Israel’s “Other Tribes”


When the Prophet Joseph Smith set down the Articles of Faith in 1842, he included an interesting declaration concerning the tribes of Israel which now reads in part: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; [and] that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American Continent.” (A of F 1:10.)

In that statement the Prophet acknowledged, first, a historical fact—that a large portion of the house of Israel had been taken by Assyria from the land of their inheritance and thus were lost from the common knowledge of the tribe of Judah, the ancient record-keepers; and second, the Prophet acknowledged the Lord’s promise for the future—that these tribes “lost” in terms of immediate recognition, would be gathered in again in the latter days.

It was the Lord himself who referred to these of his scattered sheep as the “other tribes of the house of Israel.” (3 Ne. 15:15.) The scriptures and related sources give us a limited body of information about these “other tribes” up to the point when they were “lost” to Judah’s record-keepers.

After the conquest of the promised land of Canaan (Palestine) following Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Joshua partitioned the area into thirteen geographical entities to be possessed by the tribes of Israel. The tribes lived under a government of judges for 334 years, and then under the kingship of Saul, David, and Solomon for another 120 years before the land was divided into the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah in 975 B.C.

Because of Solomon’s transgressions, the Lord declared the end of his kingdom: “And it came to pass at that time when Jeroboam went out of Jerusalem, that the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him in the way. …

“And Ahijah caught the new garment that was on him, and rent it in twelve pieces:

“And he said to Jeroboam, Take thee ten pieces: for thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and will give ten tribes to thee.” (1 Kgs. 11:29–31.)

Thus at the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam suffered a rebellion that left him the southern part, known as the kingdom of Judah, while a northern kingdom, known as the kingdom of Israel, formed under Jeroboam. This northern kingdom was also sometimes called the kingdom of Ephraim (which was the largest and most prominent tribe), or simply “Samaria,” after the capital city of the Ephraimite province.

Jeroboam immediately plunged the kingdom of Israel into enduring wickedness. Fearing that his people would travel to Jerusalem to worship at the temple in the kingdom of Judah and thus eventually shift their allegiance there, he made idols for their false worship. (See 1 Kgs. 12:26–33.) Nevertheless, the northern kingdom of Israel endured for another 253 years before the people’s wickedness weakened the kingdom to the point that Assyria conquered it.

The Assyrian conquest began about 738 B.C. when the armies of Tiglath-Pileser III marched against Menahem, king of Israel, wresting part of his dominion and compelling him to pay tribute. By 733 B.C., all of the northern kingdom except Mount Ephraim was conquered by the Assyrians, including the lands occupied by the tribes of Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar, and the half-tribe of Manasseh in the region of Galilee, and Reuben, Gad, and the other half-tribe of Manasseh in trans-Jordan. (See 2 Kgs. 15:29; 1 Chr. 5:26.) After Tiglath-Pileser’s death in 727 B.C., he was succeeded by Shalmaneser IV, who immediately laid siege to Ephraim’s capital city of Samaria. After three years, Shalmaneser died and Sargon II took power. His famous “cylinder inscription” declares that it was he who was “the conquerer of the city of Samaria and the whole land of Beth-Omri.”

In his treatment of the kingdom of Ephraim (Israel), Sargon II followed the policies established by Tiglath-Pileser: deportation and colonization. Excavators have found, amid the ruins of his palace at Khorsabad, the annals of his conquest. One entry reads:

“In the beginning of my reign I besieged, I took by the help of the god Shamash, who gives me victory over my enemies, the city of Samaria. 27,290 of its inhabitants I carried away. … I took them to Assyria and put into their places people whom my hand had conquered.”

The Old Testament confirms this account, stating that “in the ninth year of Hoshea [722–21 B.C.] the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the fiver of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.” (2 Kgs. 17:6; also 2 Kgs. 18:9–12; see map.) Then Sargon “brought men from Babylon, and from Cutha, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel.” (2 Kgs. 17:24.)

The people thus transplanted into Samaria eventually mingled with the remaining peoples of the northern kingdom and produced a religion that was a mixture of portions of the true faith and portions of pagan worship, for “they feared the Lord, [yet] served their own gods.” (2 Kgs. 17:33.) This mixture of nationalities and pollution of the religion appalled the Jews to the south and created enmity between them and these new “Samaritans.” Even in the time of the Savior, the Jews had a superior attitude toward the Samaritans.

