Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
Will the Lost Tribes Return?
An Analysis of the Lost Tribes in Rabbinic Literature
A question that is asked frequently by those who identify themselves as possible descendants of the Northern Ten Tribes is, "What is the current relationship of descendants of the Tribes with the Jewish people?" And then there is the related question, "How will the descendants of the Ten Tribes eventually reunite with the people of Judah (Judah, Benjamin, and portions of Levi)?" There are many insights in this area to be gleaned from Rabbinic sources.
by Dennis Jones
Have you ever asked yourself, "Will the Lost Tribes return?" It is a question which should be taken seriously by every student of the Bible. And yet, unfortunately, it is a question that does not even arise in the minds of millions of individuals who claim to believe the Bible and who claim to follow the Biblical faith. It is not that the term, "Lost Tribes," is unknown. On the contrary, in the English speaking world, in particular, it has become widely known, having been bandied about in various book titles, newspaper and magazine articles, and even championed by some popular and not so popular religious groups. The tragedy is, however, that the vast majority of those who are familiar with the concept of the "Lost Tribes of Israel" have not taken it the least bit seriously. Instead, they have summarily relegated the subject of the Lost Tribes to the status of legend, fable or fantasy, without so much as a cursory investigation of the possible truth of the matter in Biblical and historical sources.
Now, these are not ignorant people; in fact, just the opposite. These individuals have excelled in various fields, from science, to mathematics, to social sciences, to history, and even including religion. Many have a fair to above average knowledge in all of these disciplines. One must wonder why so many relatively learned individuals, particularly those associated with one of the major religions associated with the Bible -- Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism -- have remained ignorant of the facts concerning the Lost Tribes of Israel. Is it that the idea of Lost Tribes does not have a solid Biblical and historical foundation? Or is it that the existence of lost Israelites is theologically irrelevant? Does the possible existence of several hundred million descendants of Jacob, who are currently unaware of their identity, but who may in the near future return to the God of Israel, to His Torah/Law as the standard of living, and to a close relationship with the people of Judah, not have a significant bearing on current beliefs and future social and political developments? Indeed, it will become obvious in the very near future that those who have brushed aside the vital topic of the Lost Tribes of Israel, without even an investigation, have made a grave mistake.
Fortunately, the situation is rapidly changing. Thousands of individuals from both Jewish and Christian backgrounds are breaking from the recent tradition of ignorance, and are giving serious consideration to the evidence supporting the current existence and eventual return of the Lost Tribes. This awakening is not occurring solely among individuals from religious backgrounds, but also among those whose orientation is historical, scientific, linguistic, and sociological, just to name a few. Hope of Israel Ministries is committed to fanning the flames of this awakening. We challenge anyone, from any background, to give fair and objective consideration to the multidisciplinary evidence which is beginning to surface supporting the current existence of the "Lost Tribes of Israel." We believe that the conclusions will become self-evident. As Prof. James Tabor stated in an issue of Jezreel 's Call, after a brief survey of the evidence from the Biblical record, historical and literary references, archaeology, predictions in the Hebrew Prophets, and the Rabbinic tradition, each line of evidence is "part of a whole," and when taken together, they form "an impressive demonstration that approaches historical certainty." ("Were the 'Lost Tribes' Ever Really Lost?", Issue #4, Kislev/December, 1994, p. 4.) This article will attempt to elucidate one "part" of the case for the Lost Tribes, the Rabbinic tradition, in greater detail.
One fact must be dealt with up front. That is, from the point of view of "traditional" Christian theology, with its predominantly allegorical interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the subsequent "replacement" of Israel with "the church," the actual existence of the Lost Tribes (literal genetic descendants of Jacob) has been rendered completely irrelevant. And while the travesty of this type of Scriptural interpretation and the erroneous "replacement theology" which has sprung from it are beyond the scope of this article, it must be mentioned here as a root cause for the ignorance of the millions from Christian backgrounds who have never even considered the question of the Lost Ten Tribes. There have always been a few visionary individuals associated with Christianity who have realized the error of replacement theology, to some degree, but it was not until the time of the Protestant Reformation that larger numbers of people, and even whole groups, turned away from the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation, and adopted a much more literal approach. The ultimate result is that in our day, a vast wave of Christians and former Christians have forsaken the allegorical Scriptural interpretations and the traditional replacement theologies of the major denominations. These enlightened individuals have once again permitted to Israel, the lineal descendants of the Patriarchs, their legitimate status of Divine favor as well as their legitimate place in the fulfillment of the literal prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. Such individuals, and even whole denominations, have become extremely supportive of the nation of Israel and of the Jewish people worldwide. For such individuals, the subject of the Lost Tribes is one which absolutely must be considered (or reconsidered) through the clear vision of consistently literal interpretation of the promises made by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in both the Torah (five books of Moses) and the Hebrew Prophets.
Fortunately, also, for those seeking truth from the Scriptures, there is a twenty-five hundred year old line of Rabbinic interpretation, commentary, and elucidation which remains largely untapped by the majority of students from a non-Jewish background. In fact, it is somewhat alarming that this rich resource is relatively ignored by many who are Jewish, particularly those of the Conservative and Reform traditions. This ignorance of the profound insights contained in the writings of the Jewish Sages, while understandable (particularly among non-Jews), is most regrettable. How blessed we are that we live in a time when many groups as well as individuals are dedicated to dispelling ignorance of basic Jewish beliefs, both among Jews and non-Jews alike. In this atmosphere of increased study and dialogue, many will benefit from the wisdom contained in the writings of the learned Rabbis and Sages of Israel. As we shall see, the Rabbinic tradition on the topic of the Lost Tribes of Israel did not become bogged down or side-tracked in the realm of allegorical Scriptural interpretation the way that mainstream Christianity did. To their credit, the Rabbis stuck to the clear wording of the Biblical text, taking great pains to discern the literal meaning of each word and phrase. This literal approach gives particular cogency to the Rabbinic position.
While the subject of the "Ten Tribes" in Rabbinic literature is quite complex, there exists for the layman a concise and understandable analysis of the Jewish position by a respected Talmudic authority, Rabbi Rafael Eisenberg, of blessed memory. His excellent book, A Matter of Return, devotes one whole chapter to the Ten Tribes in Scripture and in the Oral Tradition of Judaism. In general, Rabbi Eisenberg's book is highly recommended reading for anyone desiring a deeper understanding of eschatology (doctrines of the last days) from a Jewish point of view. In just under 170 pages, Rabbi Eisenberg sets forth seven chapters, entitled: Universal Evil in the End of Days; Jewry Today; The Role of the Faithful of Israel in the Restoration of World Peace; Redemption in the Merit of the Mitzvot (Commandments); The Wars of Gog; The Lost Ten Tribes; and The Revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven in the Course of History. The treatise is concise, scholarly, understandable, and every bit as interesting as the chapter titles suggest. This article will rely heavily on Rabbi Eisenberg's analysis. Another very good, but somewhat older analysis of the subject of the Ten Tribes in Rabbinic sources is contained in Joseph Klausner's The Messianic Idea in Israel.
Returning now to the original question, "Will the Lost Tribes Return?" we find that this is a question which has been taken seriously by the great Rabbis and Sages of Israel for nearly two millennia. So important was this question, that its discussion is recorded in a very early (pre-Hadrianic, 117-138 C.E.) section of the Mishnah. The setting is a debate between the famous Rabbi Akiva and his opponent, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus:
The Ten Tribes shall not return again, for it is written [Deuteronomy 29:27], "and He cast them into another land like as this day." As this day goes and returns not, so do they go and return not. So R. Akiva says. But R. Eliezer says, "Like as this day": as the day grows dark and then becomes light, so also with the Ten Tribes; now they are in darkness, but in the future there shall be light for them.
