The Lost Tribe of Manasseh

A few days ago, while doing research for a post, I came across an interesting article on the lost tribe of Manasseh. The following is an excerpt from the article “Bnei Menashe” as it appears in the Wikipedia:

The Bnei Menashe (“Sons of Menasseh”) are an ethnolinguistic group in India’s North-Eastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram; since the late 20th century, they claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel and have adopted the practice of Judaism.

India’s Bnei Menashe

In the late 20th century, Israeli Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail of the group Amishav named them Bnei Menashe, based on their account of descent from Manasseh.

The Bnei Menashe are a small group who started studying and practicing Judaism since the 1970s in a desire to return to what they believe is the religion of their ancestors. The total population of Manipur and Mizoram is more than 3.7 million. The Bnei Menashe are estimated by Shavei Israel to number around 10,000; close to 3,000 have emigrated to Israel.

In the early 21st century, Israel halted immigration by Bnei Menashe; it resumed after a change in government. The chief rabbi of Israel ruled in 2005 that the Bnei Menashe was recognized as part of a lost tribe, allowing aliyah after formal conversion.

The population of Mizoram is about 800,000 people. Most of them are Christians, but there are 5,000-8,000 people who claim to be Jews. According to their claim, they are the descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh. They call themselves Bnei Menashe or “the Children of Manasseh.” These Mizo Jews say their ancestors were deported by the Assyrians at the time of the conquest of the Northern Kingdom.

The deportation of the ten tribes that formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel is a fact. When Tiglath-pileser III became king of Assyria in 745 B. C., he established a policy of permanent conquest. Assyria reinforced this policy with brutal reprisal in case of revolts. The king of Assyria carried out the policy of total conquest by means of violence, pain, and suffering. At the beginning of his reign, Tiglath-pileser reintroduced the policy of mass deportation. The policy of mass deportation would force the conquered people to move in large numbers to other parts of the empire. The aim of deportation was to prevent the possibility of internal revolt by the vanquished people.

In order to confront the threat posed by the imperialistic dreams of Tiglath-pileser, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Arameans (Syria) formed an alliance to fight against the Assyrians. Ahaz, king of Judah, was invited to join the coalition, but he refused.

Because of Ahaz’s refusal to join the alliance to fight against Assyria, the joint armies of Israel and Syria besieged Jerusalem with the intent of deposing Ahaz and placing on the throne of Judah another person who would be willing to fight the Assyrians.

Ahaz, in panic, sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser asking for military help. He paid a tribute to Assyria by using the gold and silver from the temple and from the royal treasury, and asked for military assistance. In response to Ahaz’s invitation, Tiglath-pileser came to Palestine to help Judah.

Tiglath-pileser invaded Syria, killed Rezin, king of the Arameans, and deported the people of Syria to Kir (2 Kings 16:8-9). Tiglath-pileser also conquered several cities in Galilee and Naphtali, deporting some of the people to Assyria. The Bible says: “In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria” ( 2 Kings 15:29). As for the tribe of Manasseh, the Bible says: “So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria (that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria), who took the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh into exile. He took them to Halah, Habor, Hara and the river of Gozan, where they are to this day” (1 Chronicle 5:26).

Several years after the death of his father, Shalmaneser V, the son of Tiglath-pileser conquered all the cities of the Northern Kingdom. He then besieged Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, for three years. Just before Samaria fell to Assyria, Shalmaneser V was killed in battle.

With the death of Shalmaneser, Sargon II, his brother, became king of Assyria. Sargon finished the conquest of Samaria in 722 B.C. and deported 27,290 inhabitants to other parts of the Assyrian empire. The Bible says: “In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6).

After the people of Israel arrived in Assyria, their families and clans were scattered throughout the empire and from this point on they moved from place to place and apparently lost contact with each other through assimilation into Assyrian culture. The disappearance of these deported people gave rise to the legend of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.

The concept of the “Lost Ten Tribes of Israel” is very controversial. The basic idea refers to the disappearance of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The people who lived in the cities of Israel and the inhabitants of Samaria, its capital, were deported to different parts of the Assyrian empire and blended in with other people and cultures present in Assyrian society and then disappeared from the pages of history.

Over the years, many groups have made claims that they are the remnants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. Among these are some tribal people of Afghanistan, the Jews of the Sahara, and some people in China, Egypt, and Iran.

Are the Mizo Jews the descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh? Jewish scholars are divided over the claims of the Bnei Menashe. A report by an anthropologist claiming that there are similarities between the rituals of the Jewish people prescribed in Leviticus and the cultic practices of the Mizo Jews has provided a ray of hope for those who claim that the Mizo Jews are one of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.

Genetic studies have not demonstrated a link between the Mizo Jews and the Jews of Israel. Both the Mitochondrial DNA, passed from mother to child, and the Y-chromosomal Aaron, the supposed chromosome that all descendants of Aaron should share, have not established an ethnic relationship between the two groups.

As for the claims of the Mizo Jews, the decision has been made. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has declared that the people who live in Mizoram and claim to be descendants of the tribe of Manasseh are indeed the lost tribe of Manasseh.

The rabbinical court has given its blessing to the claims of the Mizo Jews. The process of conversion is complete and now, under the laws of return, these new Jews will soon immigrate to Israel and, for the first time in 3,000 years, enjoy the blessing of living in the Promised Land.

Are the Bnei Menashe part of the lost tribe of Manasseh? The evidence is inconclusive. However, if the State of Israel is willing to recognize the Mizo Jews as a remnant of the lost tribe of Manasseh, then maybe the lost tribe of Manasseh has been found. Personally, I am not sure the lost tribe of Manasseh has been found.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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