Just how many Israelites were carried into Assyria is not known. Sargon II claimed 27,290 captives, but that number only represents the captives taken from the city of Samaria alone. Doubtless the total number carried away was significant, for Samaria never recovered as a power from the expulsion and never again became the dominant force that the northern kingdom of Israel had been. Nevertheless, the depopulation was not total, since it was the usual policy of the Assyrians to select only the ablest, most skilled, and intelligent of the people for deportation, just as Nebuchadnezzar later did in the captivity of Judah: “And he [Nebuchadnezzar] carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land.” (2 Kgs. 24:14.)

It may be that those taken captive by the Assyrians numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In any case, these members of the Lord’s Other Tribes were taken away as colonists to the area of northwestern Mesopotamia, toward the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, there to await the time of their escape. Today those areas are associated with eastern Syria, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and the Armenian region of eastern Turkey.

Eventually, some of the displaced Israelites escaped from their captivity, to the fulfillment of the word of the Lord through his prophet Amos: “For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve.” (Amos 9:9.) How this portion escaped, and when, are not known.

Perhaps the fall of Assyria afforded the captives the opportunity to escape. In the period from 614 to 610 B.C. the army of the Medes under Cyaxeres overran all the territory of the Assyrians, including the areas of Halah and Gozan, where many of the captives had been settled. This was the end of the Assyrian empire. Subsequently, some of the peoples held captive by Assyria migrated. This migration seems to have been under way by the early part of the sixth century B.C., for at that time Nephi wrote: “Behold, there are many who are already lost from the knowledge of those who are at Jerusalem. Yea, the more part of all the tribes have been led away.” (1 Ne. 22:4; italics added.)

The best account of the departure of the Other Tribes by Judah’s record-keepers is found in the book of 2 Esdras (also called 4 Ezra). In verses 40 through 47 of chapter 13 we read:

“These are the ten tribes which were led away captive out of their own land in the days of Josiah [Hoshea] the king, which (tribes) Salmanassar the king of the Assyrians led away captive; he carried them across the River, and (thus) they were transported into another land. But they took this counsel among themselves, that they would leave the multitude of the heathen, and go forth into a land further distant, where the human race had never dwelt, there at least to keep their statutes which they had not kept in their own land. And they entered by the narrow passages of the river Euphrates. For the Most High then wrought wonders for them, and stayed the springs of the River until they were passed over. And through that country there was a great way to go, (a journey) of a year and a half; and that region was called Arzareth. There they have dwelt until the last times.” (R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964, 2:619.)

This report agrees with 2 Kings 17:6, 18:11 [2 Kgs. 17:6; 2 Kgs. 18:11], and 1 Chronicles 5:26 [1 Chr. 5:26] in that the tribes would have been taken “across the River” (the Euphrates) on the way to the places of captivity named in those verses. An escape “by the narrow passages of the river Euphrates” (that is, in its upper reaches—see map) into “a land further distant, where the human race had never dwelt” points to a northward direction for the subsequent migration of the tribes (the lands east, west, and south of Assyria were already inhabited at that time). This, too, agrees with a number of scriptural prophecies relative to the eventual return of those Other Tribes from the “land of the north,” or “north countries.” (See, Israel, Ten Lost Tribes of, in Topical Guide, LDS edition of the King James Bible.)

Map of Canaan and Media(click to view larger)

Beginning in 721–22 B.C., the Assyrians carried many Israelites captive, settling them “in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.” From these areas, according to one account, they later migrated northward “by the narrow passages of the river Euphrates.”

This was to be an event of such significance that the prophet Jeremiah spoke these powerful words:

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

“But, The Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.” (Jer. 23:7–8.)

Precisely where the tribes journeyed after the fall of Assyria is another unknown, even as it is unknown to Judah where Lehi and Mulek went; Arzareth itself simply means “another land.” But seeking an actual locale is perhaps an irrelevant question, since the scriptures clearly indicate that the Other Tribes were to be scattered among many nations, even though a distinct remnant of them clearly would remain in the “land of the north.”

It is also clear that part of the scattering surely involved portions of the Other Tribes that didn’t go north. As mentioned earlier, some of the population of the northern kingdom were left in the conquered lands of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians and not taken captive at all. Others, although taken captive, elected to remain in the land of their captivity, for Isaiah indicated in his well-known prophecy: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.” (Isa. 11:11; also 2 Ne. 21:11; italics added.) Assyria, Elam, Shinar, and Hamath were all lands involved in the Assyrian captivity. This same principle also applies to Judah, for many Jews did not return to Jerusalem after establishing themselves in Babylon and places where they fled.

