Were the 10 Tribes Really Lost?
Author A.S. Geyser reminds us that “even in the course of the Exile itself the prophets started to proclaim the return of the people and the restoration of the destroyed 12 Tribe Kingdom” (“Some Salient New Testament Passages,” p. 305). Indeed, a belief in the continuing existence of the descendants of these deportees of the Northern Kingdom is evidenced especially in the history of the Jewish people.
Simon Wiesenthal convincingly argues that part of the impetus of Columbus” search for the East Indies was an interest in locating the Lost Tribes (Sails of Hope). In the mid-17th century C.E., Dutch Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (inspired by the stories of world traveler Antonio Montezinos) even wrote a treatise — The Hope of Israel (1650-1652) — on the subject. These are but some of the many examples which could be cited. However, many 20th century historians and theologians have seriously challenged the idea that there even was such a phenomenon. Were the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom ever really lost?
Growth of ancient Israel into a nation
Before addressing that question, it is essential to understand the basic contours of Israelite history. The people of Israel descended from the 12 sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob. At some time probably in the 17th century B.C.E., severe famine throughout the Fertile Crescent drove Jacob and his family to seek refuge in Egypt where Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, had been sold into slavery about two and a half decades before.
Thanks to the remarkable events in Joseph’s life — his unlikely ascent from a domestic servant to an Egyptian leader — he was in a key position to benefit the entire family (Genesis 45:4-7) during this time of trial and famine throughout the entire Levant (41:28-32; 53-42:2; 43:1-2). Jacob and his family took up residence in the fertile alluvial plain of Goshen (45:10-11; 47:1-4) where the children of Israel remained and grew into a people (Exodus 1:7) over the following two centuries.
The establishment of Egypt’s XVIIIth dynasty bode ill for the Israelite colony in the northeast corner of the Egyptian kingdom. Founded by Ahmose I (ca. 1570-1546), this dynasty very likely introduced the change in Egyptian policy that laid the groundwork for turning Israel into a slave people under harsh Egyptian taskmasters (Exodus 1:8-14). The anti-Israelite character of Ahmose’s program was probably part of a larger nationalist reaction against varying degrees of Hyksos domination of Egypt running from Dynasties XIII through XVII (ca. 1780-1560). The Hyksos were an Eastern people ethnically related to the Hebrews. Their dominance in Egypt during the life of Joseph may help to account for his acceptability as a central figure in Egyptian government.
The Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph”
The cryptic biblical reference — ”Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) — may summarize this very pivotal period of Egyptian history. If the XVIIIth Dynasty is indeed the period being described, Ahmenhotep I (1551- 1524 B.C.E.) probably followed his predecessor’s lead by instituting the repressive policies which reduced the Israelite population to slave labor.
Thutmose I (ca. 1524-1518 B.C.E.) was likely the pharaoh who ordered Hebrew babies thrown into the Nile (Exodus 1:15-22). And the famous Thutmose III (ca. 1504- 1450 B.C.E.), remembered today as the “Napoleon of Egypt,” became pharaoh around the time of Moses’ flight into the wilderness of Midian (Exodus 2:15).
Whenever these events may have occurred, some 40 years after Moses left Egypt, he returned, only this time to lead Israel on an Exodus out of Egypt (ca. 1443 B.C.E.) and eventually back to Canaan where father Abraham had spent the final days of his life. After crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of promise (ca. 1403 B.C.E.), the Israelites spent nearly the next four hundred years attempting to establish themselves as the dominant national presence in the Land of Canaan. This did not occur until the establishment in about 1004 B.C.E. of a combined Judahite-Israelite monarchy (2 Samuel 2:4, 5:1-4) under the remarkably charismatic and talented David ben-Jesse. Only then did Israel finally become the dominant power of the area known as the Holy Land. After Solomon’s rule, the Israelite kingdom split with the 10 northern tribes existing as an independent nation for the next two centuries.
Sidebar: Egypt in American Heraldry
The Israelite experience in Egypt was a formative one. Indeed, Egypt was the location where the 12 sons of Jacob and their families grew into a vast multitude (Exodus 1:7). From these people, God would eventually form His own special nation (19:5). Should we be surprised, then, to find Egyptian symbolism in American heraldry.
