A Rabbi Looks at the Lost Tribes of Israel
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number (Jeremiah23:3 NIV).
Among the great mysteries studied by historians and theologians for centuries has been the fate of the proclaimed Lost Tribes of Israel. We know the outcome of the Jews taken from the Kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) to Babylon, because most of the Jewish People living in Israel today are descendants of those who were taken to Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar and then returned during the reign of Cyrus.
But the Assyrians carried the ten tribes that comprised Israel’s Northern Kingdom into captivity more than one hundred years earlier, and they seem to have vanished from memory into the mists of legend.
God’s Faithfulness to Israel
Studying the first few books of the Old Testament, you quickly become acquainted with many of Israel’s ancient and openly hostile neighbors, who worked hard and long to completely erase this tiny nation from the face of the earth. Yet Israel remains in spite of the fact that their conquerors scattered the Jewish People throughout the world.
Even before Israel was reestablished as a country in 1948, these dispersed Children of Israel somehow retained their heritage and cultural identity. One of the great evidences for God’s faithfulness to His word is the fact that they were not completely absorbed into the cultures of the nations that surrounded them.
In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. —Isaiah 11:11
This amazing promise refers to the Children of Abraham being banished to Africa, Asia, and the islands of the sea—the Bible calls them the Outcasts of Israel.
The tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, and Manasseh make up what is now referred to as “The Lost Tribes of Israel.” These tribes disappeared from the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures following the repeated invasions, victories, enslavements, and deportations by the Neo-Assyrian Empire between 740 and 722 B.C. The tribes of Judah, Levi, and Benjamin are not included in this people group.
Of course, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel aren’t really lost. God knows where they are, and He is bringing them together, along with the dispersed of Judah, who have also been outcasts since the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. They are wandering in places outside of their home, and God is committed to bringing all of the Tribes home to Israel.
The Search Begins in Africa
The story of the search for the “Lost Tribes” begins in Africa. Though the subject of the ten tribes’ fate has been the source of speculation for centuries, little hard evidence emerged to document any of the claims of the various people groups either rumored or claiming to be descended from the Northern Kingdom.
Then in the 1980s many people were surprised to learn that Israel had secretly airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of Ethiopia in Operations Moses, Joshua, and Solomon. Who were these people, and how did they get to Africa?
The presence of a large group of people in Ethiopia who were following ancient Jewish customs was an open secret. It did not receive much attention in the Western press, but it had been the subject of much discussion among various Jewish rabbis and leaders. In the 1800s, representatives of the Beta Israel (House of Israel) met with key rabbis in dozens of countries to press their claim to being Jews.
In 1908, the chief rabbis of forty-five different countries issued a statement recognizing the legitimacy of the claim. And in 1975, the government of Israel recognized the Beta Israel as Jews, opening the way for them to come to Israel under the Law of Return.
But the government of Ethiopia was in turmoil. Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) was overthrown in a military coup whose leader instituted a Marxist government that was extremely hostile to the Jewish People. Leaders of the Beta Israel were jailed and persecuted, and the public teaching of Judaism was forbidden.
A massive famine in the early 1980s made the Ethiopian government desperate for Western aid. The United States leveraged the aid to get the government to agree to allow members of the Beta Israel to leave the country, and fly to Israel from neighboring Sudan.
In a six-week period between December 1984 and January 1985, some 8,000 people were airlifted to Israel. When news of the airlift broke, Arab governments pressured Sudan to halt the process. For the thousands left behind in Ethiopia, life was grim. They had left their homes to go to Israel, and were not allowed to return. Thousands still live today in squalor and abject poverty as a result.
It is to these precious Jews that Jewish Voice brings humanitarian aid in the form of food, clothing, medical, dental, and optical care in our free clinics several times each year.
We will return to Ethiopia yet again in late September of this year to proclaim Israel’s Messiah and host a medical outreach. Won’t you join us? I can guarantee that you will never be the same once you meet these wonderful people!
Dreams and Visions in India
Other Jewish People are scattered throughout parts of India, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and Bangladesh’s Chittagong District. These tribes had completely lost touch with their Jewish roots during centuries of exile in Asia. Yet, they continued in certain traditions that traced back to their Jewish heritage without understanding the connection.
Then, about 25 years ago, some of their leaders began having dreams and revelations regarding who they were as a people. Initially, they returned to the worship of one God, and although they had no copies of the Bible to read, many members of this tribe, particularly those living in the state of Mizoram, became Christians. They lived as Christians until the dreams revealed that they were in fact Jewish.