Nevertheless, as a distinct remnant, the Other Tribes did become “lost” to Judah’s record-keepers—not simply because they were taken captive, but also because they left their captivity and went forth “into a land further distant,” numerous of them undoubtedly choosing to settle in the lands through which they traveled.

Since that time—particularly in the last few centuries—attempts to locate and identify the Other Tribes have been numerous. At different times and by a variety of Christian authors the Other Tribes of Israel have been identified with the Japanese, Chinese, Turks, Ethiopians, Persians, Yemenites, Nestorians, Afghans, Arabians, Britons, Kassites of Russia, Hindus and Buddhists of India, Scythians, Cimmerians, Celts, Kareens of Burma, North and South American Indians, Australians, and Eskimos. Indeed it is possible that remnants of the Other Tribes may have spread out and became part of all these peoples in fulfillment of the prophecies that Israel would spread itself throughout many countries.

In the ninth century, for example, a man called Eldad ben Mahli went to Kairwan, Tunisia, announcing that he was from a Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia comprising peoples of four of the ten tribes. This tradition continued into the sixteenth century when the geographer Abraham Yagel placed the Other Tribes in Ethiopia and India. Perhaps the most interesting accounts of Other Tribes “hunting” came from a merchant named Benjamin de Tudels, a Jewish-Spanish traveler at the time of the Crusades who shared an account of Jewish communities in the Near East and communities of the Other Tribes in Iran, India, and beyond, northward as well as eastward. Many are the legends, romantic tales, and speculations concerning the locale or present-day identification of the “Lost Tribes.”

It was in this vacuum of reliable reformation regarding the Other Tribes that in November 1831 Joseph Smith received this revelation from the Lord:

“They who are in the north countries shall come in remembrance before the Lord; and their prophets shall hear his voice, and shall no longer stay themselves; and they shall smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence.

“And an highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep. …

“And they shall bring forth their rich treasures unto the children of Ephraim, my servants.

“And the boundaries of the everlasting hills shall tremble at their presence.

“And there shall they fall down and be crowned with glory, even in Zion, by the hands of the servants of the Lord, even the children of Ephraim.

“And they shall be filled with songs of everlasting joy.” (D&C 133:26–33.)

In the last days, then, the Other Tribes are to come to Zion, “upon the American continent,” there to receive blessings from Ephraim. The keys of the “gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north” were committed to the Prophet Joseph Smith by Moses on 3 April 1836 in the Kirtland Temple. Since Ephraim itself was one of the Other Tribes lost to Jewish and Christian history, we see that the promised restoration has already begun. In fact, we have been blessed to identify many from another tribe, Manasseh. This identification of tribal lineage is made under the hands of inspired patriarchs in the normal spiritual processes incident to the functions of the priesthood.

As we look toward our common future, we see that, as foretold, the great gathering, or restoration, of all the peoples of Israel who have spread themselves throughout the world will be accomplished and distinct remnants of all of the tribal units of Israel will at last be united again in fellowship under Christ. All tribes are to have representation in the establishment of the New Jerusalem. All tribes will have representatives in the calling of the “hundred and forty and four thousand” mentioned in John’s revelation, twelve thousand out of every tribe of Israel. (Rev. 7:2–8.) These are “high priests, ordained unto the holy order of God, to administer the everlasting gospel; for they are they who are ordained out of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, by the angels to whom is given power over the nations of the earth, to bring as many as will come to the church of the Firstborn.” (D&C 77:11.) Thus, a great work awaits representatives of each tribe as they continue to preach the gospel throughout the world to all mankind. Ultimately, in righteousness the Other Tribes of Israel will be prepared to return to Jerusalem, to receive with Judah the lands of their first inheritance. (See Deut. 30:1–5.)

Certainly all the reasons why the Lord “hid” the tribes—as he did with both Ephraim and Manasseh—and exactly when we will identify the others and when a distinct remnant of “they who are in the north countries” will come to “the boundaries of the everlasting hills” is information that remains with God. However, we do know that it will ultimately be for the benefit of all—for those who were “lost,” for the nations who were blessed by their leavening seed, and for us in Israel today who await the gathering of these Other Tribes and the great work of restoring to all the peoples of Israel the true knowledge of their God and King, Jesus Christ.

[photo] Bas-relief from the Black Obelisk showing the Israelite King Jehu bowing to Shalmaneser III, King of Assyria, which took place around 820 B.C. (Photography courtesy of the British Museum.)

Vern Grosvenor Swanson, director of the Springville, Utah, Museum of Art, teaches the seventies group in his ward.