“And in that day…the strayed who are in the land of Assyria…shall come and worship G-d on the holy mount, in Jerusalem (Isaiah 27:13)”
The mystery surrounding the vanishing of the Ten Tribes and their current whereabouts is nowhere near unraveled. Although recent studies into the topic have picked up the gauntlet, it is still shrouded in mystery.
Even the legends we have about their whereabouts are mysterious, or perhaps even mystical: Somewhere beyond the magical Sambation River , named for its impassable torrential currents which only settle on the Sabbath, effectually undermining any attempt to cross it during the week— as the Lost Tribes beyond it are all Sabbath-observant. Thus, they are in effect cut off from the rest of civilization. Google Earth, anyone?
While I cannot comment on that tradition, I would like to revisit the story of the exile itself, and raise some questions and usable aspects for a conversation about the Ten Lost Tribes.
In my first article in this series, “Wine and Prophecy: The Rebirth of Shomron”, I discussed the basic biblical narrative. From passages of Assyrian and Babylonian chronologies, as well as verses in Jeremiah and in the Talmud, it appears that the story isn’t as simple as it seems.
In this article, I will explore three areas:
- Factoids from Assyrian and Babylonian records.
- Lost or amongst us?
- What hat did they wear? Implications towards religious practice.
Assyrian and Babylonian Records
First Waves of Assyria
The appearance of Assyria on the Biblical scene is very early on, and helps us relate to the names of important cities pertinent to excavations in Ancient Near Eastern archaeology: Babylon, Akkad (Akkadian), Nineveh, Kalah (Calah, Kalhu, etc), Uruk (Erekh), etc:
Kush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.
He was a mighty hunter by the grace of G-d; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of G-d.”
The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Kalneh in the land of Shinar.
From that land Asshur went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Kalah, and Resen between Nineveh and Kalah, that is the great city. (Gen 10:8-12)
A visit to any major museum containing Assyrian or Babylonian artifacts is bound to have references to some of these cities, which are the biblical setting of many stories.
First Mention of the Kings of Israel
The Assyrian Empire came on the scene before the Kingdom of Israel became subjugated to, and ultimately destroyed by, the Assyrian Empire in stages. For example, King Menahem, who ruled in Samaria a few years before the first exile, paid tribute to Tiglath Pileser III (II Kings 15:19-20), which appears on a royal stele in the Israel Museum. But this is from when the Assyrian Empire started expanding quickly and aggressively, of what is called the Neo-Assyrian Empire period.
In Assyrian record, earlier kings of Israel are mentioned paying tribute to the kings Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, when Assyria was not in this expansion phase, but merely had dominance over some areas in Syria, which was short-lived (Van de Mieroop, M. p. 242-244).
In the Assyrian Kurkh Monolith, attributed to Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, currently in the British Museum, Ahab King of Israel appears, and the House of Omri.
In the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, also in the British Museum, King Yehu prostrates before the king (image below), escorted by tribute bearers. Both these kings lived roughly a century before the Neo-Assyrian Empire came on the scene.
Phoenicia and the Rebellion of Israel
The Neo-Assyrian involvement with Israel and Judah came when, according to II Kings 16:5, Kings Rezin of Aram (Damascus) and Pekah of Israel formed a coalition against King Ahaz of Judah. Their coalition was intended to block Ahaz from joining the Assyrian Empire and to keep out its foreign influence, a move which had devastating consequences to both Aram and Israel.
Ahaz became vassal to Assyria (ibid, 7), and thus saved his skin from the attack of the former two kings. However, what is not mentioned in the Biblical account is that there was another king involved in this coalition (Cogan, M. p. 67-72): Hiram of Tyre. 
The Phoenician King, bearing a similar name to the earlier Hiram who assisted Solomon in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 5:15), was no newcomer on the scene. The kingdoms of Israel and Phoenicia were allies since back in Ahab’s time, who married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal of Tyre (I Kings 12:31). Besides building a house of worship for the Phoenician god Baal (ibid), Ahab also built himself an ivory house (II Kings 22:39). Fragments of ivory have been excavated in Ahab’s capital in ancient Samaria, known as the “Samaria Ivories”.
Back to our story – King Pekah of Israel is killed in a coup, and Hoshea assumed the throne (II Kings 15:30). According to Assyrian records, Hoshea was confirmed by Tiglath Pileser as king and vassal (Cogan M. p.72-76).
Hoshea rules Samaria for nine years (II Kings 17:1-6), while subjugated to Shalmaneser V. He is later caught sending an envoy to Egypt – a clear act of rebellion against Assyria – and is ultimately destroyed along with the deportation of the remainder of the Ten Tribes.
The surprise is that there was another king who takes credit for the capturing of Samaria. A king who is only mentioned once in the Bible, in relation to a campaign to Ashdod (Isaiah 20:1): Sargon II.
Sargon, who assumed the throne after Shalmaneser V, claims to have captured Samaria and been involved in the deportation process (Cogan p. 90-102). Even Babylonian chronicles attribute this capturing to him (Cogan, M. p. 209-211, 214). The subject of Sargon’s involvement in the region, and the way he records his campaign, is fascinating. For this article, as a segue into the next topic, I note just one point. While the initial campaign of Assyria Samaria, and its deportation, was initiated by Shalmaneser, it was clearly taking place over a prolonged period of time, in which at least one more king, if not several, were involved.
Lost or Amongst Us?
How long did it take to deport the Ten Tribes?
