For more than 2,000 years, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel have been a favorite topic of imaginative speculation. Groups from nearly every continent and race have been identified with the Ten Tribes. (See the interactive map below, “Myths, Legends, and Traditions about the Ten Tribes.”) One popular new teaching, Messianic Israel, identifies the Ten Tribes with Christians of European descent.* The reason for all this interest is a set of prophecies in the Bible that the Ten Tribes will one day return from their exile and be restored to their Jewish brethren, an event associated with the coming of the Messiah. But the many cultish and unusual ideas that have grown up about the Ten Tribes should not distract us from learning about this important element of Biblical prophecy, which points to the restoration of Gentile Christians to their Jewish and Biblical roots.Click on the colored sections of the map above
* Also known as the Two House Movement, its adherents call themselves Ephraimites or Israelites. Their teachings are a revival of Anglo-Israelitism, which claims that the British and the Americans are direct descendants of the Ten Tribes. Another group promoting this belief in recent years has been the Worldwide Church of God, a cult founded by Herbert W. Armstrong.
to learn more about the Ten Tribes.
The history of the Ten Tribes starts with ten of the sons of Jacob--Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Gad, Reuben, and Levi--whose descendants made up the ten northern tribes of ancient Israel.* In the time of the prophet Samuel (11th cent. BC), all ten of these tribes were united in a single kingdom, together with the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin. This united kingdom was ruled first by Saul and then by David and his son, Solomon. But because of Solomon’s sin in worshipping other gods, God divided his kingdom into two parts. The Ten Tribes he gave to Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s workmen (1 Kings 11:29-38). This new, northern kingdom was called the Kingdom of Israel. The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, ruled by one of the sons of Solomon, formed the Kingdom of Judah.
* Levi was split between the northern and southern tribes.
To discourage the Ten Tribes from worshipping in Jerusalem, Jeroboam set up golden calves: one at Dan and another at Bethel (1 Kings 12:26-33). This compromised form of worship led the Ten Tribes away from God, and eventually to the pagan god Baal and other pagan worship. For 200 years, God sent prophets to warn them to turn from their evil ways. But they ignored these warnings. Finally, because of their sin and rejection of the God of Israel, he sent thousands of them into exile, by the hand of the Assyrians, to what is today southern Iraq (2 Kings 17:7-23). Here, in fulfillment of prophecy, they mixed in with the local population and disappeared among the Gentiles: thus becoming the Ten “Lost” Tribes (Hosea 7:8).
Not all who were of the Ten Tribes, though, went into exile. Some fled south from the Assyrians and joined Judah (the sons of Israel living in Judah, 2 Chron. 30:25, 31:6). Their presence is indicated by the many small villages that suddenly appear in the hill country of Judah at this time. Others remained in northern Israel where they mixed in with immigrants from Assyria to become the Samaritan people (2 Kings 17:24-41, 2 Chron. 34:9,21).
Even among those who went into exile, some maintained their Israelite identity, and joined the exiles of the southern kingdom of Judah when they returned from Babylon (Ezra 2:28, Neh. 7:32). The prophetess Anna, for example, who met the baby Jesus and his parents in the Temple, is identified as of being of the tribe of Asher, one of the Ten Tribes (Luke 2:36). Yet others who maintained their Israelite identity were absorbed into the general diaspora (scattering) of the Jews in the Roman world. Because of this, not all in the Ten Tribes were “lost,” but many were absorbed into the Jewish (= Judahite) people. As a result, the blood of all 12 tribes flows in the veins of modern Jews today.*
* This is an important point against the teaching of Messianic Israel and other Anglo-Israelite groups that claim every appearance of the term “Israelite” in the Bible refers to themselves, and not to the Jewish people. In fact, the terms “Jew” and “Israelite” are used interchangeably in the New Testament. In Romans, the apostle Paul, though he is of the tribe of Benjamin and therefore a Jew, calls himself and his Jewish kinsmen Israelites (Rom. 9:3,4,6; 11:1). Examples of this kind can be multiplied. The Jewish people in the time of Jesus understood that they, as a people, were descended from all twelve tribes (James 1:1, Acts 26:7).
Yet the Jewish people never forgot those of the Ten Tribes that were lost among the nations. The belief that they would one day be restored (as “one stick” with Judah in Eze. 37:15-28) is a part of Biblical prophecy, and is believed by modern Orthodox Jews to be one of the signs that will identify the Messiah. As a result, there has been great interest among the Jewish people in discoveries of isolated pockets of descendants of the Ten Tribes and their return to Israel.
One of these groups, known as “Mountain Jews,” was recently discovered in the former southern Soviet Republics. When representatives from Israel went to meet them, they traced their departure from Israel in ancient times not to the Babylonian exile, but to the time of the Assyrians. This makes them part of the Ten Tribes. Most of these Mountain Jews have now returned to Israel. Other groups that retain an identity with the Ten Tribes and preserve Jewish customs and practices have been found in Ethiopia (the Falashas), Zimbabwe (the Lemba tribe), Afghanistan and Pakistan (the Pathan tribes), India (Kashmir), Burma (the Menashe tribe), China (the Chiang-Min), and Japan (the Hata).*
* For more information on these groups, visit the following web site: www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/israel
Yet the fact remains that thousands among the Ten Tribes intermarried with Gentiles and lost their identity as Israelites. In the vast multitude of pagan peoples, they were a tiny minority. Yet genetically speaking, their descendants now include the entire human race.* Does this descent of the Gentile nations from the Ten Tribes have prophetic significance? One of the most interesting prophecies relating to the Ten Tribes was given by Jacob when he pronounced a blessing over Ephraim, ancestor of the largest and most important of the Ten Tribes. Jacob said, “his [Ephraim’s] descendants will be the fullness of the nations” (Gen. 48:19). This is the only place in the Old Testament that this unusual phrase “the fullness of the nations” (in Hebrew, melo ha’goyim) appears. Unfortunately, it is often translated “a multitude of nations,” which hides the true meaning: that Ephraim will be identified with all the Gentile nations of the earth.