Perhaps the most conspicuous example is the official Seal of the United States, which appears on the back of the American one-dollar bill. Under the motto Annuit Coeptis — “He hath prospered our undertakings” — we find the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. This choice of imagery is interesting in several respects.
The name “Joseph” derives from Hebrew yosafe — “let him add” — implying “prosperity” (compare Genesis 39:2-3, 23). As for the Pyramid of Gizeh, it rests in Egyptian territory almost precisely at the center of the earth along the 30th parallel in longitude and on the 31st meridian east of Greenwich. As it appears on the Seal, the Pyramid consists of 13 layers of stone — an allusion to Manasseh’s national number — and is missing the cornerstone at the top (compare Psalm 118:22; Luke 20:17).
The motto beneath the Pyramid reads Novus Ordo Seclorum — “New Order of the Ages.” Such a choice is interesting considering that the establishment of the new American nation contributed to the Anglo-American ascendancy — an ascent which is a type of Israel as God’s supreme and model nation during the Millennial rule of Jesus Christ.
Egyptian imagery was on the mind of many of those who contributed to the creation of the new United States of America. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams comprised the original committee for creating an official national seal.
Benjamin Franklin’s design for the U.S. seal showed Moses lifting his rod and dividing the Red Sea while in the background Pharaoh’s host was overwhelmed. Although Franklin’s design was not adopted, the rays emanating from the pillar of fire in his design survived to find expression in the seal that was ultimately selected.
Thomas Jefferson originally proposed that the obverse side of the seal portray the liberated children of Israel in the wilderness, led through divine guidance by a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. The motto encircling Jefferson’s own personal seal read “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” — words taken from Oliver Cromwell and the epitaph of John Bradshaw, both among the regicides of Charles I (1625-1649).
It is apparent that the founding American fathers saw a parallel between the Israelite experience of Egyptian bondage and their own perceived colonial bondage and mistreatment under the “tyranny” of an English king. There was far more to the similarities than they ever imagined in the imagery which they selected for the United States of America.
Israel’s golden age
If David laid the foundation for a united Israelite monarchy, it was his successor and son Solomon who brought Israel to new pinnacle of power and glory (cf. 1 Kings 3:11- 13; 2 Chronicles 1:11-12). Although many of today’s archaeologists and theologians erroneously dispute the accuracy of the biblical account, Scripture represents the Solomonic era as a “golden age” when “the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedar trees as abundant as the sycamores which are in the lowland” (1 Kings 10:27).
The language used by the biblical narrator to describe Solomon’s splendor and magnificence is the same employed later by the prophets to represent the coming millennial age when the Kingdom of God will govern the earth under the rulership of Jesus Christ Himself (e.g., 1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4).
The biblical account of Solomon’s reign abounds with Millennial types, patterns, and forerunners. As many biblical commentaries will attest, Solomon — whose name derives from the Hebrew root word shelomoh meaning “peaceful” or “peaceable” — is often representative of no less than the quintessential Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the Solomonic age of glory is a biblical forerunner of even greater fulfillments of the physical, material, and national promises made to the descendants of Abraham. Like all forerunners or imperfect “types,” Solomon’s golden age was a shadow of the reality it forecast. But unlike the yet future Millennial age, it bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
The divided kingdom
If Solomon’s Israel bore the form of greater things to come, his methodologies for kingdom building were not always Christ-like. Indeed, by the conclusion of his reign, the Kingdom’s religious life had grossly deteriorated (1 Kings 11:4-8). Also dissatisfaction over his high rate of taxation, enforced labor policies, and insensitivity to concerns regarding respect for the territorial integrity of the tribes north of Jerusalem had all reached dangerous proportions.
When Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, met with northern leaders at Shechem for the purpose of renewing the Davidic covenant of rulership over the northern tribes (1 Kings 12:1), he very likely found himself confronted by a disillusioned group of men intent on having their grievances promptly and effectively addressed (verses 2-5). The young new king took three days to consider the northern appeal for tax reform and labor reform, only to mistakenly accept the advice of his younger contemporaries over older, wiser heads (verses 6-13).
Rehoboam responded to northern requests with sharp rebuke and a foreboding promise: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scourges!” (verse 14). His wrongheaded, youthful presumptuousness had a predictable outcome. Heeding the cry, “To your tents, O Israel” (verse 16), the northern tribes rallied under the leadership of their chief spokesman, Jeroboam (verse 2-3, 20) declaring “What share have we in David?” (verses 15-16).
