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This article concerns the twelve tribes of Israel as described in the Bible, and modern historical debates about the origins of the Israelites. Please read this entry in conjunction with the entry on the History of ancient Israel and Judah, Children of Israel, and the Bible and history.

Table of contents
1 Israelites in Biblical times
2 The myth of the ten lost tribes
3 Jews as Israelites
4 External links

Israelites in Biblical times

According to the Bible, the Israelites were the descendants of the children of Jacob, later known as Israel. His twelve male children were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Gad, Napthali, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. Twelve tribes of Israel are listed in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament).

The myth of the ten lost tribes

A simplistic understanding of Israelite history has led to the myth of the ten lost tribes. The ten lost tribes are those from the northern Kingdom of Israel, who were deported by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. In the popular view, they all disappeared from history, leaving only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah as the forerunners of modern Jewry.

Some people hold that some of these ten tribes still maintained some semblance of their Israelite identity, and are waiting to be rediscovered. Various unorthodox views exist which continue the history of the lost tribes of Israel beyond this period, placing them variously in England or America. These viewpoints include those of the British Israelism of others, and Herbert W. Armstrong's teachings mentioning that being the ancestors of American, England and Northwest Europeans they would have the dubious experience of the prophecies pertaining to Israel in the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Herbert W. Armstrong received his understanding of "British Israelism" from those who were not anti-Semitic. Armstrong believed that the Northwestern European Nations were descended from the tribes of Israel that migrated west from the areas they were exiled to in Asia.

However, Jews today are not descendants from only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin alone, but in fact are descendants of Israelites from all the other tribes of Israel (see below), as well as the converts to Judaism who joined them.

Most people believe that the southern Kingdom was only populated by the tribe of Judah and Benjamin, but this is not exactly so. Prior to King Saul, Israel was divided by its tribes with certain leaders from various tribes becoming judges of the tribe or surrounding tribes to fight the enemies of Israel. This is reflected in the book of Judges. Saul was selected as king, but after he acted rashly, the Bible says that God rejected his kingship and sought one who would replace him. David was then selected to be king, and his descendants were to rule over the House of Israel. For two generations, Israel had been united first under David for 33 years and remained so under Solomon for 40 more years.

Eventually, Israel suffered a civil war in 922 BC which split it into two parts. Jeroboam, Solomon's assistant, rejected the leadership of Solomon's son Rehoboam who wanted to tax the people heavily and this led to the revolt of the northern tribes and to the establishment of the (northern) Kingdom of Israel. It consisted of nine landed tribes: Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben and Gad, and some of Levi (which had no land allocation). This makes ten tribes, which later became known as "the lost ten tribes". However, Manasseh and Ephraim technically count as just one full tribe, so there were really eight full landed tribes, and part of one tribe without land. Samaria was its capital.

Judah, the southern Kingdom, had Jerusalem as its capital and was led by King Rehoboam. It was populated by the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon (and also some of Levi). Simeon and Judah later merged together, and Simeon lost its separate identity.

In 722 BC the Assyrians, under Shalmaneser, and then under Sargon II, conquered Israel (the northern Kingdom), destroyed its capital Samaria, and sent the Israelites into exile and captivity. Much of the nine landed tribes of the northern kingdom become "lost." However, what is less commonly known is that many people from the conquered northern kingdom fled south to safety in Judea, the Southern Kingdom, which maintained its independence.

Thus, Judah then was populated with Israelites from Judah, Benjamin, Shimeon, some of Levi, and many from all of the other tribes as well. Today's Jews are descended from the inhabitants of this kingdom.

Jews as Israelites

Whatever the historical origin of the Israelite tribes, they had a distinct identity as recently as 722 BC, when the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and sent its populace into exile. Many Israelites from the northern kingdom fled to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. At this point in time Judah's population melded into a conglomerate of people from all the Israelite tribes. In 586 BC the nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon. About 50 years later, in 537 BC the Persians (who conquered Babylon 2 years before) allowed Jews to move back to Jerusalem. By the end of this era, members of the tribes seem to have abandoned their individual identities.

Today's Jews are mostly descended from the Israelites of Judah, and thus are often identified as Israelites. Note that over time people joined the Jews, and married with the descendants of the Israelites. The number of converts is not trivial, but not so large as to swamp out the origin. It is thus fair to say that Jews today are descendants of those Israelites who lived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, along with many converts who joined them.

One should take note of the historical debate over the accuracy of the Bible's account of the origin of the Israelites, discussed more fully in the entry on the History of ancient Israel and Judah.

Non-Jewish descendants of the Israelites

Most descendants of the Israelite tribes are not Jewish; over the last two millennia the Jewish kingdom of Israel was destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens were taken away into slavery or killed. The survivors assimilated into their surrounding cultures, and became lost to the Jewish people.

Israelite doctrine in modern, non-Jewish religions

Some modern religions maintain that its members are Israelites. Most prominently the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) holds that those who are baptized by a Latter-day Saint (LDS) Priesthood authority become an Israelite and thereby become one of God's chosen people by covenanting with God in baptism. By being confirmed as a member of the LDS Church and given the "gift" of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, a member is said to become a literal Israelite, despite the lack of biological relations to Israelites. Other Mormon groups have a doctrine similar to the LDS Church.

Mormonism teaches that ten lost tribes of Israel really did exist (see above for discussion of this point), and that at some point they will be identified by tribe and gathered together. The tenth Article of Faith of the LDS Church states, "We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes". The LDS Church maintains that this is actually occuring in the current day. This is discussed in more detail in the article on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Anti-semitic pseudo-Israelite religions and cults

Ironically, there are many anti-semitic groups which claim to be only "true" Israelites. These include the Black Israelites of New York City and the neo-Nazi inspired Christian Identity movement.

There are a small number of other religious groups that do not claim to be Jews, but nonetheless claim the mantle of being "spiritual Israelites" as they have faith in the God of Israel. Some of these groups are openly hostile to Judaism, as they see themselves as the "true" Jews; while others are friendly to Judaism.

The general pattern among most of these groups is that they believe the Jewish people who exist today are at best only a small percent of the actual descendants of the Israelites, and at worst are demonic imposters who mislead the world about the word of God. Each of these groups independently sees themselves as the true descendants of Jacob, and claim the mantle of being an Israelite for themselves alone. None of these groups recognizes the validity of the other groups.

See also: History of ancient Israel and Judah, Bible, The Bible and history

External links