* The rapid (exponential) multiplication of ancestral lines through history, combined with the historical interbreeding of human populations, guarantees that fractional descent from the Ten Tribes (as well as from every other human group) is spread across the entire world’s population. The only possible exception would be in a group that has not interbred for more than 2,000 years, which is of course impossible.
The apostle Paul mentions this “fullness of the nations” in a passage that shows it to be filled with prophetic meaning. In Rom. 11:25, in speaking of the present “partial hardening” of Israel to the gospel, he says that this takes place “...while the fullness of the nations comes in” (Rom. 11:25). This is in the famous section about the Jewish olive tree of faith into which Gentile believers are grafted. In other words, the “fullness of the nations” coming in refers to Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus and being grafted in to Israel (as in Eph. 2:12,19). By quoting Genesis here, Paul identifies this salvation of the Gentiles with the prophesied return of the “fullness of the nations” descended from Ephraim (the Ten Lost Tribes). In other words, the salvation of the Gentiles is the prophesied return of the Ten Tribes.
Elsewhere, both Paul and Peter quote Hosea’s prophecy in which the northern kingdom of Israel (the Ten Tribes) is renounced by God and cut off from being his people. But a future restoration is also promised: “In the place that it is said to them, 'You are not my people,' it will be said to them, 'You are sons of the living God'” (Hos. 1:10, also 2:23; Rom. 9:24,25; 1 Peter 2:10). Both apostles apply this prophecy, originally given to the Ten Tribes, to Gentile Christians. These passages show that the apostles understood that Gentile Christians, by accepting Israel’s Messiah and joining themselves to Israel’s God, fulfill the prophecies that Messiah will gather the dispersed remnant of Israel (the Ten Tribes).
In ancient times, as in recent years, some misunderstood these teachings to imply that Gentile Christians, having been grafted in to the olive tree of Israel, must obey the Law of Moses. A dispute in this matter led Paul to some heated words with Peter in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-). As a result, a council was held in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15. The decision of the council, at the leading of the Holy Spirit, was that Gentile believers should not be brought under the Law of Moses (see also Gal. 5:1-3)—even though, as we have already seen, these same Gentile believers were identified by the apostles with the Ten Tribes. For the apostles, in other words, descent from the Ten Tribes did not at all imply that a Gentile Christian must obey the Law of Moses. On the contrary, Gentile Christians are free from the Law of Moses (Acts 15:10,28). This same logic can be seen in the decision of the Jewish rabbis that those descended from the Ten Tribes are Gentiles with regard to the Law of Moses—in other words, that the Ten Tribes are not under the Law of Moses (Yeb. 16b/17b).
Because of Acts 15, Gentile believers, though they may be descendants of the Lost Tribes, are under no requirement to obey the Law of Moses.* As a result, their unity with Jewish believers in Jesus is a unity based not on the Jewish Law, but on serving and obeying the Jewish Messiah.**
* Other than the exceptions noted by the Council--no idolatry, no immorality, no eating of blood (Acts 15:20,29). Gentile Christians are also required to obey all the commandments of the Law of the Messiah (the New Testament), which repeats all the great moral requirements of the Law of Moses, though not its ritual and ceremonial requirements.
** Which is exactly the implication of the prophecies in Ezekiel (see below), that the union of Ephraim (the Ten Tribes) and Judah (the Jewish people) is in King Messiah (Eze. 37:22,24) on the basis of a new and everlasting covenant (Eze. 37:26). Messianic Israel, in contrast, seeks a unity with the Jewish people based on the Law of Moses, which to a Jewish mind implies the necessity of conversion to Judaism. Without this conversion, which would require a compromise of their faith in Jesus, they will never be considered legitimate in the eyes of the Jewish religion. They are seeking a purely earthly and fleshly restoration, while the Bible is pointing toward a spiritual restoration by faith.
The prophecy of the coming together of Ephraim (the Ten Tribes) and Judah (the Jews) as “one stick” (in Eze. 37:15-23) is therefore a prophecy of the end-time reconciliation of Gentile Christians (the Ten Tribes) and the Jewish people in the Messiah (Eze. 37:22-26; Micah 5:3). This reconciliation, initiated in the time of the apostles, was sidetracked for many centuries by Christianity’s rejection of its Jewish Roots and creation of a purely Gentile and often anti-Semitic religion. But God is renewing it again in our generation through the restoration of Jewish Christianity (Messianic Judaism) and the growing movement among Gentile Christians to reconnect with Christianity's Jewish roots. But our physical unity (being joined together in the land of Israel, Eze. 36:25) awaits the coming of Messiah, when “all” Israel will turn in repentance to Jesus (Zech. 12:10-13:1; Matt. 24:30; Rom. 11:26,27), and Gentile Christians will be welcomed into the “commonwealth of Israel” in which we now stand by faith (Eze. 37:24,25; Zech. 14:16; Eph. 2:12,19).
The title page of the book on the Jewish origins of Native Americans follows Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1953, p. 498.
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