Bible Stories for Grownups -

The Lost Tribes of Israel

1 Kings 12:1-17, The Kingdom is Divided
1 Kings 12:25-33, 16:15-26, the Sin of Jeroboam
2 Kings 17:1-24, Assyria Deports the Ten Tribes
Which Ten Tribes Were Lost
Ezra 4:1-24, The Lost Tribes of Israel

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1 Kings 12:1-17, The Kingdom is Divided (8/28/2009)

The ten lost tribes of Israel went to Africa. Or Ireland. Or Burma or India. Or North America, or possibly Antarctica or Mars. In the words of NOVA, "the mystery of what happened to the ten tribes has deepened inexorably."

Actually, I think the truth of the matter is to be found in the words of Star Trek's Dr. Leonard McCoy: "He's dead, Jim." There might be some DNA left somewhere, but the tribes are gone.

So who or what were the ten tribes, and how did they get lost? Why didn't the other two tribes get lost along with them?

For a complete answer, we would need to go way back to Solomon in 1 Kings 11, which mercifully I'm going to spare you right now, partly because the story of Solomon has been requested and is on the list for a later batch of emails, and partly because the real action starts with Solomon's son Rehoboam, so that's where we're going to start, too.

Prior to the time of Saul, the governmental form of Israel was an amphictyony (a word I'm using just to impress you), which is, roughly, a loose confederation of tribes with a common religion. Each of the 12 tribes had its own elders, who were responsible for ensuring that the Law of Moses was followed. During the time of the Judges, one or a few tribes might also have a Judge, who was a charismatic religious and military leader, who often also ensured that the Law of Moses was followed.

From the reign of Saul through today's passage shortly after the death of Solomon all the tribes were united under a king. Israel didn't have an awfully long tradition of reign by kings, about 100 years, so when Rehoboam turned out to be ... ill-advised, shall we say, just about everybody took off. Two tribes, Rehoboam's own tribe of Judah and the small tribe of Benjamin, which had been mostly assimilated into Judah by that time, stayed together under Rehoboam. God appointed a new king for the ten tribes, Jeroboam the son of Nebat. It took us only 87 years to fall into a civil war, so I guess the united kingdom did pretty well for itself on that score. The difference is that we patched things up, but the separation between the South, Judah, and the North, Israel, was permanent in ancient Israel.

1 Kings 12:25-33, 16:23-25, The Sin of Jeroboam(8/31/2009)

What I want to talk about today is the "Sin of Jeroboam." The complete kingdom of Israel was only about 160 miles long from north to south. The rules said you had to go to Jerusalem to make your sacrifices to God, and since it wasn't all that far, most people went to Jerusalem several times a year for the major feasts. Jeroboam was concerned in spite of God's promise to the contrary that the people of the 10 tribes would start drifting back to Rehoboam just because they were in Jerusalem five times a year. He decided to set up shrines in the northern and southern parts of his kingdom, at Dan and Beth-El, so that people could worship without leaving their new country. He also appointed priests from outside the tribe of Levi. It's not 100% clear to me that Jeroboam intended for the calves to be gods; maybe he only meant for them to be representations of God, although that was bad enough. Either way, the calves and non-Levitical priests soon led the people into idolatry.

God was offended that Jeroboam had so little confidence in his promises, and even more offended about the idols. He promptly sent Jeroboam a message that his dynasty would not last (1 Kings 14:7-11). Unfortunately for Israel, none of the kings who followed Jeroboam were willing to give up the shrines at Dan and Beth-El, and every one of them including Zimri, who only reigned a week and was under siege for most of that time was criticized for continuing in the Sin of Jeroboam.

