The Ten Tribes — Lost

The rebellion against the house of Ahab and the ensuing assassination of all his progeny (II Kings 10:7) ushered in the decline of the Northern Kingdom, the kingdom of Israel. Its last hundred years marked a descent from the height of empire to the pit of destruction and exile.

The architect of the rebellion was Jehu. Like most rebels he began as an idealist with the highest of motives. Ahab and his wife Jezebel were the epitome of evil and indoctrinated the people into the worship of foreign deities like no one before them. Jehu eliminated the evildoers and uprooted the idols (II Kings 10:28).

However, the successful revolution always runs into the problem of its own success. Jehu’s revolution was no different. He succumbed to the seduction of power and fell short of what needed to be done to affect lasting change (II Kings 10:31).

The Northern Kingdom collapsed, ultimately, because it was never able to fully uproot the influences of paganism from its midst. Paganism did not exist in a vacuum. There were other things that came with it, including sexual immorality, social strife and rigid autocratic class distinctions. These were the things that ultimately destroyed the Northern Kingdom.

We hear it in the words of the two main prophets of the north: Hosea, who originated from Judea but came north to prophesize to the Ten Tribes, and Amos, who was a shepherd. The major crime they were guilty of was summed up by the phrase: “they sold the righteous for money and the poor man for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6). Things were more important than people. A pair of shoes was worth more than a poor man. It was a terrible indictment against them. Sooner or later the weight of injustice like that has to overwhelm the society.

Therefore, it was not just the way the Northern Kingdom worshiped that doomed it, but that it was an unjust, corrupt society.

More Chances — Squandered

Before its decline, the Kingdom of Israel was one of three superpowers in its day — along with Aram and Assyria. For a good century, each vied with the other for supremacy. Also in the mix was relatively small Judea. Sometimes, Aram and Assyria joined together against Israel and Judea. At other times, Aram and Israel joined against Assyria. Yet other times, Assyria and Judea were together against Israel. Alliances were constantly changing. One could not tell the players without a scorecard.

When Jehu died his son Jehoachaz became king (II Kings 10:35). His reigned marked a precipitous decline in the fortunes of the Northern Kingdom. Aram defeated and disbanded the army of Israel and left Jehoachaz with only fifty cavalry-men and ten chariots, the bare minimum for the king’s retinue and hardly enough to defend himself with.

Just as Aram was about to deliver the knockout blow the empire of Assyria suddenly rose and invaded Aram in the north. Aram withdrew and the Northern Kingdom reconquered most of the territory it had lost. Under its new king, Jehoash (II Kings 13:9), the kingdom of Israel experienced a rebirth. Aram, which had been the major empire five years before, was now squeezed in a vice between Israel and Assyria.

However, instead of uniting with their brothers in the south, doing away with paganism and returning to the Temple service in Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom attacked Judea and besieged Jerusalem. They even captured the king of Judea and assassinated him.

Then Aram broke free and mounted an attack. The new king of Israel, Jeroboam II, withstood the first attack, but not the second. The Aramean victors exiled all the Jews who lived in the north.

The End

The balance of power now shifted decisively to Aram. The kingdom of Israel was completely outflanked.

At the same time, the people were impoverished. The prophets warned Jeroboam II to take action to fix the situation, but he did not listen to them because he did not want to agitate the wealthy, landed class. He felt more secure with the status quo.

Amos declared: “Woe to those who sit at ease in Zion,” he said, “who think that nothing is going to happen to them” (Amos 6:1). Before the storm everyone feels relatively safe.

The status quo was not safe. The injustice caused unrest and the “storm” hit. Jeroboam II died and his son Zechariah took over (II Kings 14:29), but reigned only six months (ibid 15:8). The new king was Shallum ben Jabesh (ibid 15:13). His reign lasted only thirty days until he was assassinated by Menahem ben Gadi (ibid. 15:14). It was utter chaos. Bands of armed brigands now roamed and ruled the countryside.

Aram installed a puppet king in Israel, Pekah ben Remaliah (ibid. 15:25). Together they decided to attack Judea to kill out the House of David and put up a puppet ruler in its place. The prophet Isaiah wrote how the Jewish people trembled at the approach of the armies of Aram and Israel, but he also told the king not to fear these “two burned out fires” (Isaiah 7:4). They are has-beens, he said.

Suddenly, Assyria rose with a mighty roar and invaded Aram from the north, destroying them so utterly that they would never again become a major power. Assyria firmly established itself as the dominant empire and put to end the two century struggle between the dueling titans.