From that momentous separation between Israel and Judah, the Bible bears witness to a two century-long progression of 10 different dynasties, presided over by no less than 19 monarchs reigning over what became commonly known as the “Northern Kingdom.” This new political entity, completely separate from the Kingdom of Judah, essentially was comprised of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (descendants of the two sons of Joseph), Dan, Gad, Issachar, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali. From the establishment of this independent Israelite monarchy, national leadership invariably took the northern tribes away from God.
Starting with King Jeroboam I (ca. 931-910 B.C.E.), the religious life of the kingdom atrophied. Jeroboam clearly mistrusted God’s forthright and awesome assertion that could have launched the Northern Kingdom to remarkable achievement and success. Through the prophet Ahijah, God had promised Jeroboam: “So I will take you, and you shall reign over all your heart desires, and you shall be king over Israel. Then it shall be, if you heed all that I command you, walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and will give Israel to you” (1 Kings 11:37-38).
The crucial sins of Jeroboam
Unhappily, Jeroboam failed to take advantage of this remarkable opportunity. He succumbed to the fear that his northern subjects would return to the House of David (1 Kings 12:26). In particular, he was anxious that Israelite religious unity eventually might prompt a restoration of political oneness among the 12 tribes.
To subvert any such development, Jeroboam actually seriously polluted the religious life of his people by erecting golden calves as idols in both Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-30). Believing that the common observance of God’s annual festivals (Leviticus 23) would rekindle a desire for national unification, he changed the date of the great fall festival (Leviticus 23:23-44) from the seventh to the eighth month of the Hebrew calendar (1 Kings 12:32-33).
Finally, he summarily dismissed the legitimate priesthood (verse 31; 1 Kings 14:33), a group of men set apart by God’s own decree (e.g., Exodus 40:15) for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the religious life of the nation. To Jeroboam, the Levitical priesthood represented a threatening independent power base within his kingdom. They inherited their office, owed the king nothing, and were largely outside his control. In place of the Levites, Jeroboam created new ecclesiastical hierarchy of “the lowest” and least experienced people (1 Kings 12:31; 14:33), a group of men who owed all that they had and were to the king. Such a caste would have to cater to royal favor to retain position. By dismissing the Levitical priests of the north, the king gained royal control of the priesthood.
So Jeroboam willfully changed the national form of worshipping the true God for blatant political reasons. God wants us to worship Him in His way on His days — not ours (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).
Thus the first king of the new Israelite dynasty established an unfortunate, erroneous pattern in religious life which ultimately led to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. So important was the impact of the religious changes Jeroboam introduced that his reign became the standard against which future evil in Israel would be measured. For the most part, Israel’s political and ecclesiastical leadership persisted in the sins of Jeroboam (e.g., 1 Kings 13:34; 15:30; 16:2-3, etc.) virtually from the foundation to the collapse of the Israelite state.
In the final analysis, God withdrew His protection and blessing, leaving the northern kingdom to fall victim, like most of other small, independent kingdoms across the 8th century B.C.E. Fertile Crescent to a new and powerful military presence on the ascendancy from about the mid-9th century. The coming of the Assyrians spelled doom for Israel.
The 10 tribes go into Assyrian captivity
The landmark 19th century C.E. discoveries of British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard dispelled any doubts that the Assyrian kingdom was a formidable force which ferociously dominated the entire ancient Near East off and on from the 9th through the 7th centuries B.C.E. It is indisputable that the Assyrians invaded and conquered the Northern Kingdom as part of that domination. What remains beyond our historical grasp are the precise, complete, and irrefutably accurate facts and figures involved.
Some argue that only a small number of leading people — the northern intelligentsia — were actually taken captive by the Assyrians. The rest either fled as refugees, or assimilated into the alien populations transplanted in the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17:24). Others believe that the enslavement and removal of Israelites involved almost the entire northern population. How are we to know who is correct? How many Israelites were actually deported?
Sidebar: Egypt, Assyria, and the British Museum
For any enthusiast of ancient world history, a pilgrimage to the British Museum is an antiquarian’s delight. Inside its richly filled halls, the visitor discovers many of the most important archaeological remains of the greatest civilizations and kingdoms of the ancient world. In particular, one finds an abundance of treasures which document the histories of the Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms. From Egypt we find among many other things, the Rosetta Stone — the key to unlocking one understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics; the huge granite head of Amenhotep III from Karnak; and an impressive assemblage of mummies and various papyri. The Assyrian collection of the British Museum occupies a full seven rooms.