2 Kings 17:1-24, Assyria Deports the Ten Tribes (9/1/2009)

Assassination was a typical method of becoming a king of Israel, but that was the least of their crimes. The Sin of Jeroboam which was probably a perverted form of worship of God looks pale to us compared with outright worship of other gods (including male and female cult prostitution and self-mutilation), child sacrifice, and black magic. Nevertheless, the Sin of Jeroboam was the root cause of all the trouble the nation got into. God sent many prophets to the kings and people of Israel, but they ignored some and killed the rest. They never gave up the shrines at Dan and Beth-El, and their idolatrous practices became more and more pervasive. Eventually God had enough and called on the king of Assyria to come and take them away. The 10 tribes were dispersed and lost.

The king of Assyria apparently was also having trouble with various other subject peoples, and he brought them into Samaria to get them away from their own lands and gods. Remember these people, because we'll see them again tomorrow.

Which Ten Tribes Were Lost (8/31/2009)

Jacob had 12 sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin, and these 12 sons gave rise to the 12 tribes of Israel (Genesis 49). However, Jacob had adopted the sons of Joseph down in Egypt (Genesis 48:5), and these two sons gave rise to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, which as a practical matter replaced the tribe of Joseph. The "people of Joseph" was still mentioned now and again, but when Moses and Joseph partitioned the Promised Land (Numbers 32, Joshua 14-19), the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were treated on an equal footing with the others. Meantime, God had set apart the tribe of Levi to be priests and lay Temple workers. They received no tribal lands (Deuteronomy 10:8-9); instead, they had 48 cities scattered throughout the lands of the other tribes. Thus 12 tribes got lands.

When God chose Jeroboam to take control of most of the kingdom after the death of Solomon, he gave him 10 tribes and left Rehoboam "one tribe" (1 Kings 11:31-32). You might think that Rehoboam got Judah, God got Levi, and Jeroboam got everything else. That's what it says in 1 Kings 12:20, but then in 12:21 and 23 it's clear that Benjamin also went to Rehoboam. By this time, Benjamin was tiny and had been assimilated into Judah, so maybe that's "one," but what about the Levites? To the Western way of thinking, Rehoboam got all or part of three tribes Judah, Benjamin, and the cities of the Levites that were in the lands of Judah and Benjamin. To the Hebrew way of thinking, there always had been and always would be 12 tribes, and Jeroboam got 10 of 'em: Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Ephraim, and Manasseh. Those are the ten tribes that were lost.

Ezra 4:1-24, The Lost Tribes of Israel (9/2/2009)

The idolatry and apostasy of the kingdom of Judah was just as bad as that of the kingdom of Israel, with the sole exception that they did not commit the Sin of Jeroboam. God was fed up with Judah, too, but he had promised David that he would always have a descendant on the throne of the kingdom, and he had promised Solomon that he could retain one tribe. Finally God sent the Jews into exile to think about their sins. When they came back, they had two ideas firmly in mind: When they returned from the Exile, the Jews initially got a warm welcome from the Samaritans the descendants of the people the king of Assyria had transplanted there. The Samaritans had been taken away from their own gods, so they had turned to the worship of God, in whose land they were. Unfortunately, because of their adversarial history with the Samaritans who were Jews, and because the Samaritans didn't follow all the same rules for worship that the Jews did, and because foreigners are trouble, the returning Jews coldly rebuffed the Samaritans' overtures. This led to some surprisingly modern-sounding bureaucratic memos and to even more trouble between the Jews and the Samaritans.

If you think your church's actions don't matter in the long run of history, just remember that today the Samaritan people is down to about 750 individuals.

More Bible Stories for Grownups

Old Testament Stories

New Testament Stories



The Tower of Babel

Noah's Ark

Jacob and Esau

Stories About Joseph

Moses Parts the Red Sea

Joshua Parts the Jordan

Samuel's Call

David and Jonathan - Part 1

David and Jonathan - Part 2

The Lost Tribes of Israel

Hezekiah's Reprieve

Ruth, Jonah, and Divorce

Feeding of the 5000

Three Parables of Jesus

Six Short Stories About Jesus


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