Searching for the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”

Separating Fact From Fantasy

What is your first reaction when you hear or read something about the search for the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” If you are like most people, it is a subject that is hard to take seriously. To most intelligent, educated, individuals such a topic will immediately call forth a joking remark or a knowing grin. Although most have heard of the so-called “Lost Tribes,” the subject is usually relegated to the category of legend and myth--like the search for the Holy Grail or the quest for the Fountain of Youth. Surely no intelligent person would take such a topic seriously. Even those who claim to believe the Bible will often smile and quickly dismiss any serious attempt to discuss this matter of the “Lost Tribes.”

Actually, there are good reasons for such reactions. Over the centuries the attempts to locate and identify the Lost Tribes have more often than not indulged in the legendary and the fantastic. You can easily find articles on the “Ten Lost Tribes” in any good encyclopedia or reference work. However, you will find that the topic is primarily treated by a survey of the fabulous claims and unsubstantiated evidence which various groups and individuals have put forth over the years. The “history of the history” of the search for the Lost Tribes actually makes fascinating reading in itself. The list of candidates is long, particularly since the 17th century, both of groups claiming themselves to be the Lost Tribes and groups identified by travelers or researchers as those Tribes. Some of the better known claims have been: the Ethiopians; the Ibos of Nigeria; the Berbers of North Africa; various Armenian, Afgan, and Persian groups of the Black and Caspian Sea regions; the Chiang-Min of Tibet; the Khazars; and the Karaites. Researchers have claimed to locate the Tribes all over the globe: the Masai of southeast Africa; the Yemenis; the Abyssinians; the Ganges Indians; the Kareens of Burma; the Shindai tribe of Japan; not to mention numerous Indian groups in the New World.

Israel’s Emerging Immigrant Problem

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the return of millions of Jewish refugees and immigrants to the Land, a new and more practical aspect of the question of the Lost Tribes has developed. The Jerusalem Report, Israel’s major weekly news magazine, ran a startling cover story entitled, “Return of the Lost Tribes,” in the September 9, 1993 issue. It raised the alarming possibility that the State of Israel could literally be inundated with millions of Africans and Asians claiming to be of Jewish or Israelite descent. Apparently this is more than a far-fetched theoretical possibility. All across the globe dozens of groups are pressing their claims to be descendants from the Ten Tribes of Israel. Two such groups, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Bene Israel of India have already immigrated in large numbers to Israel and have been integrated into Israeli society. Most recently, members of the Shinlung tribe on the Indian-Burmese border have been brought to Israel claiming to be from the Lost Tribes. Thousands more are desirous of coming. A Jerusalem based group called Amishav (My People Returns), led by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, has spearheaded these recent efforts both to locate and to facilitate the immigration of such groups. However, Yair Tsaban, Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Minister, warns that the country is facing a potentially serious problem from literally hundreds of Third World groups claiming Israelite ancestry. One estimate put the number of Africans in this category at 100 million! What are we to think of this matter? Clearly, the Prophets in the Bible speak of the return of all Twelve Tribes of Israel to the Land in the latter days, as we will examine more closely below. On the other hand, the State of Israel must soberly face reality in dealing with a potential flood of immigrants whose claims to Israelite ancestry are dubious at best. In the final analysis, only the LORD (YHVH) knows those who belong to the Lost Tribes. Indeed, He declares through His prophets, that his “eyes are upon all their ways” and that “not the least grain will fall to the ground” (Jeremiah 16:17; Amos 9:9). It could well be that remnants of the these Tribes are scattered around the globe, and can be found almost anywhere and everywhere in small numbers. The Prophets seem to indicate that such is the case. However, a careful reading of the Prophets also indicates that large concentrations of the Tribes will remain together and achieve a national greatness in the last days.

As our readers know, our organization, United Israel, holds the position that significant portions of the Ten Lost Tribes are now found among the Scandinavian, Celtic & kindred peoples of northwestern Europe and the United States. This particular identification, often dubbed as “Anglo-Israelism,” has been the subject of a vast amount of research and publication, particularly in the past two centuries. A bibliography of even the major works which have been written to support this idea would run into many hundreds of entries. Unfortunately, we can not recommend without qualifications a single one of these publications. None of them are up to the high standards of scholarship and historical research that are expected in academic circles. Invariably they are filled with unsubstantiated “facts” and numerous “leaps” of faith, relying upon this or that speculative “correlation” or so-called “proof.” Although the authors have been undoubtedly sincere, and we even endorse their essential thesis of identification, such works remain a laughingstock among reputable historians and ethnic researchers. Here we have to face the facts. Unless and until something respectable is published, the question of identifying the Scandinavian, Celtic & kindred peoples as the Ten Tribes will remain in the shadows of shoddy scholarship.