Included in these treasures are Shalmaneser’s Black Obelisk; the Taylor Prism; the colossal human headed bulls and lions; and the reliefs of the Lachish siege, royal lion hunts, and reliefs from various palace walls. Those who stroll through its corridors leave with a distinct sense of what it might have been like to have lived during the heyday of Nimrud, Nineveh, and other major Assyrian cities. There is a certain appropriateness that such a large concentration of Egyptian and Assyrian records, monuments, and archaeological artifacts reside in Britain’s national museum. For ancient Israel, the two kingdoms of Egypt and Assyria were intimately involved in Israel’s beginnings and endings.
As the Bible reveals, the tribes migrated to Canaan out of an extended sojourn in Egypt, eventually settling in that area and establishing themselves in the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.E. as the dominant regional power. After Solomon’s rule, the Israelite kingdom split with the 10 northern tribes existing as an independent polity for the next two centuries.
The descendants of 10 of the Israelite tribes eventually fell victim to the aggressive expansion of the Assyrian Empire. Many of the most interesting pieces in the museum’s collection provide the best extra-biblical documentation of the Bible’s account of the extinction of the northern kingdom.
Assyrian court records provide specific numbers. The Emperor Sargon II claims to have taken 27,290 captive from Samaria (Sargon’s Annals, 10-18). This number seems decidedly small against a population that some authorities estimate to have been around 500,000. However, if Sargon’s testimony is a primary resource, it is also considered suspect by most modern-day historians of the period.
The chroniclers of Sargon’s reign did not produce the record of Israel’s fall until several years after the collapse of Samaria. More importantly, Sargon may have even fabricated a role for himself in the whole matter of Israel’s conquest. Many scholars and historians point out other considerations that reduce to Sargon’s credibility. “He probably had no right to that claim [of taking Samaria], at least not as king. He may have been Shalmaneser’s army commander” (Shanks, Ancient Israel, pp. 130-131,154).
The Assyrian kings
The immediate chain of events leading to Israel’s ultimate fall and subsequent massive deportation actually began with Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian ruler who implemented the Galilean Captivity (734-732 B.C.E.) taking large segments of the Reubenite, Gaddite, and the Trans-Jordan Manassite population into the upper Mesopotamian river valley. In fact, Shalmaneser V was the Assyrian monarch responsible for the 722/721-718 B.C.E. campaign into the Northern Kingdom.
Another observer reminds us that Shalmaneser “was deposed soon afterwards by another king, Sargon II, whose very name, ‘True King,’ betrays the suspect nature of his claim to the throne. Sargon moved the Assyrian capital to his own foundation of Khorsabad, built in imitation of Nimrud... In three campaigns, 734-732 B.C.E., Tiglathpileser overwhelmed the area.”
“Damascus and part of Israel became Assyrian provinces, and many of the inhabitants were deported. By 718 B.C.E. Israel, which had proven a troublesome vassal state, was finally eliminated and Samaria became capital of an Assyrian province. The Assyrian king at this time was Shalmaneser V, but he did not have time to commemorate his achievements in stone, and it was his successor, Sargon II, who claimed credit for his victory” (Julian Reade, Assyrian Sculpture, pp. 33, 45-46).
Finally, conservative biblical scholar Eugene Merrill observes that Shalmaneser V “took Samaria in his last year... . Sargon, who probably was not the son of Tiglath-pileser, as some claim, but a usurper, reigned over the vast Assyrian Empire from 722 to 705. One of Assyria’s most militant rulers, he claims to have undertaken significant campaigns in every one of his seventeen years. In the annals of his first year he takes credit for Samaria’s fall.
“In actual fact the biblical assertion that Shalmaneser V was responsible is correct; as several scholars have shown, Sargon claimed this major conquest for his own reign so that the record of his first year would not be blank” (Kingdom of Priests, pp. 408-409). Even if Merrill is incorrect, might it be possible that Sargon’s low figures regarding deportees reflect a mopping up operation — that the numbers he lists do not include those already taken by his predecessors Tiglath-pileser III and Shalmaneser V?
