Have some of the tribes of Israel really been lost? When did this perception originate? What does the Bible say about the lost tribes of Israel?
The ancient nation of Israel originated from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel (Genesis 32:28). The descendants of his 12 sons became known as the 12 tribes of Israel (Genesis 35:22). As these people multiplied and the nation of Israel developed, each of these family units represented one of “the divisions of Israel” headed by a man from that tribe (Numbers 1:4; Joshua 22:14).
After the death of King Solomon, the nation divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, which consisted of 10 tribes (1 Kings 11:31), retained the name Israel; and the southern kingdom, which consisted of two tribes, became known as Judah (1 Kings 12:21).
A civil war soon erupted, as the Jews mustered an army to fight against the Israelites for the purpose of restoring all of the tribes under the rule of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. This endeavor failed, and the two nations, representing the Jews and Israelites, never reconciled. However, the Bible says that in the future these peoples will be reconciled. See “Israel and Judah: When Will They Be Reunited?”
Israel disappears as a nation
God sent prophets to the citizens of both Israel and Judah warning them that unless they repented of their sins, their nations would face disaster and they would be taken into captivity. The nation of Israel was toppled by Assyria in 722 B.C. and its citizens were deported (1 Chronicles 5:26; Ezekiel 39:23).
Although a large number of Israelites from three of the tribes comprising the northern kingdom had migrated to Judah because of their nation’s rebellion against God and the punishment that came because of it (2 Chronicles 15:3-6, 9), the vast majority of ancient Israel’s citizens were either killed in battle or deported by the Assyrians. Those taken captive were sent to “Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan” (1 Chronicles 5:26).
This is the point in history where some of the tribes appear to have been lost. Historians often refer to these people after this time as the “Lost Tribes of Israel” or the “Ten Lost Tribes.”
While most of these people no longer remember their original language, culture, history or religion, there are biblical, linguistic and archaeological clues indicating what happened to them and where they are today. Before continuing our study of what the Bible says about these people, let’s see why the Jews, descendants of the ancient nation of Judah, have not lost their identity.
Jews retain their identity
Because of disobedience to God’s laws, the nation of Judah was taken into captivity by Babylon between 604 and 586 B.C. Prior to their going into captivity, God told the citizens of Judah: “For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10).
After the 70 years had expired, a remnant of the Jewish people returned to their native land and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah.
One of the reasons the nation of Judah had been punished was for ignoring God’s command to observe the biblical Sabbath, which occurs on the seventh day of the week, Saturday. Recognizing this important principle, Nehemiah enforced Sabbath observance in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:15-19). This act of worship had been set up by God as a perpetual covenant and as a sign between Him and His people (Exodus 31:13, 16-17).
Through the centuries many Jews ceased to observe the Sabbath and many today no longer observe it. Yet it seems that a portion of the Jewish people has always continued this practice, and the Jewish people retain this understanding as part of their cultural heritage. The result is that unlike the 10 tribes who were part of Israel, the Jews have not lost their identity. Many Jews today reside in the modern State of Israel, but this nation does not include the many descendants of the 10 tribes who previously comprised the kingdom of Israel after Solomon.
Lost tribes of Israel not really lost
While historians have referred to the 10 tribes of Israel that were taken captive by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. as the “Lost Tribes of Israel,” these people were not lost to God. Through the prophets, God continued to send messages assuring them that He had not forgotten them. Following the destruction of the ancient nation of Israel, God said, “For surely I will command, and will sift the house of Israel among all nations, as grain is sifted in a sieve; yet not the smallest grain shall fall to the ground” (Amos 9:9).
During the first century after Christ, writers of the New Testament seemed to know of the existence of all 12 tribes of Israel. Appearing before King Agrippa, Paul spoke of “our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day” (Acts 26:7). James addressed his letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1).
Through the sifting process God had foretold through Amos, many of the ancient Israelites migrated to northwest Europe and subsequently became prominent nations in the world today. For more information, see “12 Tribes of Israel Today: Who Are They?”
The future for these so called “Lost Tribes of Israel” is bright. Speaking of these people, God said: “‘Behold, the days are coming … I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them,’ says the LORD your God” (Amos 9:13-15).
The lesson for us
While the knowledge of the tribes of Israel is fascinating, the spiritual lesson behind this information is even more important. The point is really quite simple. The history of ancient Israel and Judah teaches us that God provides great blessings to those who obey Him and severe punishment to those who disobey.
God, whose laws and expectations do not change (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8), expects us to obey Him today. This website will help you understand what God wants you to do. Be sure to study it carefully and then begin living what you learn. Your life will be blessed tremendously for doing so.