This essay is a follow-up to the entry posted on September 19, 2005, “Found: A Lost Tribe of Israel.” That entry stimulated much interest on the topic of the lost tribes of Israel and generated two comments from readers. I recommend that you read the previous entry, the two comments by readers, and my response to them before you read the present article. What follows is predicated on the previous entry and on the comments of the two readers.
It is important to define some of the terms that will be used in this article. An “Israelite” was a citizen of biblical Israel. The Israelites were descendants of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. An Israeli is a citizen of the modern state of Israel. The word “Jew” derives from the name Judah. It became the common name for the citizens of the province of Judea. Today, the word “Jew” generally applies to a person who accepts the practices of Judaism.
The concept of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel is derived from the myth of the empty land. This view is based on the widespread conception that, as a result of the deportation of the people of the Northern Kingdom to other parts of the Assyrian empire, the land of Israel was completely depopulated. The concept of the lost tribes presupposes that every member of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom was taken into exile.
The biblical evidence seems to indicate that a great majority of the population remained in the land. The deportation of the Northern tribes occurred in different stages. The first deportation occurred during the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, King of Assyria. The biblical text gives a brief description of the removal of the people from Israel: “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). Although the text does not give the number of deported people, the Assyrian records put the number at 13,520. This number may represent only adult males; wives and children may not have been included in the total.
The second reference to the deportation of people from the Northern Kingdom occurred when the city of Samaria was conquered and Sargon deported part of the population to Assyria: “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). According to Assyrian records, Sargon II deported 27,280 people.
It is difficult to estimate the population of the Northern Kingdom in the eighth century B.C. When Menahem levied a tax on the rich landowners to pay the tribute imposed by Tiglath-pileser in 734 B.C., he exacted the money from 60,000 men of property (2 Kings 15:19-20). When comparing the deportation of the population of the Northern Kingdom with the deportation of 200,150 that Sennacherib, King of Assyria deported from Judah to various cities in the Assyrian empire, the deportation of the people of Israel was modest in comparison.
The biblical text also seems to indicate that a large number of people belonging to the different tribes of the Northern Kingdom were left behind. When Hezekiah celebrated the Passover festival at the time of his religious reforms, he invited the remnant of the Northern tribes to join with the people of Judah. Among those people who celebrated the festival in Jerusalem were many people who came from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, Dan, Asher, Zebulun, and Issachar (2 Chronicles 30). Although the Northern Kingdom had been destroyed (2 Chronicles 30:6, 9), Hezekiah extended an invitation to those inhabitants of the northern tribes who were left behind by the Assyrians.
Thus, the concept of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel is an ideal that promotes the theological view of the united people of God. Actually, the Northern Kingdom was composed of only nine tribes, since the tribe of Simeon had its territory within the territory of Judah (Joshua 19:1-9). The fact is that many of the inhabitants on the northern tribes remained in the land and others survived in the regions that formed the Assyrian empire, the countries known today as Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
The above discussion brings us to our topic: are the people of Mizoram in India the remnant of the tribe of Manasseh? The preponderance of the evidence available today seems to suggest that they are not. Take for instance the genetic evidence. In the Bible, the mother of Manasseh was the Egyptian Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On (Genesis 41:50). Thus, the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed through the mother and does not change from generation to generation, of the descendants of Manasseh, should have an African marker. However, the genes of the Mizoram people have no such characteristic. As one news story reports, their genes resemble the genes of their Asiatic neighbors.
Are the people of Mizoram Jews? Since in Jewish tradition, a Jew is anyone who is born of a Jewish mother or anyone who converts to Judaism, those Mizos who went through the ritual of purification, those who went through circumcision, and those who accepted the tenet of the Jewish faith are indeed Jews.
According to Mizo tradition, the idea that the Mizoram people were descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh came when a holy man had a vision in which the Holy Spirit told him that his people were descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh. Since many of the people in the area had accepted Christianity, it was easy for this idea to grow and become a dogma with an aura of reality.
The hope that the people of Israel will be reunited has not been lost. Paul speaks of the restoration of Israel (Romans 11). The author of Revelation speaks of the Twelve Tribes having a role in the events of the last days. The interpretation of this passage is difficult, but it speaks of unity and totality.
The hopes and expectations that one of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel has been found may not materialize. Any human effort to restore the lost tribes into a unified people may not succeed. The prophets speak of the Remnant of Israel. The doctrine of the Remnant says that those who escaped the judgment and those who believed in the salvation of God would return to the Promised Land and would build a new community for the worship of God.
The Mizo Jews have become part of a new community, a community of the people of God. Their arrival in Palestine and their integration into Israeli society will mark a new beginning for them. The conversion of the Mizos to Judaism should be a time of rejoicing for all, because it makes the words of Isaiah come true: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory. And I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the Lord” (Isaiah 66:18, 21).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary