The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

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Much has been written and debated about the origin of Native Americans. Scientific anthropology insists that they must have come over a land bridge during the last ice age and that they are descendants of Asiatic forbears.

Mormons claim that they are descendants of the Lost Tribe of Joseph through one of his sons, Manasseh. They base their claim on the Book of Mormon in which certain passages seem to coincide with some aspects of Native American legends.

Perhaps there are other origins. There is evidence for traffic and trade across the Atlantic between West Africa and South America with migrations into what is now Mexico and the southeast United States. Genetic ancestors from Europe are not ruled out. Other esoteric claims of alien spacecraft push credulity to the limit.

Most Native Americans reject these saying that their ancient stories say that they originated on the American continent. 

 

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 The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

Ancient Times

After the death of King Solomon (d.928 BCE), his realm was divided into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judea. The territory of the Kingdom of Israel covered most of the central and northern Land of Israel and was inhabited by descendants of ten of the original twelve tribes that conquered the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua: Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulon. The Kingdom of Judea centred on Jerusalem and the Judean highlands and comprised the remaining two tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and in line with the general policy of the Assyrians, its inhabitants were deported to other regions of their empire. The Ten Tribes either assimilated into other peoples and tribes inside the Assyrian empire or were incorporated into the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, when they too were deported to Babylonia, following the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE (Ezekiel: 37:21-23).


An imaginary depiction of Nathan of Gaza leading the Tribes of Israel from Exile to the Land of Israel.
From a broadsheet, Germany, 1666
Beth Hatefutsoth Visual Documentation Center

The mysterious disappearance of the Ten Tribes of Israel nurtured the belief according to which their location will eventually be discovered and they will return to the Land of Israel, as the ancestors of the modern Jews, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin did when the Babylonian empire was destroyed by the Persians. This belief had its roots in the interpretations of several biblical texts, especially I Chronicles (5:26) and various prophecies (Isaiah 11:11-12, among others) as well some references found in the Apocrypha (II Esdras 13:39-50).

The fate of the Ten Tribes was discussed by the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Their opinions diverged between that expressed by Rabbi Akiba, who believed that the Ten Tribes would not return, and that of Rabbi Eliezer, who argued that the Ten Tribes would eventually return (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:3; for additional references see Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 147b, and Numbers Rabba 9:7). The supposed location of the Ten Lost Tribes became a subject of much speculation in itself. Gradually a legend was formed that claimed that the Ten Lost Tribes live in a region situated beyond the miraculous and impassable river of Sambatyon who flows for the six days of the week and stops on Shabbat, when the Ten Tribes are forbidden to travel. References to this theme may be found in Jewish classical texts (Genesis Rabba 73:6; Sanhedrin 10:6/29b). The legend is also mentioned by Josephus Flavius (Wars: 7:96-97) and the Greek author Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis 31:24).


Ornaments on the entrance to Bialystoker Center Old Age Home in New York
New York, 1963
Photo: Steve Getzoff, Israel
Beth Hatefutsoth Visual Documentation Center
Courtesy of Steve Getzoff, Israel

Stained glass window in Swansea Synagogue depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel
Swansea, UK
Photo: Tony Barnard, UK
Beth Hatefutsoth Visual Documentation Center
Courtesy of Tony Barnard, UK

Middle Ages

The myth of the Ten Lost Tribes prompted many Jews and non-Jews to actively search for the location of the Ten Tribes as their return to the Land of Israel was recognized as one of the missions that would be accomplished in the Messianic days and a sign of the general redemption and salvation. During the Middle Ages the best known examples of statements about the location of the Ten Lost Tribes belong to Eldad ha-Dani, a 9th century Jewish traveler who asserted to be himself a descendant of the Tribe of Dani. According to Eldad ha-Dani, the Ten Lost Tribes are located "beyond the rivers of Abyssinia" on the bank of the Sambatyon river. Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th century Jewish traveler from Spain, relates that the Jews of Persia believe that four tribes of Israel Asher, Dan, Naphtali, and Zebulon, live beyond the river Gozan in the towns of Nissabur, a mountainous country situated at twenty day's journey. The medieval speculations about the fate of the lost tribes were enhanced by the Christian traditions about Prester John, a powerful ruler of vast regions believed to be located in either the Far East or in Africa. Most medieval Christian commentaries about Prester John contain references to the Ten Lost Tribes, many of them quite similar to the descriptions of Eldad ha-Dani. R. Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro in northern Italy, a pilgrim to Jerusalem at the end of the 15th century, noted the information he gathered about the Ten Lost Tribes, especially about descendants of the Tribe of Dan who are at constant warfare with Prester John. Obadiah of Bertinoro also claimed that according to the information he received from the Jews of Aden, in Yemen, as well as from Muslim traders, the lost tribes live beyond the Sambatyon River which can be reached after a fifty day's journey into the desert from Aden.

Myth of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel  1 - 2 - 3 - 4

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2007, Allen Aslan Heart / White Eagle Soaring
of the
Little Shell Pembina Band, a Treaty
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