They reached out to members of the traditional Jewish Community and synagogues began to sprout up all over this area, including in the state of Manipur to the north.
The Bnei Menashe live in the mountainous region along the border between India and Myanmar. They believe they descended from the tribe of Manasseh. Some Jewish authorities recognize their claim, and several thousand have moved to Israel under the Law of Return.
According to the oral histories passed down through the tribe, they were captured by Assyria when the Nation of Israel was conquered. They were sent (or escaped, depending on the legend) to central Asia, eventually living for a time in China. About one hundred years after the birth of Yeshua, they came under persecution there and migrated to India, retaining their traditions and keeping the elements of their culture alive.
The people still sing songs about the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea, keep the Sabbath, wear tallits (prayer shawls), circumcise male children on the eighth day, and offer animal sacrifices.
Many of the Bnei Menashe converted to Christianity in the late 1800s due to missionary efforts in the region. But others kept to their tradition, and when the Nation of Israel was reborn in 1948, they began to seek official recognition as Jews. Unfortunately, many Jewish leaders refused to accept their claim because of their “conversions.”
DNA tests on the Menashe have not been conclusive. Most of the tests have not been submitted for scientific review, leaving their claims (both pro and con) subject to considerable doubt. The controversy continues, both in Israel and among the Menashe, over the truth of the claim that this is a “lost tribe.”
During 2005 and 2006, the Jewish religious leaders recognized a number of Menashe, and several hundred immigrated to Israel. But pressure from the Indian government and uncertainty following the Israeli pullout from Gaza (where most of the Menashe had settled) halted the process.
India is also home to the Bene Israel, a group whose Jewish DNA is not in question. In fact, markers in DNA samples from the Bene Israel are consistent with descendants of a small group of hereditary Israelite priests or Cohanim—those descended from Moses’ brother Aaron.
They now number less than eight thousand (most of them emigrated to Israel in the 1950s), but once, more than thirty thousand Jewish People lived in and around Mumbai (formerly Bombay).
Different stories are given as to how they arrived in India. The most common is that they are descendants of traders who were shipwrecked. They observed the Sabbath and circumcised their boys, but did not keep the festival of Hanukkah, leading many to speculate that their arrival in India actually pre-dated the destruction of the second Temple.
Some associate them with either the tribe of Zebulun or Asher because of their tradition of working as oil pressers and merchants. Others think they are Jews who fled persecution from various Arab governments.
The Future Gathering
As the different possible descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel are identified by science and modern research, the prophecy found in Jeremiah 23:3-8 is clearly at work in our world today—the re-gathering of the scattered sheep of the House of Israel to the Land of Promise.
Since the rebirth of Israel as a nation in 1948, millions of Jews from around the world have returned to their ancient homeland. The ancient prophecy that God gave through His prophet Jeremiah is being fulfilled before our very eyes.
Clearly, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other Old Testament prophets foresaw a time when the Jewish People would be gathered from the nations where they had been scattered and return to the Land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Today, this prophecy is being fulfilled at an extraordinary rate. I see this aliyah, or return of Jews to their biblical homeland, as an important sign that our Messiah’s coming is approaching.
Israel and World Redemption
God has preserved the Jewish People not only because of His love for and faithfulness to Abraham, but because Israel plays a vital role in world redemption. This includes both the first coming and return of His promised Redeemer, the Messiah.
Dozens of Bible passages clearly reveal the pivotal role of the Jewish People in the Last Days of planet earth. Note the words of Yeshua himself: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39).
Obviously, Messiah was speaking to the Jews who lived in the city of Jerusalem at that time. Some rejected Him then and many continue to reject Him to this day. Today they reject Him out of blindness. Tomorrow, they will recognize Him as Messiah when the blindness comes off of their eyes.
God Always Keeps His Promises
In the second chapter of Judges, the Angel of the Lord tells the Children of Israel, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you…’” (Judges 2:1). One of God’s great attributes is that He always keeps His promises.
He declared with absolute clarity that Israel will continue as a nation, and that He will remain faithful to the Jewish People in Jeremiah 31:35-37, “This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord Almighty is his name: ‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the Lord, ‘will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.’
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,’ declares the Lord.”
The last time I looked, the sun was shining by day and the moon by night. In view of this passage and many others, it is clear that God established the role of the Jewish People in His ultimate plan for Creation. It is God’s proven faithfulness to Israel over the millennia that gives us absolute confidence that He is and will remain faithful to us and will “complete the work that He began.”
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