It is important to note that the context of this discussion, set in the early decades of the Second Century C.E., assumes that the Northern Ten Tribes of Israel which were deported by the Assyrians in the 8th Century B.C.E. (II Kings 17:6-18) had not returned en masse previously and joined the people of Judah. The question before the Rabbis was only whether they would ever return, not whether they had ever returned. This distinction is critical, because many people, both Jews and non-Jews, erroneously assume that whenever Israel or the Judahites are mentioned either in the Hebrew Prophets, Writings, or in post-Biblical literature, that all twelve tribes are included in the reference. Such an assumption ignores the Rabbinic position that the Ten Tribes were deported and had not returned as of the 2nd Century C.E., a position which is clearly borne out in all of the Hebrew Prophets and in many post-Biblical writings.
It may be alarming to many that a Rabbi as well known and respected as Rabbi Akiva would rule that the Ten Tribes will not return, but Prof. Klausner points out a compelling reason why Akiva may have taken this position. He states:
R. Akiva held his opinion because he had proclaimed Bar-Cochba as Messiah and was expecting the redemption of Israel through him, while the remnants of the Ten Tribes at that time had not yet returned to Palestine and had no intention of doing so. The latter fact may have been discovered by R. Akiva on his long journeys to Gaul, Africa, Arabia, and particularly Media, to which the Ten Tribes had been exiled according to Scripture (II Kings 17:6). Therefore he was forced to oppose the opinion that the Ten Tribes must return in the Messianic age.
It must be remembered that the regathering of the "exiles of Israel," including the Lost Ten Tribes, is considered to be a distinguishing task of the Messiah, in both Biblical and Rabbinic texts.
Prof. Klausner is also quick to point out that it appears that two of Rabbi Akiva's immediate disciples, Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and Rabbi Meir, were "more charitable toward the Ten Tribes than was R. Akiva." He supports this conclusion with a Baraitha which immediately follows the previously quoted Mishnah:
R. Simeon ben Judah of the village of Ikkos says on the authority of R. Simeon (ben Yohai): If their deeds remain "like as this day," they will not return; but if otherwise, they will return.
Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai is clearly of the opinion that the Ten Tribes' return is conditional upon their repentance, i.e., turning from the violations of Torah which sent them into exile in the first place. Similarly, Klausner sees Rabbi Mier's assent that the Tribes will some day return in the following Tannaitic Midrash:
"And ye shall perish among the nations" (Leviticus 26:38). R. Akiva says: These are the Ten Tribes which went into exile to Media. Others (R. Meir?) say: "And ye shall perish among the nations" means not annihilation but only exile.
That two of Rabbi Akiva's disciples so quickly moderated away from his extreme negative position on the return of the Tribes certainly lends credence to Prof. Klausner's contention that Rabbi Akiva, as great a sage as he was, was forced into his position on the Tribes by the failure of Bar-Cochba as Messiah coupled with his knowledge that the descendants of the Ten Tribes were unwilling to return to Palestine in his day. As further indication that the majority Rabbinic opinion went against Rabbi Akiva, Prof. Klausner cites an expression by a well-known Third Century Amora, Rabbi Johanan, who evaluates Rabbi Akiva's opinion by stating, "R. Akiva forsook his piety" (Sanhedrin 110b), as well as an anonymous Baraitha, "The land of Israel will in time to come be divided between thirteen tribes" (Baba Bathra 1224).