The important biblical account
For those who believe in the inerrancy (absolute reliability) of Scripture (John 17:17), there is another and far more reliable source: the biblical record. God warned through Moses that He would “scatter them [Israel] into corners” and “make the remembrance of them to cease from among men” (Deuteronomy 32:26, KJV).
The report of 2 Kings is probably the most essential biblical testimony: “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them from His sight; there was none left but the tribe of Judah alone... the Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel, afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them from His sight... “For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them, until the Lord removed Israel out of His sight, as He had said by all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away from their own land to Assyria, as it is to this day” (2 Kings 17:18-23).
Granted, there is biblical proof and indirect archaeological evidence that there were representatives from the northern tribes among the people of Judah well after Israel’s fall. Undoubtedly, some northerners moved to the south in protest of the unlawful practices introduced by Jeroboam I (1 Kings 12:25-33, 13:33, 2 Chronicles 11:13-16) and many of his successors, most notably Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 16:28-33, 18:3-4, 18). Such men and women did so in an effort to find an unpolluted religious environment in which to worship the true God.
It is also quite probable that many northerners headed south permanently to escape the Assyrian onslaught of the 8th century B.C.E. It is indisputable that the population of Jerusalem expanded greatly during that very time. Israeli archaeologist Magen Broshi estimates that the population of Jerusalem swelled from about 7,500 to 24,000 as the 8th century drew to a close.
Not all this increase is attributable to a burgeoning birthrate. Certainly some pious northerners responded to Hezekiah’s religious reformation (2 Chronicles 30:1-18, 31:1) but most probably acted out of fear of the oncoming Assyrian invasion. Perhaps the greatest archaeological find relevant to the issue of northerners relocating in the south is Hezekiah’s “broad wall” — 20-23 feet wide and located on the city’s western ridge. Nahaman Avigad discovered this structure in 1970 (compare 2 Chronicles 32:5; Isaiah 22:9-11).
Indirectly related is “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” — a subterranean channel beneath the city of Jerusalem to guarantee the city’s water supply in time of siege. This archaeological feature attests to the anxieties which the Assyrian invasion (2 Kings 18:9-19:37; Isaiah, chapters 36-37) of the late-8th century must have created.
Evidence of Israel’s presence in Judea
Other frequently cited biblical passages regarding an Israelite presence in Judea pertain to Asa’s reign over Judah (2 Chronicles 15:8-9) and King Josiah’s reformation period (34:3, 6, 9; 35:17-18; 2 Kings 23:19-20). Of less certainty are the claims that all Israel was restored in the days of Zerubbabel, Ezra, or Nehemiah.
Many critics of British-Israelism vigorously maintain that the 6th century B.C.E. Restoration under Zerubbabel constituted a return of all 12 tribes (compare mention of “all Israel” in Ezra 2:70; 7:28); not Judah only.
Much is made of the sacrificing of “twelve bulls for all Israel” (Ezra 8:35 — see also 6:16-17) or references to “Israelites” (Nehemiah 11:3-4) or Zechariah’s admonitions to both houses (Zechariah 8:13). To bring balance to this debate, we must remember that the resettlement process was into areas from which the émigrés’ predecessors had formally lived. The names of the returnees accompanying Ezra (e.g., Ezra 1:5; 8:1-15) are Jewish — not names from northern tribesmen.
Moreover, the Bible mentions only a few locations of the area resettled which are not decidedly part of Judah’s territorial inheritance (Jericho, Bethel, and possibly Ono, and Neballat — Nehemiah 7:32, 36-37; 11:31-35). Those sites that were in the north are located in the far south along the border of the territory of the Kingdom of Judah. We are likely looking at areas which were peopled by the southernmost inhabitants of the northern kingdom — ones who escaped the net of the 8th century B.C.E. Assyrian captivity — or quite possibly Jews who eventually drifted north to occupy the land vacated by Assyrian deportation. Ezra 1:5 implies that the leaders and organizers of the return were Jewish rather than Israelite.
The 12 tribes in the New Testament
The New Testament includes numerous references to “the twelve tribes.” Luke 2:36 mentions Anna the prophetess who was from the tribe of Asher. In Acts 3:12, we see Peter addressing his audience as “men of Israel.” Some critics employ Acts 9:15 to argue that Paul fulfilled his missionary work to Israel by preaching to the Jews. Others cite Acts 26:2- 8 and 22-23 to argue that all12 tribes worshipped God in the 1st century C.E. Romans 11:1 and Philippians 3:5 identify Paul not as a Jew, but a Benjamite.
