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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Those Ten Lost Tribes (Or Is It Twelve?)

There are few prophetic subjects more hotly contested than the Ten “Lost” Tribes. Maybe the doctrine of the Rapture. Maybe the Pre-/ Post-/ Amillennial divide.

But the folks who get agitated about those issues can’t possibly compete with Alex Christopher. Alex asks “Who Are the Real Israelites?” His answer? Almost every white person on the planet EXCEPT the ones currently living in Israel.

How important is the issue to Alex? “IT IS TIME FOR THE COMMON AMERICAN TO GET UPSET AND INVOLVED,” he shouts [the caps are his, not mine]. Fair warning: Alex actually employs the word “dastardly” to describe the quasi-Jewish conspiracy he is convinced exists, so … you know … judge for yourselves and all that.

“There is mounting evidence,” says Christopher, “that the great majority of Jews today (the Ashkenazim or Eastern European Jews) are not the offspring of Abraham, but descendants of the ancient Central European nation of Khazaria, converted to Judaism in 740 A.D.”

Wait, wait, wait … pardon me for backing up a moment. This will require a little history, if you’re up for it.

The Dispersion and the Captivity

I’ll let Alex explain it himself, since he’s gone to the trouble of synopsizing the history of Israel for his own readers:
“Most Christians are aware that the Israelites were carried into captivity, but many know little about the details. A short synopsis of this story is found in 2 Kings 18. There we read of this deportation of Israel and, a few years later, most of Judah.

In approximately 730 B.C. Shalmaneser (king of Assyria) invaded Israel, and we read in verses 11 and 12:

‘And the King of Assyria did carry away Israel unto Assyria, and put them in Halah and in Harbor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes, because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed his covenant.’

In verse 13, it states that seven years later the Assyrian army came up against the remaining cities of Judah and took them. Only Jerusalem remained under King Hezekiah’s control. Eventually the city of Jerusalem was also destroyed as the people continued to struggle. In the year 596 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, came and besieged Jerusalem, and took the inhabitants approximately 22,000 into what we call the Babylonian Captivity.”
Up to speed now? Good. For the technical among us, the word Diaspora (in some translations “Dispersion”) is used to refer to this distribution of Israelites throughout the Assyrian empire of the day, and sometimes also used to include the Jews distributed throughout the Chaldean empire by Nebuchadnezzar 130+ years later. The word “Exile” is used fairly interchangeably with it. When you come across the word “Captivity” in this context, it generally means the Judean group from the (first) fall of Jerusalem.

On the world stage, the Assyrians were succeeded by the Chaldeans and subsequently by the Medo-Persians. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah record how a comparatively small number of Jews returned to Jerusalem under the Medo-Persian kings and eventually rebuilt their temple. They remained in Palestine under the sway of the Greeks and then the Romans until about 40 years after the death of Christ, when they were again dispersed throughout the world until the middle of the last century.

But whether the vast majority of exiles from the Dispersion and the Captivity ever returned to Israel in the first place is vehemently disputed. And therein lies the mystery of the “10 Lost Tribes”. Or maybe it’s twelve, if we count those from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin taken in the Captivity that remained “scattered abroad”.

Now For the Crazy Stuff ...

Now we get to the crazy stuff. Or if it’s not crazy, let’s just say it’s highly entertaining and that many aspects of it are dubiously sourced, especially the linguistic arguments. But despite that, Alex Christopher insists the ten lost tribes are … pretty much the entire Western world:
“The important thing that we need to remember is that, when almost the entire population of all twelve tribes of Israel were taken captive by the armies of Assyria, they were placed in the area of the Caucasus Mountains to the North of their Homeland. There they remained for approximately one hundred years, and became known as Caucasians, most of these people had fair skin, blonde, or reddish-blond or light-brown hair and light blue or blue-green eyes.”
So according to Alex and others, if you identify as “Caucasian”, you are in all probability actually Jewish.

But there are, as one might expect, competing claims from all over the world to Jewish ancestry, some of which even seem marginally credible:

·        the Bene Israel are an Indian community believed by some to be one of the “lost tribes”. Many emigrated to Israel in 1948.

·        the Beta Israel in Ethiopia claim to be descended from the tribe of Dan.

·        the Pashtuns in Afghanistan are alleged to have descended from Israel, and some genetic tests appear to bear this out (while others appear to refute it). 

·        numerous less legitimizable claims to an Israelite heritage have been made: Chinese, South American, from various African countries including Ghana, Cameroon and Rwanda, and even concerning native Americans.

·        most famously, the late Herbert W. Armstrong of the “Worldwide Church of God” has made a case for British Israelism that has been attacked over and over again. Catholic Answers takes another crack at it here.

The point is that nobody really knows where the Ten Lost Tribes are today. Since AD 70, Jews have been all over the place geographically. Distinguishing a Jew of this second major Dispersion from a Jew or Israelite of the earlier ones must be truly challenging. Not to mention the off chance that if Alex Christopher turns out to be right, there would be six or seven hundred million human beings currently walking the planet that are directly descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Alex Christopher’s view is not the only one, of course.

The Ten Tribes Were Never “Lost” At All

In 2013, David Dunlap wrote a piece for Counsel Magazine that concluded the Ten Lost Tribes were never lost at all. To do so, he sought to establish four points, following Hebrew scholar David Baron:

1.    In 930 B.C., faithful Israelites from all of the ten northern tribes joined their kinsmen in the south and continued their identity as part of the kingdom of Judah.

