The Bible tells us there were 12 tribes of Israel. Find out where the 12 tribes are today and why they are important in understanding prophecy.
When God called Abraham, He promised him that because of his obedience, his descendants would become a great nation and that in him all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).
The physical blessings God gave Abraham would continue through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, also called Israel, whose 12 sons were the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. There was also a spiritual promise that all nations would be blessed through Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-34).
The 12 sons of Jacob, from whom the tribes took their names, were:
Even though the Levites were not counted among the tribes that received the larger land allotments (Numbers 35:2-7; 18:24), there were still 12 tribes that did. At this time, Joseph’s two sons—Ephraim and Manasseh—were also considered sons of Jacob and tribes (Genesis 48:5; Joshua 14:4).
Who are the 12 tribes of Israel today?
Many have wondered where some of the peoples who came from Abraham went.
Although the Bible does not specifically name the modern nations representing all of these people, there is biblical, historical and archaeological evidence that make it possible for us to positively identify the United States, Britain and many of the nations of Western Europe as the nations where descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel largely reside today.
While this historical knowledge is not critical for salvation, it does help one understand end-time prophecy.
The 12 tribes of Israel divide into two kingdoms
After they spent time as slaves in Egypt, God delivered Abraham’s descendants and allowed them to form the ancient nation of Israel. Over time, 10 of the tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel and two of the tribes formed the southern kingdom of Judah. Due to their breaking of His laws, God allowed the northern kingdom to be taken captive by the Assyrians and, later, the southern kingdom to be taken by the Babylonians.
After 70 years, many of the captives of Judah returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city. Because of this and their renewed diligence in keeping God’s Sabbath, their history continued. However, the northern 10 tribes largely disappeared from history. As a result, they are sometimes referred to as the lost 10 tribes of Israel. But while their nation disappeared, the descendants of these people continued to exist.
Israel to be sifted among the nations
In fact, God had promised that even though He would punish the people of ancient Israel for their sins, He would not completely destroy them. Instead, God said He would preserve them as He scattered them among the nations.
Speaking through the prophet Amos, God said: “‘Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; yet I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,’ says the LORD. ‘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 9:8-9).
God’s faithfulness in blessing the descendants of the ancient Israelites will continue after Christ’s return and the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on earth. As Jesus explained to His apostles: “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). Even New Jerusalem will have 12 gates named after the 12 tribes of Israel (Revelation 21:12).
Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, stated that “the entire body of the people of Israel remained in that country [Media]; wherefore there are but two tribes [Judah and Benjamin] in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers” (Antiquities of the Jews, 11.5.2, Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, combined translations of William Whiston, 1867, and the Standard Edition, 1960).
The introduction to the book of James says, “To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,” which confirms that some in the early New Testament Church knew where at least some of the descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel were located.
Following the clues to trace the 12 tribes of Israel
To follow the history of the 12 tribes of Israel after the fall of their nation to the Assyrians in 721 B.C., we must recognize the path of their deportation and identify them by the names given them by their conquerors.To follow the history of the 12 tribes of Israel after the fall of their nation to the Assyrians in 721 B.C., we must recognize the path of their deportation and identify them by the names given them by their conquerors. Various websites and books have a great deal of information connecting the 12 tribes of Israel to the nations of Western Europe and the United States today, and it would be impossible to cover all this material in this answer. But here is some of the documentation.
When the Assyrians conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, they transported many of the Israelites “to Assyria, and placed them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6). Shortly after the Israelites came into these lands, scholars note the appearance of peoples in this area called Cimmerians and Scythians. The Assyrians also called them Khumri, Ghomri, Gimiri (derivatives of King Omri of Israel) and Iskuza (derivative of Isaac).
The famous Black Obelisk in the British Museum includes a pictorial etching of King Jehu of Israel bowing and paying tribute to King Shalmaneser of Assyria. The text speaks of Jehu, son (really a successor) of Omri, giving the Assyrian king silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff and spears. This was the time during which Israel paid tribute to Assyria as a vassal nation prior to rebelling and being destroyed by Assyria.
As Israelites disappear, Scythians and Cimmerians appear
Historian Tamara Rice writes: “The Scythians did not become a recognizable national entity much before the eighth century B.C. ... By the seventh century B.C. they had established themselves firmly in southern Russia. ... And analogous tribes, possibly even related clans, though politically entirely distinct and independent, were also centred on the Altai [Mountains of southern Russia and Mongolia]. ... Assyrian documents place their appearance there in the time of King Sargon (722-705 B.C.), a date which closely corresponds with that of the establishment of the first group of Scythians in southern Russia” (The Scythians, 1961, pp. 19-20, 44).
Boris Piotrovsky in his book From the Lands of the Scythians notes, “Two groups, Cimmerians and Scythians, seem to be referred to in Urartean and Assyrian texts, but it is not always clear whether the terms indicate two distinct peoples or simply mounted nomads. ... Beginning in the second half of the eighth century B.C., Assyrian sources refer to nomads identified as the Cimmerians; other Assyrian sources say these people were present in the land of the Mannai and in Cappadocia for a hundred years, and record their advances into Asia Minor and Egypt.
“The Assyrians used Cimmerians in their army as mercenaries; a legal document of 679 B.C. refers to an Assyrian ‘commander of the Cimmerian regiment’; but in other Assyrian documents they are called ‘the seed of runaways who know neither vows to the gods nor oaths’” (1975, pp. 15, 18).