James 1:1 addresses “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” Finally, some commentators argue that the salutation in 1 Peter 1:1 — “to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” — is addressed to non-Jewish Israelites. Again, A. S. Geyser convincingly challenges those who appropriate these New Testament verses in this fashion. He writes:
“In parables and debates he [Jesus] taught them [the 12] its [the Kingdom’s] nature and the signs of its coming, and to pray for it daily. The ‘12’ (eleven) asked him after the resurrection, ‘Are you now going to establish the Kingdom for Israel?’ (Acts 1:6). James perceived their presence, the latent 12 tribes, in the Jewish dispersion in and around Antioch around 46 A.D...
“Paul pronounces a beracha on the Israel of God in the Galatian diaspora, is convinced that all Israel will be saved and pleads before Agrippa his hope that according to the divine promises the 12 Tribe Kingdom will be restored [Galatians 6:16, Romans 11:26, Acts 26:6-7].
“The 12 [apostles] to whom Jesus delegated his power and authority to exemplify the ingathering in Galilee, and who for that occasion quite rightly his, not the church’s, apostoloi, are literally fundamental to the 12 Tribe Kingdom’s restoration as apocalyptically symbolized in the ‘New Jerusalem’” (“Some Salient New Testament Passages,” p. 310).
In simple terms, there were Israelites as part of a long-term diaspora. In addition to the dispersed tribes of Israel to areas outside Palestine, there were Israelites who had settled within the boundaries of Judah. Neither the biblical nor secular records support the idea that every last man, woman, and child of the Northern Kingdom went into captivity “in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6; 18:11 — compare Hosea 13:16).
Obviously, there were Israelites from the Northern Kingdom who relocated and assimilated into the Jewish Kingdom. The issue is how many were taken captive and deported by the Assyrian rulers Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sargon II.
A mass deportation policy
It is significant that Assyrian ruler Tiglath-pileser instituted a novel policy concerning the treatment of conquered populations. Roman Catholic scholar and theologian Lawrence Boadt tells us that the practice of mass deportations “became the standard Assyrian policy from that time on... There is good evidence that conditions were not as bad under the Babylonians as under the earlier Assyrians, who had begun the practice of mass deportations of conquered people back in the eighth century.” Boadt amplifies his description of Tiglath-pileser noting that he would hold “entire cities responsible if they did not surrender the rebelling king to him. He would often wipe out a whole population or deport them to far-off lands and replace them with peoples conquered in still other parts of his empire” (Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, pp. 43, 383-384).
Was this a pattern applied by the successors of Tiglath-pileser? Historians McKay and Buckler note that sometimes the Assyrians deported only a portion of a kingdom or nation. “In other cases they deported whole populations, wrenching them from their homelands and resettling them in strange territories” (History of Western Society, 3rd ed., p. 50). If these secular historians argue thus, the Bible seems to indicate it all the more. We must ask whether the biblical assertion that “there was none left but the tribe of Judah alone” (2 Kings 17:18) should be taken at face value. If one accepts the scriptures as a valid primary resource, the biblical evidence suggests it is wiser to err on the side of literal interpretation.
In predicting the Assyrian overrunning of the Northern Kingdom, the Hebrew seer Amos prophetically described the “remnant” that would be left behind: “Thus says the Lord: ‘As a shepherd takes from the mouth of a lion two legs or a piece of an ear, so shall the children of Israel be taken out who dwell in Samaria ...’” (Amos 3:12). In such a fashion, Amos poetically represents the paltry population of the Northern Kingdom after the Assyrian conquest.
Finally, Jewish tradition, which anticipates an eventual reunion of the physical 12 tribes as part of its Messianic eschatology (see the Soncino Commentary on Isaiah 43:12- 21, Jeremiah 23:6-8, Ezekiel 37:19; note also Jeremiah 33:7 and Geyer’s “Some Salient New Testament Passages,” pp. 305-310), also strongly supports the notion of lost tribes. With the exception of the testimony of an Assyrian king, whose Annals themselves are suspect, there is no specific number assigned biblically or otherwise to the northerners deported. Neither is there record of the number involved in any resettlement in or return to the region of Judea. And so... we are still left with the crucial question: Where then did the Israelites go?