Rabbi Rafael Eisenberg also begins his analysis with the Talmudic dispute based on the meaning of the words of the Torah, "as it is this day" (Deuteronomy 29:27), where Rabbi Akiva rules that "the Ten Tribes are gone and will not return," and Rabbi Eliezer asserts that "the Ten Tribes' utter darkness will become bright for them. Rabbi Eisenberg does qualify Rabbi Eliezer's optimism, by introducing an explanation by Rashi that Rabbi Eliezer's interpretation refers only to a future return of the Ten Tribes, in order for them to participate in the World-to-Come, i.e., the Messianic Age. He goes on to say that Rashi applied this promise of return only to the future descendants of the Tribes, since the Ten Tribes were, themselves, "utterly wicked," and would thus have no share in future good. With this caveat in place, Rabbi Eisenberg confidently asserts that the Sages' majority opinion in this matter was that:
...the Ten Tribes which disappeared in Assyria shall return. Their decision is quoted in the Tosefta,... "As it is this day" is explained as meaning that "if their deeds remain as they were this day, they will not return. On the other hand, if they are not -- that is, if they have repented for and corrected their actions -- they will return."
Rabbi Eisenberg supports this Torah interpretation with several powerful passages from the Biblical Prophets, which he states were the basis of the Sages' determination:
And it shall come to pass on that day that a great shofar shall be blown and they shall come who were lost in the land of Ashur.... (Isaiah 27:13) [The Tosefta specifically states that Ashur, Assyria, denotes the Ten Tribes.]
At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD [YEHOVAH]; and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem; neither shall they walk any more after the stubbornness of their evil hearts. In those days the House of Judah shall walk with the House of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance to your fathers. (Jeremiah 3:17-18)
And in that day it shall be that the root of Jesse, that stands for a banner of the peoples, to him shall the nations seek, and his resting place shall be glorious. And it shall come to pass on that day that the LORD shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people that shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, from Patros and from Kush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamat, and from the islands of the sea. And He will set up a banner for the nations, and shall assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isaiah 11:10-12)
From this last Isaiah passage, Rabbi Eisenberg deduces, as do most Rabbinic sources, that it will be the Messiah, son of David, who will regather the exiles of Israel, "the vanished Ten Tribes." [Note: Whether the Messiah ben David will do this after he is recognized as Messiah or whether the accomplishment of such task will earn him the recognition as Messiah is another quite interesting issue, but is beyond the scope of this article.]
Rabbi Eisenberg's citations from Rabbinic literature in support of the ruling that the Ten Tribes will return are numerous, and yet each presents points of truth that are quite worthy of consideration. For example, the Midrash Rabba derives a reference to the Ten Tribes from a passage in Isaiah (49:9), "That thou mayst say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves." The Midrash Rabba states that the word "prisoners" refers to "the tribes residing beyond the Sambatyon," i.e., the Ten Tribes. It goes on to say:
In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will ingather them, since it states in Isaiah (49:12): "Behold, these shall come from far, and lo these from the north, and from the west, and these from the land of Sinim (China)." The exiled will come with them, as well as the tribes beyond the Sambatyon and inside the Dark Mountains. All of these will rally and come to Jerusalem.
Abarbanel considered the future return of the Ten Tribes at the time of the Redemption to be a basic "principle" of the Jewish faith. He based this opinion on prophecies contained in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Obadiah, Micah, and Zephaniah. In fact, a Midrash asserts, "Israel will not be redeemed until the House of Judah and the House of Israel will be united." [Emphasis mine] This is based on Jeremiah 3:18, quoted in full above. Jeremiah 3:18 is also the basis of another commentary in the Yalkut Shimoni which has historically inspired concrete efforts on the part of the Jews to contact the Lost Ten Tribes and to facilitate their return. The Midrash states:
...the diaspora of Judah and Benjamin will go out to the Ten Tribes, exiled behind the River Sambatyon, and will bring them back with them in order that they, too, will enjoy the days of the Messiah's reign, and the life of the World-to-Come.
These Rabbinic interpretations are truly exciting for the many individuals from non-Jewish backgrounds who have a strong drawing toward the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, especially for those who identify positively with the Lost Tribes concept. Is this strong inner attraction to the Torah, Israel, and the Jewish people, which many thousands of us are experiencing merely a psychological coincidence? Or is it the fulfillment of prophecies contained in the Torah, Hebrew Prophets, and Writings? There is definitely adequate support in the writings of the Rabbis and Sages of Israel to determine it to be the latter.