Approaching the Biblical Question

Despite the preponderance of legend, myth, sloppy scholarship, and outright untruths, which have been put forth in many efforts to identify the Lost Ten Tribes, there is nonetheless a preliminary approach that we urge all our readers to consider most seriously. In other words, even before one gets into the various aspects of ethnic and historical research, with their attempts to trace the migrations of these ancient peoples, there is a prior question. Simply put, it is this: What does the Bible say about the Ten Lost Tribes? It is an area that can be pursued by anyone immediately, with the most basic Biblical resources—a good Bible translation, concordance, and atlas.

Let me suggest some beginning steps you might take in this regard. The question of what the Bible really says about the Ten Lost Tribes is most basic. However, it is one that both Jews and Torah-oriented Gentiles have often confused or missed. Please note the following essential and incontrovertible points:

  • Study carefully and thoroughly 1 Kings 12 and 2 Kings 17 and 25 to establish firmly in your understanding the difference between the northern (Ten Tribes) Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. These chapters cover the division of the Land into two Kingdoms (Israel and Judah), and the subsequent separate Exiles of first northern Israel (721 B.C.E. by the Assyrians) and then southern Judah (586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians).
  • Note that throughout the Prophets these two Kingdoms (Israel and Judah) are addressed and dealt with in a completely separate manner. The northern Ten Tribes are most often called Israel, Ephraim, Samaria, or Joseph; while the southern Kingdom is invariably called Judah or Jerusalem. For example read the following references, carefully noticing the different designations: Isaiah 7:1-8, 8:14, 11:12-13; Jeremiah 3:6-18; Ezekiel 4:1-8, 37:15-23. Once you catch on to this consistent pattern of reference, as illustrated by these examples, you will find it most instructive to work through all the Hebrew Prophets with this distinction in mind. You will be quite amazed at what you find.
  • Realize that the Jewish people today are primarily from the tribe of Judah, the southern Kingdom, and that the northern Ten Tribes were prophesied to be scattered through the nations and become like Gentiles (“not My people”). Read carefully Hosea 1-3, which puts this most clearly.
  • Note that the DOMlNANT theme of the Hebrew Prophets is the Restoration of all Israel to the Land, which involves the recovery of the Lost Ten Tribes to both their identity and their destiny as Israelites. You can find this by simply reading any number of dozens of chapters in the Hebrew Prophets, perhaps beginning with Jeremiah 30-31; Ezekiel 37; Hosea 1-3; Isaiah 11.

Now what do these points mean in approaching this question of the Lost Ten Tribes? Whenever I talk with someone about this subject rather than get into controversies about identifying this or that ethnic or tribal group as Israelite, I find it most useful to first concentrate on these plain and simple Scriptures. Do the Scriptures clearly make a distinction between the House of Israel and the House of Judah? Do the Prophets say that the northern Tribes would be scattered to the ends of the earth and loose their identity, becoming Gentiles for all practical purposes? Are the promises of the Restoration of all Twelve Tribes clear and unambiguous? This is the place we must start, in our own studies and in discussions with others. It is one thing for someone to joke or pass off “quests for the Lost Tribes” as a silly and useless enterprise, but it is another matter entirely to declare that what the Prophets plainly declare to be so, is a hopeless legendary fantasy. Do the Prophets not declare that the Lost Ten Tribes will regain their identity and unite with their Jewish brothers? Is there any doubting of this point? Why then, should responsible attempts to take these promises of God seriously be met with scorn by those who believe the Bible? I am convinced that most Biblical believers who downplay or make light of talk of the “Lost Tribes” do so out of the most basic ignorance of the points I outline above. They lump Judah, Israel, Ephraim, Joseph, and the “Jews” all into one category, ignoring and losing the important distinctions which are maintained so carefully by the Prophets themselves. Attention to this question of the Lost Tribes is nothing more than a RESTORATION of the Biblical Faith, a goal that all those who love the Scriptures acknowledge. Anyone who tries to make sense of the prophetic events of our century, including the astounding miracle of the return of the Jewish people to the Land, but ignores the clear teaching about the Lost Tribes throughout the Prophets, will never obtain a proper understanding of the events of the Last Times. We urge all our readers to delve deeply into the Hebrew Prophets with these most basic and simple categories and distinctions in mind. Your Biblical study will be transformed ever after.

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