The Ten Lost Tribes: Why Did Many Look for Them? And Why Some Still Do
For the search for them does not die, and indeed even seems to intensify and take on new forms and incarnations with each twist of history. The two elements undergirding their story —the geographic and the theological; the mystery concerning the tribes’ whereabouts, and the messianic and apocalyptic beliefs attached to their return—turned the ten tribes into a very hot topic from the moment the Bible became canonic for both Judaism and Christianity.
See The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford University Press, August 2009).
By Zvi Ben-Dor Benite
Associate Professor of History,
Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
New York University
On December 15th, 1942, a day after a terrible “aktsia” (“action”) during which the German S.S. kidnaped 2000 Jewish Children from the Warsaw Ghetto and sent them to the Treblinka extermination camp, Emanuel Ringelblum penned a new entry in his diary. Entitled, “The Ten Tribes,” the note ended thus:
I believe that years after the war, when all the secrets of the [death] camps will be revealed, miserable mothers will still be dreaming that the children snatched out of their arms are somewhere in the depths of Russia; that expeditions will be organized to search for the thousands of the camps [where] the exterminated Jews [might be still living]. In a period so distant from romanticism, a new legend will be formed about the millions of Jews who were slaughtered, a legend similar to that of the ten tribes.1
This is a strange entry, inasmuch as anything having to with the holocaust can be exceptionally strange, and one that should pique our curiosity: why would Ringelblum mention the “legend” of the ten tribes in this context?
The story of the ten tribes as the bible tells it is pretty basic: After the death of King Solomon and under the rule of his incompetent son Rehoboam (r. c. 930– c. 915 BCE), the Kingdom of Israel split into two. In south, two of the tribes that were of Jacob’s offspring, Judah and Benjamin, formed the kingdom of Judah around the capital in Jerusalem. In the north, the other ten created the kingdom of Israel and built a new capital in Samaria. In 721 BCE, the Assyrian king (actually Sargon II, who reigned 722 – 705 BCE, though the Bible says it was Shalmaneser V [r. 727 to 722 BCE])—sacked the city and destroyed the kingdom. The ten tribes went into exile. Only Judah and Benjamin remained to tell the story. A little over a century later, Judah was also destroyed by the Babylonians, and went to its own exilic period captivity. But miraculously these exiles returned to Jerusalem from “the rivers of Babylon,” and rebuilt their temple when Persian emperor Cyrus allowed them to do so. This turn of events was in accordance with the prophecies of the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who promised return to Jerusalem. But the ten tribes never came back. They were lost, seemingly without a trace.
Ringelblum, a professional Polish-Jewish historian who became a historian of the ghetto upon its creation, presented the ten tribes’ place in the Jewish imagination as a “false psychology.” The mothers’ desperate refusal to believe that their children were truly gone and would never come back was a similar “false psychology.” Just as Jews, for millennia, had refused to let the ten tribes “go” and kept inventing new places where they might be residing, Ringelblum predicted that there would be Jews after the war who would resolutely insist that the countless many who were lost during the holocaust were not gone, and instead were perhaps still living somewhere in Siberia.2
Ringelblum was right to use this analogy. The “ten tribes” of Israel have indeed been over the years a subject that has continuously kept producing speculation, even obsession in some cases. Moreover Siberia, an uncharted territory until the mid 19th century, was for a while one of the locations that people designated as the place where the ten tribes resided – so here was a convergence as well. But this is not all. The ten tribes generated not only Jewish, but also – indeed mostly – Christian speculation about their whereabouts for centuries. Furthermore, any superficial search in the blogosphere will reveal that even though we are able nowadays days to view the earth even from space, with all its hidden places laid bare by satellite, some people still speculate as to the ten tribes’ location. This begs the question: why? What is it that their ongoing “lostness” seems to promise?