A question that is asked frequently by those who identify themselves as possible descendants of the Northern Ten Tribes is, "What is the current relationship of descendants of the Tribes with the Jewish people?" And then there is the related question, "How will the descendants of the Ten Tribes eventually reunite with the people of Judah (Judah, Benjamin, and portions of Levi)?" It is probably true that no one has all of the answers to these complex questions. And yet there are many insights in this area to be gleaned from Rabbinic sources, and, fortunately, Rabbi Eisenberg devotes the last section of his chapter on the Lost Tribes to this topic. He entiltles it, "The Reinstallment of the Ten Tribes into the Jewish Nation." The section begins with a commentary by the Tifereth Yisrael, explaining Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus's opinion that the Ten Tribes would return based on the prophecy of Ezekiel 20:33, "As I live, says the LORD God, surely with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, and with fury poured out, will I [YEHOVAH God] be King over you." Rabbi Eisenberg points out that "in spite of the fact that they have been intermingled [with the nations] and defiled ... the Tifereth Yisrael states that the Ten Tribes will be reinstated forcibly into the Jewish nation." Rabbi Eisenberg explains that this statement refers to "those who actually have become idolators" and who have "completely forgotten their Jewish origin."
Next, Rabbi Eisenberg cites two sources which deal with a dramatic passage from Isaiah. The Biblical passage is so powerful, let's quote it in full here:
...the time shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see my [Shekinah] glory. And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tuval, and Yavan, to the distant islands, that have not heard my fame, and have not seen my [Shekinah] glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brethren out of all the nations for an offering to the LORD upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon fleet camels, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, says the LORD. For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. (Isaiah 66:18-22) [Emphasis mine]
According to Rabbi Eisenberg, the Yalkut Shimoni asserts, on the basis of this passage, that not only will Israelites who became "lost" over the years through capture, selling into slavery, and forcible conversion return in the days of the Messiah, but at that time, he will also be able to tell them from which Tribe they originally stem:
...the gentile nations will bring their Jewish inhabitants to the king Messiah as a present. These Jews, because they will be sceptical about their Jewish origin, will not want to appear before the Messiah, and will prefer instead, to go their own ways. At that point the Messiah will identify them individually, saying: "This one is a Yisrael [Israelite], this one a Cohen [descendant of the priestly line], and this one a Levi [Levite]!"
Even more amazingly, Rabbi Eisenberg goes on to say that according to the Midrash:
...the Messiah will also identify as Jewish many of the individuals who will bring the Jews back to him, thinking themselves as gentiles. He will identify their origins as either Cohanim [Priests], Levites, or Yisraelites, and will even accept them accordingly for service in the Beth haMikdash [Holy Temple].
As one reads these lines, one readily thinks of the numerous "Christian" groups who have contributed financially and have arranged airline flights for vast numbers of exiled Jews from places like Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union to return to the Land of Israel. The thought that the individuals supporting and arranging these flights, thinking themselves to be gentiles, might eventually find out that not only are they truly Israelite, but also descendants of priestly families and Levites, rendering them capable of serving in a rebuilt Third Temple is absolutely mind-boggling. Yet, that possibility is supported both by the words of the Prophet Isaiah and by the previous Midrash. (It is also a position which Hope of Israel Ministries unashamedly advocates, based upon the best historical research on where significant portions of these Tribes migrated! )
In an interesting, and perhaps novel, insight, Rabbi Eisenberg sees confirmation of the aforementioned identification of "hidden Jews," or lost Israelites, by the Messiah in the passage from the Torah, "...the secret things belong unto the LORD our God." (Deuteronomy 29:28) To those coming from a non-Jewish background, this use of Deuteronomy 29:28 to support the return of the Lost Tribes (and assimilated Jews) may seem farfetched, at first, because Christian religious leaders have used this passage to support any number of doctrinal "secrets." Yet, if one will take the passage strictly in its context, Rabbi Eisenberg's interpretation will be vindicated. The setting of this passage is a prophecy by Moses that at some future time the nations will see the exile of the Israelite people and the desolate state of the Land of Israel and will ask, "Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What means the heat of this great anger?" (Deuteronomy 29:23) The answer, of course, follows:
Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt: ...the anger of the LORD burned against this land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this book: and the LORD rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day. The secret things belong to the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever. (Deuteronomy 29:24-24) [Emphasis mine]
Given the close contextual juxtaposition of the "secret things" passage with the prophecy of the exile, and especially with the passage upon which the Rabbis and Sages base the opinion that the Lost Ten Tribes will return, how could the "secret things" be justifiably applied to anything else? Rabbi Eisenberg's insight is remarkable.