As punishment for joining Aram, Assyria slowly constricted the borders of Israel, first completely removing any Jewish presence in the upper Galilee and eventually leaving only a small enclave in Samaria. The kingdom of Israel was now reduced to a city-state with indefensible borders in the grip of a mighty and ruthless empire. An estimated 40-50,000 Jews were killed during this time.

Assyria returned soon to deliver the knockout blow and began the siege of Samaria, which lasted for three years. The end finally came and Samaria was captured (II Kings 17:5-6).

If someone who died before World War I was brought back to see the world after the Second World War it would be unfathomable. Where is the whole British Empire? Where is the French Empire? Where is Prussia? Where is the Hapsburg Empire? Where are the Czars?

Here, also, a century earlier Aram and Israel were the superpowers of their day. No one would have been able to imagine a world without them. A century later, the only thing that remained was the echo of prophets: “Woe to those who sit at ease in Zion, who think that nothing is going to happen to them” (Amos 6:1).

Policy of Relocation

Assyrian policy was to remove the indigenous population of any country it captured and repopulate them somewhere else and import others to take their place. Here too, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, took the survivors of Israel, the Ten Tribes and exiled them to an unknown place. According to the majority opinion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110b) the Ten Tribes are not coming back. However, Jewish legend placed then behind the magical and impassable river Sambatyon, which was said to be an impassable magical river.[1] Therefore, in Jewish legend they survived as a collective whole.[2]

Converts of Lions

Sennacherib replaced the Ten Tribes with exiles the Talmud calls “Cuthim” or “Kutim” (because they were brought from Cuthah — II Kings 17:24) and “Samaritans” (because they were settled in Samaria). They brought along their gods and worshiped them in their new land. However, they were beset by a plague of wild lions (II Kings 17:24).

The new exiles concluded that the plague of lions must have come about because the god of the new land did not like the gods they brought with them. They decided to give up their old gods and try the Jewish one.

However, it was easier said than done, as the Bible testified: “Those nations worshipped God, but they also served their idols. To this day their children and their children’s children do as their ancestors did” (II Kings 17:41). The rabbis described their conversion as the “conversion because of lions.” The Samaritans came about because of externally induced fear rather than a true inner conviction. That is why historically they did not remain part of the Jewish people. Even though their descendants still exist today — there are some 100 Samaritan families left – they have long been legally, conceptually and practically outside the body of the Jewish nation.

Onward Assyrian Soldiers

Sennacherib did not stop with the conquest of Samaria and the northern tribes. He continued south and besieged Jerusalem during the reign of the great Judean king Hezekiah.

The situation looked hopeless. However, on the night of Passover the army of Sennacherib was destroyed by a plague, which we will discuss more in detail later. The few survivors, including Sennacherib, fled in chaos and confusion.

Even though Judea won this war they were basically weak and surrounded by extremely hostile empires. It was a frightening time. The prophet Isaiah buttressed their faith to continue through sheer will. He told them that if they would live as a uniquely Jewish kingdom then they would be able to survive.

Indeed, his words would keep the people strong for a long time — but not enough to weather the stormy times ahead and forestall their kingdom’s ultimate demise.


[1] Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 73:6, Numbers Rabbah 16:25.

[2] In truth, individuals among the Ten Tribes intermingled and became part of the kingdom of Judea both before the split (I Kings 12:17) and after the split (II Chronicles 11:16, 15:9, 30:6). Furthermore, Jeremiah brought some back himself (Talmud, Megillah 14b). Even as late as the time of the Talmud, some individuals knew which tribe they came from (Talmud, Pesachim 4a).

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

7 Responses to “The Ten Tribes — Lost”

  1. Victoria Rangel says:

    more info on the 1900s sheeps scaping to the Americas /my ansestors arrived at Coalcoman Michoacan Mexico from Galice Spain.

  2. Jerry Saenz says:

    The twelve tribes will never be reunited, because most of them were converted by force to Catholics, by the Papel and Gothic Kings, all Hispanics, Portuguese, Italians, French, are part of the twelve tribes. Some sphardic spanish jews have direct link to King David and Solomon.

  3. Berel Wein says:

    I cannot agree that the twelve tribes will never be reunited, but you are correct that there has been a terrible hemorrhaging of the Jewish people over the millennia.

  4. Berel Wein says:

    I should add that while I was in Spain, I was told by a tour guide that 90% of Spaniards have some Jewish blood.

  5. Wendy Lester says:

    The issue here is ten tribes jews. If I understand correctly, Sephardic Jews would be from Judea. The Southern tribes, not the ten northern tribes.

  6. julius says:

    I strongly need to know the difference between “Ten Tribes“ and “Twelve Tribes.

  7. moishy wolhendler says:

    There’s a great book called ten lost tribes which details some of the tribes travel through Afghanistan, Japan, China, its a real interesting read.