What happened to the 10 tribes who were taken captives by Assyrians? Did they ever come back?


Good question.  There have been many speculations about what happened to the ten “lost” tribes of Israel.  The answer is that our knowledge is a bit limited.   Besides, it is most likely a complicated tale.

First of all, it is not clear that there were ten tribes “lost” at all.  Significant numbers from Levi, Simeon and Daniel almost certainly were living in Judah.  If we add these to Benjamin and Judah, then there were at least four, and probably five tribes who were not fully deported by the Assyrians.

Add to this, when the Assyrians imported other peoples into what had been Samaria, creating what became the Samaritans, the fact is that this new people were semi-Jewish.  They continued to use the Pentateuch and claimed direct descent from Israel, as is shown by the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  Therefore, we can conclude that not all of the tribes living in Samaria at the time of the deportation were exiled, and some may have come back in the intervening years.  The Samaritans seem to have been a mixed race, and that mix almost certainly included some from those supposed “lost” tribes. 

Even if I am right, these former members of Issachar, Menassah, Ephraim, Naphtali and others seem to have lost at least some of their identity.  We no longer see evidence of an identifiable group known as Reubenites or Gadites. So, even if their descendants held on to a form of their Jewish religion, to the extent that they lost their tribal affiliation, to the same extent the tribes became lost–perhaps not literally, but culturally.

I am not the expert in this–not even close–but as far as I know, there is very little known about where the exiles from the Northern Kingdom were taken.  This is quite different than the exiles from Judea.  We know that the exiles taken by Nebuchadnezzar settled in Mesopotamia and we have much literature from these Mesopotamian Jews.  We also know when they came back, and even the names of many of the returnees from Judah, Levi and Benjamin.   So, what did happen to those exiled by Sennacherib?  Exactly where did they go and how many of them returned to the former Samaria?   I am afraid that we will have to settle for not having a clear answer to this question.  One suggestion is that many of these Jews migrated to Judah in 722 BC when Sennacherib conquered Samaria.  There is some evidence for this, as we know Jerusalem grew greatly at this time, requiring Hezekiah to add an additional wall to the city of Jerusalem and to seek an additional water source for the growing population.

Jewish scholars tell us that many of them assimilated into the pagan tribes in Assyria.  Probably this is true as well.  

To summarize:

1. The number of tribes “lost” is not ten.  It is more like seven or eight.

2. Probably many never actually left the region of Samaria.

3. Probably others returned from their exile.        (evidence for 2. and 3. is found in the Samaritan people themselves)

4. Still others migrated to Judah.

5. Perhaps the single biggest number were assimilated into the pagan cultures into which they were taken.

John Oakes

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