In The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History, I narrate and discuss the story of the search for the lost tribes. Here I would like instead to focus on the question that Ringelblum seems to raise, which is why the myth persists and even takes on new forms down to the present day. Ringelblum, by analogy, provides us with a horrible example of one such new form. In his diary Ringelblum was narrating, as an eyewitness, the horrible daily goings-on in the Warsaw Ghetto. The period of December 1942 marks the final phases of these horrors, in the wake of the grossaktion, the implementation of the “Final Solution” in the ghetto. Between July of 23rd and September 21st of that year, the Germans emptied most of the ghetto of its inhabitants, sending to Treblinka between 254,000 and 300,000 people within an eight-week period. This was a dramatic depopulation, more than fifty percent, of the dense ghetto and it was felt and seen everywhere, by everyone who was left. Transports to the death camp continued on a smaller scale after September 21st. By December 1942 it became clear to the remaining residents of the ghetto that the Jews were not being “resettled in the east” as the Germans falsely claimed. They were in fact being sent to die.
Despite the news to this effect, however, many in the ghetto still refused, at least consciously, to believe that this was indeed the case. Desperate hope dominated the minds of the few who remained behind, and produced speculations: if the Jews who had been taken away were not being sent to their deaths, then where were they now?
Ringelblum was the lead figure among a group of intellectuals—the Oyneg Shabes – who documented and recorded the life of the ghetto, and he addressed these desperate hopes and speculations that sprang up in the ghetto during the two weeks that had passed since it became very clear that the German transports meant death. The entry cited above is from the 15th of the month, one day after a particularly brutal aktsia had sent 2000 children to die, leaving their mothers and everybody else in heightened state of agony, grief, panic, and hysteria. Such was the background for Ringelblum’s entry of the 15th. It is remarkable to think that Ringelblum, a non-observant, secular Jew, chose to address the issue at hand by invoking an old biblical story that related to events that had supposedly taken place 2700 years earlier. Clearly the biblical story was a potent one, to spring to mind in such horrific contemporary circumstances.
James Rennell (1742-1830), a leading British geographer who spent many years mapping British Empire, explains that the Bible, which tells us about the captivity and exile of the ten tribes, does not provide much detail about these events. Conversely, the biblical narrative is full of detail about the exile and whereabouts of the remaining two tribes: “It happens, unluckily, that the particular circumstances of the First captivity (that is, of the Ten Tribes) are not given like those of the Last (Judah and Benjamin).”3
Archeological discoveries relating to the Assyrian empire since the late 19th century explain a great deal why the bible tells us so little about the ten tribes. We know today that the sacking of Samaria was followed by a very small transfer of people to Assyria. Sargon himself boasted about it in two steles he erected in the wake of the victory declaring: “I took as booty 27,290 people who lived there [Samaria].” 4 Scattered evidence shows that these transferred people served in the Assyrian army for a while and then simply assimilated.5 In contrast to this story as told by the archaeological record, the biblical authors, seeking to turn the episode into a lesson about awful sins and divine punishment, turns it into a drama in which nothing short of the whole nation is exiled.
But material archeology played little role, if any all, in the reception of the story of the lost tribes, and the bible remains the central source shaping what we know and think about the ten tribes. That is to say, the Bible, regarded by many as the most authoritative source for history, creates in its account of the missing tribes a “hole” in what we know about the world. Quite simply, it tells about a group of people who went into exile and then disappeared. What makes things worse, in contrast we know a great deal about the second captivity, which took place when Babylon sacked Jerusalem, and we even read about the return of the Jews it exiled. We can infer, by parallel, that the ten tribes were also supposed to return: yet they do not.
For the believing reader of the Bible this situation demands a solution. For if the ten tribes are supposed to return, that means that they are not completely gone. Therefore they must be somewhere on earth right now. But where? All we know from the bible is that the tribes were exile to “another land” (Deuteronomy 29:28). This unknown land could be anywhere, or could be nowhere. Furthermore, if the return of the two tribes in 518 BCE was only a partial fulfillment of prophecy, the complete redemption promised by the prophets is yet to occur, and will only – can only – occur when the ten lost tribes finally return. In other words, the ten tribes are at once a geographical mystery and a theological conundrum.
