The Fate of the Lost Tribes of Israel

Arnold Ages, in an interesting article published in the Jewish Tribune, discusses what happened to the ten lost tribes of Israel after they were deported by Assyria to other areas of the Assyrian empire.

The following is an excerpt from the article:

One of the most intriguing questions in the Hebrew Bible is what happened to the 10 tribes after the northern kingdom of Israel was sundered and plundered by a succession of Assyrian kings whose names – Sennacherib, Shalmaneser, Sargon and Tiglat-pileser – are attached to the sacking of the territory in the eight century BCE?

Not only did these Assyrian monarchs destroy the infrastructure of the political entity that housed all but the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, they also deported, in successive waves, its entire population base to vaguely identified portions of the Assyrian Empire, some beyond a distant river. According to Zvi Benite, who has studied the question with an almost intimidating thoroughness, the “lostness” of the 10 tribes has become the stuff of mystery, folklore and Messianic speculation.

In proposing an answer to the first conundrum – why deport people in the first place? – Benite suggests that the vastness of the Assyrian realm permitted its rulers to gather conquered peoples into its different spaces and use them to consolidate their hold on the empire while granting the deportees a modicum of independence and identity. This thesis, however, stands on some pretty thin gruel. Conquered and deported nations do not generally blend in and become supporters of the regime or empire that carted them off from their native lands.

Be that as it may, Benite’s study does not rest on the questionable idea that the lost tribes somehow serviced the imperial aims of the Assyrians. The quality of his essay resides in the way in which the idea of the ten lost tribes became part of the religious folklore of the Jewish people. In illustrating this, the author ferrets out every last verse of the Hebrew Bible in alluding to the anticipation with which Biblical authors awaited the return of the tribes. The books of Kings, Isaiah and Ezra are especially targeted to place in relief the contemporary view of the fate of the 10 tribes.

According to Benite, the return of the inhabitants of Judea from Babylon and their reconstruction of the Great Temple of Jerusalem sharpened interest in the following question. If Cyrus, the Persian monarch and successor to the Assyrian Empire, decided to return the captives of Judea to their ancestral homeland, how is it that the 10 tribes did not somehow return at the same time as the Judeans? No definitive answer to that question was found.

I have written several posts dealing with the fate of the ten lost tribes of Israel. You can read some of my posts here, here, and here.

To read my evaluation of Zvi Ben-Dor Benite’s book The Lost Tribes of Israel: A World History, click here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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