of David. Most of them were already
in Judah and later the rest also came to Judah and Jerusalem
after Jeroboam appointed his own priests (2 Chronicles 11:14). However it is said that only Judah
followed the house of David because it is referring to provinces and there
was no province associated with the Levites or the Kohanim - most of them,
and later all of them, lived in the province of Judah.
Simeon is not counted as part of these
eleven shevatim. Simeon was never part of the northern kingdom, their
territory lay in the south of Judah (Joshua 19:9). Rehoboam reigned over
all Israelites living in the cities of Judah (2 Chronicles 10:17) and
so he clearly ruled over the Simeonites. It is said that only Judah followed
the house of David because it is referring to provinces and there was no
province associated with Simeon - they lived in the province of Judah.
Benjamin is not counted as part of these eleven shevatim. The people of Benjamin (as a family line) are mentioned as following Rehoboam, they were not part of the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:21). However, the territory of Benjamin, although originally a separate province, had become part of Judah, and so, as in the case of Simeon, Levi and the Kohanim, it is not counted as one of the eleven shevatim as provinces, only Judah (the province) is said to follow the house of David. The Benjaminites no longer had a separate province, they lived in Judah.
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:
|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|
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:
Tiglath-Pileser had captured only a
part of the northern kingdom. Initially taking the cities of Ijon,
Abel-beth-Maacah, Kedesh and Hazor in Naphtali as well as Janoah in Ephraim
just across the Jordan from Gilead. He then consolidated control over the
whole of Gilead (containing the territories of Reuben, Gad and half of
Manasseh), Galilee (in those days the name of a region in Naphtali in which
Kedesh lay) and subsequently all of Naphtali. He had thus captured the
provinces of Reuben, Gad, Manasseh in Gilead and Naphtali as well as the
city of Janoah in Ephraim.
The account of the capture in 2 Kings
15:29 makes no mention itself of anyone being taken away. The expression vayaglam
Ashurah [took them captive towards Assyria] refers to the towns
and regions he captured and annexed to the Assyrian empire which had
gradually been swallowing up Biblical Israel. It does not refer to people.
However the choice of the word vayaglem hints that people or
possessions might have been carried off.
The account of the Reubenite leader
Beerah given in 1 Chronicles 5:6 confirms that someone was taken
away captive by Tiglath-Pileser. The accounts
given in 1 Chronicles 5:26 shows that in fact that people from Reuben, Gad
and Manasseh in Gilead had been taken away. The victory stele of Pul shows that
both people and possessions had been taken away.
The Hebrew wording in 1 Chronicles 5:26
does not necessarily imply that it was all the people of Reuben, Gad
Manasseh in Gilead that were taken captive. It might have been all or it
might have merely been a significant number.
The stele mentions that all of some
particular group of people had been taken away but because of missing text,
it is not known exactly who this particular group is. Although the sentence
starts with the words "House of Omri", it is certainly not
referring to all members of the royal family let alone all of the northern
kingdom. Comparison with the accounts in the Tanach suggest that it is a
reference to those people of Reuben, Gad and
Manasseh in Gilead that were taken away.
1 Chronicles 5:6 also shows
that the captives from Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead were in fact not
removed from Biblical Israel but taken to Aram Naharaim which is part of
Biblical Israel (see above). Halah was a
location lying between the headwaters of the Euphrates proper. The Habor
(Confluence) was a confluence of several headwaters to form a single
headwater which was later called the River Habor but which was originally
called the River of Gozan. These regions lie within the borders of Israel as
defined in Genesis 15:18-21 and had been part of David and Solomon's
1 Chronicles 5:18-22 shows that the people of Reuben,
Gad and Manasseh in Gilead had already spread further eastwards from the
land assigned to them by Joshua having annexed the former Hagrite regions:
Jetur, Naphish and Nodab. 1 Chronicles 5:18-22 informs us that the
latter areas were vacated at the time of the captivity, however it is not
clear if the inhabitants of these regions were amongst those taken captive or if
they were simply displaced to other parts of Israel.
No mention is made in the Tanach of any people other
than those of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead, being moved by the
Assyrians. It is possible that some people were taken away from Naphtali or
Janoach but there is no historical evidence of such an occurrence. The fact
that 1 Chronicles makes no mention of such a thing while clearly
pointing out the transplanting of people from Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead
suggests that if it did occur it was certainly not on the same scale or of
enough importance to mention in the accounts of the history of Naphtali and
Ephraim. The victory stele of Pul in fact mentions a governor being placed
over Naphtali indicating that if anyone was removed from that region it was certainly
1 Chronicles 5:6 also informs us that descendents of the transplanted people still lived in Halah and Habor at the time Chronicles was written.
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:
|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:
Sargon had captured further territory in the northern
kingdom and had besieged the city of Samaria in Ephraim.
Whereas Tiglath-Pileser had transplanted people from regions
within Biblical Israel to other regions within Biblical Israel, Sargon
had moved Jews out of Biblical Israel.
The captives mentioned in the book of Tobit were
taken to Nineveh in Assyria.
Regarding the Jews taken to Nineveh, Tobit was of the shevet
of Naphtali and from the town of Thisbe in the territory of Naphtali. No
other town or shevet is mentioned, the most we can say is that people
were exiled from the Israelite territory controlled by Sargon and that
at least one of them was of Naphtali and came from the town of Thisbe.
The fact that Tobit was of Naphtali further confirms that
Tiglath-Pileser had not moved the entire population of Naphtali.
The number of Jews exiled to Nineveh is not known. However,
since they were settled in an existing inhabited city, it is not plausible
that it was all the Jews of Naphtali let alone all the Jews of the region
under Sargon's control.
Regarding the Jews sent to Yemen, the most we can say is
they came from territory controlled by Sargon, there were only 460 of them,
and that at least one of them was of Ephraim.
There is no evidence of anyone being taken captive from shevatim other than Naphtali and Ephraim.
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:
|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.|
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:
Sargon captured the capital of the northern kingdom, the
city of Samaria. This put an end to the independence of the northern kingdom
and made the southern kingdom the sole independent Jewish state.
The accounts in 2 Kings 17:6, 2 Kings 17:23 and 2 Kings 18:11
simply tell us the northern kingdom of Israel was annexed to Assyria and
that people were taken away captive but they do not tell us how many people
were taken away, nor from which parts of the northern kingdom they were
The Assyrian sources tell us that the people taken captive
were from the city of Samaria (which lay in the territory of Ephraim).
Moreover we are told that 27,290 people were taken from Samaria. Thus it was not
the entire population of the northern kingdom that was taken away. It is not
even certain that it was all the inhabitants of Samaria which could easily
have had a much larger population.
There is no evidence of anyone
other than these people from Samaria being taken away captive.
Some of the captives from Samaria were not removed from
Biblical Israel but were taken to the Halah and Habor of the River of
Gozan - the same regions in Biblical Israel to which the people exiled by Tiglath-Pileser
has been taken.
Some of the captives from Samaria were
indeed removed from Biblical Israel and were taken to cities in Media.
Moreover we know of Jews subsequently living in Ecbatana and Rages.
The account in 2 Kings 17:23 also informs us that descendents of the transplanted people still lived in Halah, Habor and Media at the time Kings was written.
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:
Movement within Biblical Israel:
A substantial number of people from the provinces of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead (possibly the entire population), had been moved to the northeast of Biblical Israel - the Aram Naharaim region - more precisely to the Halah and Habor districts.
The former Hagrite regions - Jetur, Naphish and Nodab - in which people from Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead had been living, was depopulated.
Captives from the city of Samaria in the province of Ephraim were also moved to the Halah and Habor districts.
Exile to Nineveh:
Captives had been taken to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. The most prominent being Tobit who came from the town of Thisbe in the province of Naphtali.
Exile to Yemen:
460 people had been sent to Yemen. Their patriarch was Shimon Rabban of Ephraim.
Exile to Media:
Captives from Samaria in Ephraim had been taken and settled in cities of Media.
We know of a Jewish presence in the Median cities of Ecbatana and Rages in following years.
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 ...)
Victory Stele of Pul
Khorsabad Annals of Sargon
Display Inscription of Sargon
The Samaritan Chronicle
Last updated 19/12/2006