This is of course not the only thing that the Bible has left us to endlessly search for. The Lost Ark of the covenant, for instance, is another biblical item that is long sought after.6 And in addition to biblical mysteries, there are plenty of other mythic thing that people have searched for over the years: El Dorado, the Fountain of Youth, Atlantis and many more. Some of these long sought-after items were not real and after a while, a very long while, the search for them faded away or moved from the mainstream to the margins and is now the purview only of crackpots. Other searched-after things proved to be very real and were ultimately actually found: the North and the South poles, the sea route from Europe to China, the sea-passage to the Indian Ocean. These searches also ended – not because searchers and seekers finally gave up on them, but because they ended positively. The poles were discovered, the search for the land passage to America resulted in the discovery of the Bering Straights, the search for the sea-passage to the Indian Ocean produced the Cape of Good Hope, and of course, the search for the seaway to China led us to the Americas.
All this makes the case of the lost tribes even more unusual. For the search for them does not die, and indeed even seems to intensify and take on new forms and incarnations with each twist of history. The two elements undergirding their story —the geographic and the theological; the mystery concerning the tribes’ whereabouts, and the messianic and apocalyptic beliefs attached to their return—turned the ten tribes into a very hot topic from the moment the Bible became canonic for both Judaism and Christianity. From the moment of canonization, both religions could not just ignore the lost tribes—they became part of their heritage.
For Jews, the tribes symbolized the ultimate deliverance from bondage and exile, the final return. For Christians they symbolized the ultimate punishment as well as the possibility of vindicating the gospel. There are interesting parallelisms that show how both Jews and Christians were in fact in dialogue with each other over the question of the lost tribes. For most Jews the return of the ten tribes meant final redemption. For most Christians it was a sign of the apocalypse; as early as the late second century CE, the ten tribes appear in the Christian imagination as one of those entities, like Gog and Magog, that are tucked away beyond the edges of the Earth till the end of time. During the Middle Ages a militarized image of Ten Tribes developed among Jews. Christians “responded” by associating the ten tribes with Prester John, that legendary mighty Christian king residing somewhere in the East who was supposedly on his way, coming to save Western Christianity from the Muslim threat. Sometimes the tribes appeared in these stories as the Prester’s allies; in others they were his enemies. (You can read all about this in books such as the Travels of John of Mandeville.) In medieval Germany a whole new legend emerged about “Red Jews” who might one day come and destroy Christendom. Drawing in large part on the story of the lost tribes, this story persisted until the early modern period, breathing even more life into European anti-Semitism.7
This narrative theological trajectory peaked in the 19th century, with the emergence of different religious movements based on of the story of lost tribes. Among these were so-called “British/Anglo Israelism”—the belief that the English peoples were the true descendants of the ten tribes—and Mormonism.
To some readers the notion that English peoples could be the offspring of the lost tribes may sound strange. But the proponents of this idea, some still quite active even today, are not alone. For unlike Atlantis or El Dorado, the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail, the lost tribes are a people, a people whose “biography” is a story of wandering and migration. The fact that these people are considered lost, and the idea that they are special in some way, has tempted many since the early modern period to see their own biography in that of the lost tribes, or to attribute it to others. Almost countless groups have, at different times in history, either adopted the identity of the ten tribes or ascribed it to another group of people.
There are many nuanced reasons why certain peoples adopt the identity of the ten tribes; these shape the specific form that these identities take. For instance, Finnish ten-tribers, such as the authors of the “Identity of Finland” theory, claim that the Finns are the offspring of the Tribe of Issachar. Issachar is described in the Bible (Gen. 49:14-15) as “a strong ass crouching down between two burdens,” which for them serves as the basis for the rewriting of Finnish history: the Finns were always “crouched” between two strong powers: Russia and Germany; the Soviet Union and the “Free world,” and they always fought stubbornly as an ass with one side or another against the other.8 Japanese ten-tribers claim the identity of Zebulun, described in the Bible as “residing between seas.” Of the course the most famous case is the “Indian Jewish Theory”—the idea that the ten tribes migrated to the Americas and became the ancestors of the Native Americans. This idea sprang up right after the discovery of the Americas, when the European discoverers of the Americas sought to explain who the people they found in the New World were, and how it was peopled to begin with. The story of Ten Tribes came in handy as a heuristic device. The Jewish Indian theory persisted, despite piling evidence to the contrary, well into the 19th century. This theory, which later developed into what is today known as Mormonism, was upheld primarily by Christian Europeans and White Americans, but there were some instances in which Native Americans adopted this identity for themselves.
