Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel” Revelation 7:2-4.
What Do We Know about the Lost Tribes of Israel?
God promised Abraham that he would establish God’s chosen nation of people through his family. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). Abraham bore Isaac, whose son Jacob had 12 sons who founded the 12 tribes of Israel. Two of Jacob’s sons, Judah and Benjamin, settled in the southern region and became the Kingdom of Judah. These two tribal groups survived Old Testament history and Judah’s tribe continued its line to Jesus’ birth. What happened to the other 10 tribes who settled the northern region as the Kingdom of Israel? And why are these 10 tribes called the lost tribes of Israel?
Sons were frequently lost in Old Testament narratives. Tribal conflicts led to wars in which male heirs and leaders were killed. Marriages to other dwellers in the region combined and blurred tribal identity. After generations passed, a tribe’s identity could be lost for good. Scholars believe this is what happened to the 10 lost tribes of Israel. These tribes also settled far and wide around the earth. Of the original 12 tribes of Israel, 10 tribes did not survive Old Testament battles and mingling of cultures.
Why Are They Lost?
An Encyclopedia Britannica article traces the history of the 10, lost tribes of Israel. The original 12 Hebrew tribes took possession of Canaan, the Promised Land, after the death of Moses. Under the leadership of Joshua, the tribes named Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun—names of Jacob’s sons and grandsons—formed the Kingdom of Israel in the north in the year 930 B.C.E. Soldiers of the Assyrian empire conquered the northern 10 tribes of Israel in 721 B.C.E. The Israeli people of this region were then assimilated by other ethnic, tribal groups and “disappeared from history.”
Scripture in 2 Kings, 18:13 informs us that the Assyrians who conquered Israel also captured all of the “fenced cities” of Judah in 701 B.C.E.; therefore, a large portion of the Kingdom of Judah went into Assyrian exile along with the Kingdom of Israel. The Babylonian captivity in Assyria ended for the House of Judah in 538 B.C.: in a movement known as the “Restoration,” Jewish people returned to Canaan, the Promised Land. Two eyewitnesses to the Restoration of God’s people were the Old Testament prophets Ezra and Nehemiah, but these prophets make no mention of the 10 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel returning to Canaan at the time of the Restoration or years later (see Ezra 1:5, 4:1, and 10:9). The 10 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel must never have returned to Palestine, other than perhaps as a tiny remnant accompanying the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The ten tribes of Israel are therefore considered “lost tribes” in our world today. The Keil-Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary states in part X, section 49, that the Kingdom of Israel now exists only as a spiritual people.
What Are the Lost Tribes of Israel?
In Egypt, Jacob received a vision from God telling him that his family would become a great nation (Genesis 46:3-4). Threatened by Jacob’s large clan of Hebrews, the Egyptian pharaoh made Jacob’s progeny slaves. Moses freed these Hebrew people from slavery and led them out of Egypt (Exodus 5-31). At Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with the Hebrew tribes through Moses, formally beginning the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people.
The prophecy that Jacob’s sons would become a nation came true: Jacob’s sons and grandsons formed 12 tribes. Leah, Jacob’s first wife, bore sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. All Leah’s sons founded tribes, except for Levi, who founded a line of priests and temple workers. Rachel, Jacob’s second wife, bore Joseph and Benjamin. Benjamin’s offspring formed a tribe. Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim founded two other tribes. Tribal leaders also were born by Rachel’s servant Bilhah, who had the sons Dan and Naphtali, and Leah’s servant Zilpah who gave birth to sons Gad and Asher.
The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh did not go into Canaan but stayed on the east side of the Jordan River. These tribes went from being ruled by judges, the last of whom was Samuel, to being ruled by three generations of Hebrew kings—Saul, David, and Solomon (Numbers 32)—as part of the Kingdom of Israel.
The tribes of Benjamin and Judah remained with King Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and became known as the nation of Judah. This settlement was the beginning of the home of the nation of Israel, which exists today as a recognized political and cultural entity. Jacob’s son and tribal leader Judah was recognized by God for his loyalty and bravery (1 Kings 12:20, Judges 1:1-2, Judges 20:18). His descendants were honored by being forefathers of Jesus in the New Testament genealogy of Matthew 1.
Neither the Kingdom of Israel nor the Kingdom of Judah practiced their faith in God as devotedly as their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, however. The people of the nations of Judah and Israel repeatedly worshipped false gods, which raised God’s anger and judgment. Ending sinful practices with pagan idols was the outcry of Old Testament prophets. The prophets told that God’s love for his chosen people was never lost, but His favor for them wavered as a result of their worship of other gods. Without God’s blessing, the tribes of Israel and Judah suffered invasions from neighboring city-states and losses in battles. The ten tribes of the House of Israel gradually lost their tribal identities as a result of these military and cultural events. They became lost tribes—geographically if not spiritually.
How Many Tribes of Israel Have Been Found?
People who have been identified as lost tribe descendants include populations of Assyrian Christians, Mormons, Afghans, Beta Israelis of Ethiopia, American Indians, and Japanese. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, numerous immigrants to the new state claimed to be remnants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. As you can imagine by these claims of Israeli citizenship, the House of Israel was scattered and sown after the Babylonian exile, spreading its population widely around the world to the present day.
Jewish people around the world believe that someday the 10 lost tribes of Israel will be found. This supports the reuniting of the Jewish diaspora—a group of people with a common national identity spread throughout the earth—by citing the prophecy in the first chapter of Hosea: God spoke that because they had forsaken Him, He would put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel but “save” the House of Judah (Hosea 1:2,4). In Hosea 1:10-11 God declares his subsequent mercy to the people of Israel: Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel. The word Jezreel means “scattering” and “sowing”; it has a double meaning and was also the name of Hosea’s son.
Where Are the Lost Tribes of Israel Today?
The descendants of the 10 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel are thought by researchers of Jewish anthropology to live today in the world’s wealthiest nations. They found their land of milk and honey abroad.
There is evidence that Jewish people from the tribe of Asher live today in the Republic of South Africa.
Descendants of Dan’s tribe of Israel are reported to live in present-day Ireland.
Gad’s tribal people are living in Germany.
Issachar’s people are living in Finland.
Ephraim’s tribe, largest in the Kingdom of Israel, live throughout the United Kingdom.
Manasseh tribal people live throughout the United States.
Naphtali’s tribe lives in Sweden.
Reuben’s tribe is thought to exist in France.
Simeon’s tribe is scattered in the world among descendants of Israel.
Zebulon’s people are in Holland.
In your lifetime, you have probably read or seen conflict reported in the Near East as nations struggle to take ownership of the Holy Land. Conflict between tribes and their beliefs has been a problem since the earliest Bible times. National groups in the Near East have a spiritual basis for their political conflicts: countries claim they have the exclusive blessing of God to occupy His Holy Land.
On a personal level, there was also conflict within Jacob’s family. Although Abraham’s descendants were chosen by God to become His chosen people on earth, his grandson Jacob deceived his brother Esau out of a birthright. Jacob also deceived his father-in-law with unethical farming practices while Jacob was working for Laban. The broken hearts of Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah—sister-brides to Jacob—suffered a world of hurt feelings between them. These fully human people became God’s chosen people, blessed by Him to further His mission. The Lord chose to use this flawed, extended family for a greater purpose. Losing and perhaps regaining a record of the lineage of Jacob’s sons is yet another chapter in the saga of God’s chosen people.
“This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites” Exodus 19:3-6.