The Bible likewise indicates that the ancient Israelites would eventually migrate in a northwesterly direction away from Jerusalem. According to a prophecy yet to be fulfilled, God’s Servant will “restore the preserved ones of Israel” (Isaiah 49:6), and these peoples will come from “the north and the west” back to Jerusalem (verse 12).While it is certainly clear that displaced Israelites were among these peoples, we should also note that not all Scythians or Cimmerians were Israelites. “Scythian” does not necessarily refer to a specific ethnic group. But it did include Israelites, who later moved in a northwesterly direction into Europe following their collapse as a nation.
Historians link the Cimmerians with the Gauls or Celts of northwest Europe
Historian Samuel Lysons linked some of the people who populated northwest Europe with these Cimmerians. As he put it, the Cimmerians seemed “to be the same people with the Gauls or Celts under a different name” (Our British Ancestors: Who and What Were They? 1865, p. 23).
English historian and scholar George Rawlinson wrote: “We have reasonable grounds for regarding the Gimirri, or Cimmerians, who first appeared on the confines of Assyria and Media in the seventh century B.C., and the Sacae of the Behistun Rock, nearly two centuries later, as identical with the Beth-Khumree of Samaria, or the Ten Tribes of the House of Israel” (noted in his translation of History of Herodotus, Book VII, p. 378).
Danish linguistic scholar Anne Kristensen concurs, stating: “There is scarcely reason, any longer, to doubt the exciting and verily astonishing assertion propounded by the students of the Ten Tribes that the Israelites deported from Bit Humria, of the House of ’Omri, are identical with the Gimirraja of the Assyrian sources. Everything indicates that Israelite deportees did not vanish from the picture but that, abroad, under new conditions, they continued to leave their mark on history” (Who Were the Cimmerians, and Where Did They Come From? Sargon II, the Cimmerians, and Rusa I, translated from the Danish by Jørgen Læssøe, The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, No. 57, 1988, pp. 126-127).
The Bible likewise indicates that the ancient Israelites would eventually migrate in a northwesterly direction away from Jerusalem. According to a prophecy yet to be fulfilled, God’s Servant will “restore the preserved ones of Israel” (Isaiah 49:6), and these peoples will come from “the north and the west” back to Jerusalem (verse 12).
Archaeological evidence tracing the travels of the 12 tribes of Israel
In addition to historical evidence, Scythian burial grounds have indicated a connection between these peoples and those of Nordic ancestry. For many years, scholars believed the Scythians were Mongols because groups of these nomadic people moved east, but the discovery of art and even a frozen corpse of a Scythian warrior indicate otherwise.
In July 2006 in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia near China and Russia, scientists made a rare find. German scientists who were part of the discovery team reported that the extremely well-preserved mummy of a Scythian warrior was that of “a 30-to-40 year-old man with blond hair” (“Ancient Mummy Found in Mongolia,” Spiegel Online International, Aug. 25, 2006). Blond hair, of course, is a characteristic of Europeans not Mongols.
Prior to the discovery of this mummy, art obtained from numerous Scythian burial grounds had likewise indicated that these peoples were related to Europeans rather than Mongols. Because Scythian chiefs were buried with all their collected wealth, including wives, horses and art, detailed images of Scythians, their clothes and weapons have been uncovered. These discoveries depict their men with long, flowing locks, facial hair and Caucasian features.
Biblical, historical and archaeological evidence indicates that descendants of the so-called 10 lost tribes of ancient Israel migrated to northwestern Europe. It is more commonly understood that many peoples from these nations also settled in the United States. For the above noted reasons, we believe that the peoples who settled in northwestern Europe and the United States are largely the descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel today.
Prophetic significance of understanding the modern identities of the tribes of Israel
As previously noted, knowing where the descendants of the tribes of Israel are today is not a matter of salvation. God, through His Son Jesus Christ, has made salvation available to all people “who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). Having an understanding of Israelite history is not a factor in receiving this wonderful gift from God.
Understanding who the descendants of ancient Israel are today is, however, an important aid in understanding future biblical prophecies that will be fulfilled prior to the return of Jesus to rule the earth for 1,000 years.
Jeremiah 30 prophesies a future restoration of Israel and Judah, saying that these peoples will return to the land God gave to their fathers. Many Jews have returned to their homeland and now live in the State of Israel, but descendants of the other tribes have not.
This chapter also speaks of a “time of Jacob’s trouble” that will be a time of great hardship for the descendants of the ancient Israelites before their prophesied return.
Why will the modern descendants of the tribes of Israel face such difficulties? Because the great material blessings that God gave to these peoples also came with the expectation that they would obey Him. As Deuteronomy 28 documents, there would be blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Israel was to be an example to other nations of the benefits of obeying God and of the consequences for disobedience.
When we understand who the descendants of Jacob are, we know which nations are going to face especially severe conditions before the return of Christ. In an insightful vision, the prophet Daniel was told that in the end times there would be a time of trouble unlike any other since there was a nation (Daniel 12:1).
In answering His disciples’ questions about this same period of time, Jesus confirmed that “there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21-22).
For further explanation, see “What Is Jacob’s Trouble in End-Time Prophecy?”