But above all and besides such nuances, the most basic reason why certain people have been motivated to adopt or assign a ten-tribe identity is the promise that if one can “discover” the lost tribes in the true roots of a certain group of people, one will be much closer to answering the big question as to where they are. At the same time, the adopting or assigning of a ten tribes identity lends an exciting and exalted air to the biography of the group in question. Thus British Israelism glorifies the people of the British Isles and explains all their successes in world history through the story of ten tribes. Every possible clue in the Bible – for instance, the verse in Isaiah that seems to hint that the tribes live on islands – is used to prove that the Britons are the lost tribes. In a similar manner every event in history is used for the similar purpose. Why did the British create such a huge empire? In fulfillment of the divine promise to Ephraim, the leading tribe among the ten. (When the British Empire began to decline emphasis shifted, and the gaze was turn to the USA, which according to such interpreters became the true Ephraim.)
But perhaps the most exciting cases of adoption are those of peoples whose own biographies of exile, migration, and wandering seem to them to match that of the lost tribes. There are several African-American movements who claim Ten Tribes’ descent. You can see one group every Sunday preaching at New York City’s Union Square. For these movements, the power biblical story of exile and captivity is in in fact a prophecy about the uprooting of Africans and their enslavement in the America. America, the new world, is held the unknown “another land” of which the bible quips and thus it serves as proof of the theory. But most importantly, adopting the biblical “biography” of the Ten Tribes allows these movements to give a whole new meaning to the story of African slavery in the US: a tale of captivity that ends with final glorious liberation that is yet to come. A few years ago a synagogue was founded in Tel Aviv, the house of worship of “illegal” laboring immigrants to Israel from Africa. The leaders of this group have resuscitated old stories about the wandering of the tribes to find parallels to their own circumstances. In part, they rely on stories that have existed in Africa for centuries, such as the case of the Lemba.9 But the most important feature from the migrant workers in Tel Aviv, is their condition right now—homeless and paperless.
So why do we keep looking for the tribes? Because in the tribes, we see ourselves; and in finding the tribes we find our own most dearly sought-after hopes and dreams. Just as the mourning, “miserable” mothers of Ringelblum’s tragic journal entry dared to hope that one day, somewhere, somehow, they would be with their children once again.
1 Emanuel Ringelblum, Ksovim fun geto (Writings from the Ghetto), (Warsaw: Idisz Buch, 1961),
p. 44. For a partial translation of the journal (in which this this entry does not appear) see Ringelblum, Emanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto; The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum (New York: Schocken Books, 1974). For a biography of Ringelblum, Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. (The Helen and Martin Schwartz lectures in Jewish studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007). See also Mark Beyer, Emmanuel Ringelblum: Historian of the Warsaw Ghetto (Holocaust biographies. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2001).
2 Horribly, a very similar claim was developed after the war by some holocaust deniers who expressed in the so-called “holocaust conference” in Teheran, 2007. This refusal to believe in the horror is of course very different in nature from what Ringelblum describes. See for example the interview of Holocaust Denier “Lady” Michele Renouf in which she expresses this position in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NwsAtaivHw
3 Rennell, James, and Herodotus. The Geographical System Of Herodotus, Examined; And Explained By A Comparison With Those Of Other Ancient Authors, And With Modern Geography: ... ; The Whole Explained By Eleven Maps ... and Accompanied with A Complete Index. London: Bulmer, 1800. P. 513.
4 See a summary and discussion of these details in Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History, Oxford University Press, chapter 1.
5Lawson K. Younger Jr. “Israelites in Exile: Their Names Appear at All Levels of Assyrian Sources.”
Biblical Archeology Review (Nov.–Dec. 2003): 36–44 and 65–66.
6 Tudor Parfitt, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark. New York: HarperOne, 2008.
7 Gow, Andrew Colin. The Red Jews: Antisemitism in an Apocalyptic Age, 1200-1600. Studies in medieval and Reformation thought, v. 55. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.
8 Read all about them in many websites. The most comprehensive explanation is in the online booklet: http://www.originofnations.org/books,%20papers/The%20Identity%20of%20Finland.pdf
9 See for example Hillel Halkin, Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.