QUESTION: Were there lost tribes of Israel? Which ones were they? So in the end, as in the Book of Revelation, there will not be twelve tribes then?
ANSWER: Thanks for the question; it’s a good one. To answer it, I have to take a few moments to review some history. Please bear with me.
In Genesis 12:1-3 we read of how God made a covenant with Abraham (confirmed with his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob) that He would make of Abraham’s descendants a great nation, and give them a land of their own. As the historical record unfolds, we learn that it’s the sons of Jacob who are to form the various tribes of Israel.
The names of the tribes are listed about twenty times in the Word of God, but the listing is not always exactly the same–and we are not always told why this is. Here are a couple of reasons for the variations.
Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, is included in the list sometimes. But there is no tribe called “Joseph.” Instead, Joseph’s two sons (Jacob’s grandsons), Ephraim and Manasseh, each became the ancestor of a tribe. Also Levi, the priestly tribe, was given no tribal territory of its own. Thus, when we consider the tribes according to their allotment of land, Levi may be omitted.
Under Joshua, the Israelites captured the land of Canaan. Each tribe was given its own territory (except the Levites, who dwelt in the tribal cities of others), and for a period of time the nation were served by a series of judges. But with King Saul, Israel became a monarchy. When he rebelled against the Lord, Saul was replaced by David, and after him, David’s son Solomon ruled over the people.
But with Solomon’s son Rehoboam ascending the throne, a radical change took place. The northern tribes rebelled against Rehoboam’s harsh and arrogant rule, and split off to become a nation unto themselves. For a time, there were two kingdoms, where there had been one before.
The Southern Kingdom called itself "Judah," after the major tribe in the south. It had the capital city of Jerusalem, the temple and the Levitical priesthood, and the rightful kings of David's family on the throne. Some of the kings were godly men; others were not.
The Northern Kingdom continued to call itself "Israel." The capital of the Northern Kingdom was the city of Samaria. The people had their own idol gods, and their own heathen priesthood. None of the kings ruling in the north was a Davidic king, and they were all evil rulers, without exception.
That dual use of the term "Israel" can be a little confusing. Sometimes when you see the word Israel in the Bible, it refers to all of united Israel. But other times, it's speaking just of the northern, rebel tribes, during the split. You have to judge by the context--the surrounding verses--which is meant.
Finally, in 722 BC, the armies of Assyria swept into the Northern Kingdom and conquered it. With that, the Northern Kingdom ceased to exist as a separate entity, and it was never set up as a separate kingdom again.
Following their usual practice, the Assyrians brought many of their own citizens into the north of Israel to live, and they intermarried with the people there. (This accounts for the hatred of the Jews for the Samaritans up north in Jesus’ day. Those down south considered them “half-breeds” and despised them.)
What happened in the south was different. Because the Southern Kingdom had some wise and good kings, it had times of spiritual renewal. But eventually it too succumbed to idolatry and unbelief.
To chasten them, God allowed the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, to take many of the people of Judah captive around 605 BC. They were slaves in Babylon for seventy years (Jer. 25:11). Then, those who wished to do so were allowed to return to their homeland (as described in the book of Ezra).
That brings me to your question. What happened to those northern rebel tribes? Did they disappear after the Assyrian conquest? Were they somehow "lost"?
There is a strange belief called British Israelism that has been adopted by several false cults. It holds to the theory that Western Europeans, particularly those of Britain and America, are the direct descendants of the “ten lost tribes of Israel.” Some have gone so far as to say that the British are the lost tribe of Ephraim, and the Americans are the lost tribe of Manasseh.
Part of the appeal of this lies in the supposition that Christians of Western European descent can claim all the covenants made with Israel as their own. But it’s a pipe dream. These notions have been refuted by modern genetic science, by archaeology, and in other ways. It can be shown to be false from Scripture too, but some continue to cling to the idea.
So what actually happened?
When the nation of Israel split in two, the first man to rule in the north was King Jeroboam. And he was well aware that many in the north did not agree with the split. Many still remained loyal to the throne of David, and to the true God. He was fearful that a host of people would simply pack up and move down south–which, as we’ll see, is exactly what did happen.
In his spiritual blindness, King Jeroboam naively thought that if he could only provide the people in the north with their own gods, and their own organized religion, this would satisfy them, and keep them where they were. You can read about this in First Kings 12:26-29. He even established a substitute for the priestly tribe, the Levites (vs. 31), and his own feast days to honour his idol gods (vs. 32-33).
But, of course, that was not going to satisfy the true believers in the Northern Kingdom. They began to do just what he feared they would. They migrated south and joined the kingdom of Judah. Soon “Rehoboam reigned over the children of Israel who dwelt in Judah” (II Chron. 10:17). And notice how the Lord refers to “all Israel in Judah and Benjamin [two southern tribes]” (II Chron. 11:3).
“And from all their territories the priests and the Levites who were in all Israel took their stand with him [King Rehoboam in the south]....And after the Levites left, those from all the tribes of Israel, such as set their heart to seek the LORD God of Israel, came to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the LORD God of their fathers. So they strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and made Rehoboam the son of Solomon strong for three years, because they walked in the way of David and Solomon for three years” (II Chron. 11:13, 16-17).
Many passages refer to this migration, and attempts to prevent it. For example: II Chron. 15:9; 16:1. Eventually, it was accepted as common knowledge that Judah included many people from the northern tribes. Frequently, the term “all Israel” is used to show the term was now all-inclusive (II Chron. 23:2; 24:5; 29:23-24).
After the Jews of the Southern Kingdom returned from seventy years of captivity in Babylon, we can see that Ezra had before him representatives of the whole nation. They offered sacrifices to the Lord for all twelve tribes (Ezra 6:17; 8:35). In the New Testament, we're told that Anna (who rejoiced to see the Baby Jesus in the temple) was from the tribe of Asher, one of those supposedly lost northern tribes (Lk. 2:36).
No, the tribes were not lost. And Britain and America are not tribes of the nation of Israel. After the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, Judah came to represent all Israel.
The Lord Jesus could promise His disciples “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration [the renewal during His coming earthly reign], 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” (Matt. 19:28). All are honoured in the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, with twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 21:12).