But, the elation that those who identify themselves as possible descendants of the Lost Tribes, or of assimilated Jews, experience when they read such prophecies of the exiles returning, and of the supporting interpretations from Rabbinic sources, must be tempered with the current reality of the situation. An Anglo-Saxon or Western European who is drawn to the Torah does not just walk up to a Rabbi and say, "Hi, I'm a descendant of the Lost Tribes," and expect to be granted immediate acceptance as a part of the Jewish people. While the Oral Tradition is not completely clear on exactly how the Tribes will be reintegrated into the Jewish nation, the current relationship is more clear, and is best summarized by quoting Rabbi Eisenberg's exact words:
Until the arrival of the Prophet Elijah and the Messiah, no member of any of the Ten Tribes shall be accepted (for the purpose of marriage) into the Jewish people.
This opinion is inferred from a statement in the Seder Eliyahu Suta, Chapter 1:
Proselytes are not accepted from the Cutheans until the Prophet Elijah and the Son of David will appear, since the Ten Tribes were intermingled amongst them.
Such an inference does seem warranted by the statement in the Talmud:
Rab Judah said in the name of R. Assi: If at the present time a heathen betrothes [a daughter in Israel], note must be taken of such betrothal since it may be that he is of the Ten Tribes. But, surely, anything separated [from a heterogeneous group] is regarded as having been separated from the majority!
In other words, that a person, seemingly from the nations, is drawn toward a Judahite with an eye toward marriage, indicates that the individual may be a descendant of the Tribes. Yet, since the Tribes make up only a minority of the nations into which they were dispersed, it must be assumed, from the standpoint of Jewish halachah, that the potential mate is a representative of the non-Jewish majority. Therefore, as Rabbi Eisenberg states it, "the descendants of the Ten Tribes are definitely forbidden, since they are suspect of being mamserim (offspring of halachically prohibited Jewish marriages)." Thus, from a halachic standpoint, such a person remains technically a gentile (Ben Noach), unless he or she formally converts to Judaism.
On the other hand, readers, particularly those from a non-Jewish background must understand that the Jewish halachah is not a static thing. The respected Rabbi's and Torah scholars in every age -- including our own -- have the authority to apply the principles of the written Torah to new issues which may present themselves. This tradition, within Judaism, extends all the way back to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The current Torah-faith movement which we are all witnessing, as evidenced by the massive wave of support for Israel among evangelical Christians, by the B'nei Noach movement, and by the large numbers of people identifying with the Lost Tribes concept, is presenting Rabbi's with many new issues and questions. In fact, one Rabbi recently remarked that many of the issues which the Torah faith movement is presenting to Judaism are questions which the Rabbis and Sages have not dealt with since Second Temple times.
As the readers of our publications well know, we are living in truly remarkable times. What does the future hold for those who are being drawn to the God of Israel, to His Torah, and toward the people of Judah? Surely the time spoken of by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, when he said, "Just as the day darkens and then becomes light again, so the Ten Tribes -- even as it went dark for them, so will it become light for them," is just around the corner.
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