2.    Many from the ten northern tribes continued to live in the northern kingdom after the Assyrian invasion. 

3.    Many Jews in New Testament times maintained tribal identities.

4.    Though Jews today do not know from which tribe they are descended, God knows.

As much as I respect David Dunlap and deplore anti-Semitism, none of his arguments effectively rebuts the persistent idea that large numbers of Hebrews from both the Diaspora and the Captivity never returned to Judea.

I agree with Mr. Dunlap that teaching like Alex Christopher’s and Herbert Armstrong’s has “help[ed] to fuel white supremacist hatred and, in many cases, violence against the Jewish people”. But the uses to which people put a particular theory have little to do with its truth or falsehood. That has to be determined on the available facts, and other legitimate scholars read them very differently from Mr. Dunlap.

He summarizes his position by saying:
“It can be said, on the basis of Scripture, history, and archeology, that there is no such thing as the ten lost tribes of Israel. What was lost was the existence of the kingdom of Israel in the northern region of Israel. The ten tribes, however, continued to exist in the body of the southern kingdom with the terms ‘Jews’ and ‘Israelite’ applied to all of the Jewish nation.”
If Dunlap rejects the “Lost Tribes” theory on the basis that it leads to anti-Semitism, it may be worthwhile to ask what the victims of anti-Semitism have to say about it, since Jews are in a better position to judge the evidence than almost anyone.

The Rabbinic Position

Despite the way the Ten Lost Tribes theory has been persistently abused by enemies of Zionism, the counter-theory that these tribes were never really “lost” has surprisingly few adherents within Orthodox Judaism. United Israel sets out the traditional Rabbinic position:
“The idea that the Ten Tribes had assimilated with Judah, the Jewish people, or had otherwise returned to the Land, is not even entertained. The whole discussion, which all the rabbis accept, assumes that these tribes are ‘lost’ or in Exile, the pertinent question was whether they would ever return, given their extreme state of apostasy.”
Citing numerous historical and literary references, this group of Jews insists the Ten Tribes are indeed lost. Their moderate, carefully researched approach is nothing like Alex Christopher’s:
“We do not maintain that any countries today, such as the United States or Britain, are Israelite, or that modern nations are to be identified with certain tribes, such as Manasseh or Ephraim.”
This is a far cry from British Israelism or the Worldwide Church of God. But these Jews very much believe the Ten Tribes are still out there somewhere.

The Teaching of the Prophets

Enough history. History is confusing and often disputable. Where are the 10 tribes? Or is it 12 tribes? Who are they today? Are the Jews in Israel actually Hebrews? Is there a giant American conspiracy of actual and fake Jews to support “fake” Jews in Zion?

To this I offer a resounding “Who knows and who cares?”

What’s not disputable is the prophetic word of God. Sure, you can argue about verses here and there and how they may best be interpreted. But you’d have to be singularly obtuse to contest the clear teaching of all the major and minor Old Testament prophets that not just Judah but Israel is coming home one day, and that the promised (earthly) kingdom depends on it.

And yes, the prophets consistently make a distinction between the two groups.

The earthly kingdom of God will be established when both Judah AND Israel have returned to the Promised Land. Isaiah says it. Jeremiah says it. Ezekiel says it. Daniel does not quite say it, but he distinguishes Judah from Israel and prays on behalf of all Israel, despite being a Jew. HoseaJoelAmos and Obadiah all declare it. Jonah doesn’t mention the restoration of the Lost Tribes, but it is his hatred of the Ninevites, the Assyrians who had dispersed his people (he was from Gath Hepher in Zebulun, one of the Ten Tribes) that drives the narrative of the book. The notion that God could forgive the Assyrians rather than judge them for their sins against Israel was so intolerable to Jonah that he ran away rather than deliver the message God gave him.

Micah says it. Nahum mentions it. Can I stop now? The return of the lost tribes is not a “motif” that “first appeared in the post-biblical era”, as Wikipedia has it, cobbled together, perhaps, by members of the early church. Rather, it is the consistent, ringing theme of all the Old Testament prophets.

Let me quote a single example from Isaiah:
“And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord.”
The difficulties of claiming such a passage has already been fulfilled literally and historically or that it has its fulfillment allegorically in the church are, to me, insuperable.

I’m going to let David Horowitz’s United Israel have the last word:
“The Prophets clearly declare that the ultimate restoration of the Ten Tribes, and their union with Judah will come in ‘the last days,’ coinciding with the appearance of the Davidic messianic figure. That time is described in such a way as to make clear that it could not possibly refer to the return of Judah from the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE. For example, Jeremiah 30-31, one of the most explicit prophecies in the Bible dealing with the Tribes, is framed with the statement ‘in the latter days you will understand this’ (Jer 30:24). In case one might wonder or dispute the precise meaning of this phrase, ‘the latter days,’ Jeremiah makes it clear that it is the time when the LORD (YHVH) removes the yoke of foreign domination and raises up a Davidic descendant to be king in Israel (30:9).”
Somebody’s going to come back to Zion in those chariots and litters Isaiah speaks of. Somebody’s going to ride those camels. We can argue about whether there are twelve lost tribes or ten, whether they are in Europe, Africa, North America or India. We can argue about whether the camels are literal or signify limousines. We can play semantic games with the word “lost” and say they simply settled elsewhere and stayed there voluntarily.

But people descended from the northern kingdom of Israel are coming back to the Promised Land one day soon in connection with the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ. We may not be able to locate them today, but the prophets of the Old Testament guarantee they will be found and returned.

And it’s going to be glorious.

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