Mass deportation, while having existed earlier in Assyria, is a hallmark of Neo-Assyrian conquests. Different levels existed, from the deportation of specialist craftspeople to assist in various building projects, to deportation of entire regions – depending on its level of defiance (Van de Mieroop, M. p. 230-236).
This practice had several strategic benefits to the Assyrian Empire, while providing labour and people to build and inhabit its new cities. It reduced the opposition in the peripheral territories, as rebellious populations were resettled in foreign environments where they needed imperial protection against local hostility. Moreover, they would not escape, as they were unfamiliar with the country. Nor did they have the territorial imperative of fighting for their homeland. Nor did they have an organic group of their countrymen who would band together, as they were dispersed over wide areas, to either side of the Assyrian Empire’s homeland (according to Prof. Ran Zadok of Tel Aviv U.).
Furthermore, the territories of deported people were selectively resettled with other groups when they were crucial for trade or for the production of goods. This means that deportation was done very strategically, based on the skills of the deportees, and the necessities of the empire. For example, an area best suited for agriculture would be settled by agrarian peoples, and not by nomads.
And lastly, the supervision and feeding of large numbers of people during a voyage of several months must have required enormous organization, surprisingly not recorded for us.
All of this points to an important fact: Deportation was a gradual, and expensive, bureaucratic and administrative process. The deportation of the Ten Tribes could not have been carried out all at once, and while the area was being repopulated with foreigners who will come to be known as the Samaritans (II Kings 17:24-34), it is highly likely that members of the Ten Tribes continued to inhabit their homeland for decades after the destruction.
As mentioned in my previous article, the Seder Olam attributes the deportation to Sennacherib.
The book of Ezra describes how, during the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Samaritans requested to assist in its building, noting that they have been integral to this land from the time of Esarhaddon (Ezra 4:2) – the successor of Sennacherib; while other nations’ presence is attributed to the last of the mighty Assyrian Kings – Ashurbanipal (ibid. 10)
All of this may help us understand how Jeremiah could fathomably have identified members of the Ten Tribes, and brought some of them back.
Jeremiah (3:6-26) describes a mission in which the prophet was sent to the north to bring back the lost tribes.
“Go, make this proclamation toward the North, and say: Turn back, O Rebel Israel—declares G-d. I will not look on you in anger, for I am compassionate—declares G-d; I do not bear a grudge for all time.”
Rav Yehuda Landy suggests that this was possible during the reign of Josiah King of Judah , since the Assyrian Empire was on a decline (p. 111). But this all points to a curious discussion about the preservation of some of the tribes in the nick of time. 
Are the Ten Tribes completely lost?
It is possible that those who remained suspended, awaiting deportation, had some interaction with, or influence from, Judea.
King Hezekiah (II Chro. ch. 30) sent invitations to Ephraim and Manasseh to join him in the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem, and some accepted the invitation, even staying in Judea.
The Talmud in Pesachim 4a  discusses how a person’s manner of speech may reveal an innate tribal association. (Writing this right after the public Torah reading of Vayechi, which describes the blessings of the various tribes, this seems quite timely.)
A certain man would regularly say whenever involved in conflict: Adjudicate my case [dunu dini]. The Sages said: Learn from it that he descends from the tribe of Dan, as it is written: “Dan will judge [ya-din] his people like one of the tribes of Israel” (Genesis 49:16).
The tribe of Dan was one of those exiled, as was Zebulun:
A certain man would regularly walk and say: The bushes on the seashore are cypresses, i.e., items located by the sea are more beautiful than those found in other places. They examined his lineage and found that he descends from the tribe of Zebulun, as it is written: “Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore” (Genesis 49:13).
All of these reveal some cracks in the notion that they are completely gone. But the mystery of the vanishing of the majority of their contingencies, still remains one of the big mysteries of Jewish History.
What Hat did They Wear? Implications towards Religious Practice
If you were to go on an expedition to find the Lost Tribes, what would you look for? What traditions, rituals or stories would you expect to find, that might shed light on Jewish origins?
Wait, Jewish origins?
After 2,000 years, we have grown used to identifying ourselves as Jews—of Judah.
What would the other Ten Tribes think of that?
Remember that the Ten Tribes succeeded from the Kingdom of Judah, actively denouncing any association with the Kingdom of Judah (I Kings 12:16). In fact, a member of the Kingdom of Israel would have probably taken offense at being called “Jew”.
“Are you talking to me?”
“I’m not from Judah—how dare you? I’m from Zebulun / Dan / Naphtali / Gad / Asher…”
Two kingdoms, geographically separated, ideologically unassociated, and often at war—for over two centuries. We are talking about different entities. And speaking of religion, the Kingdom of Israel on the surface seems to be a largely secular-oriented kingdom [Disclaimer: The Talmud and Midrashic literature record many significant interactions, discussions and events from the Kings of Israel, and the populace of Northern Israel demonstrating how they were very much in dialogue with tradition and religious practice. I would not dare subtract from that, and hope to do it better justice in the future]. The foreign influences, political marriages—the subject of much prophetic rebuke—and far-reaching trade and conquests, distinguished Israel from the more traditional Judah, with the Temple of Solomon in its capital, Jerusalem.
As for the Temple: For a long period of time, the kingdom of Israel forbade the pilgrimage to the Temple, seeing it as a threat to its own stability. 
And what is Judaism, if not a ritualistic “survival kit” for Jews in the diaspora, maintaining its adherers’ association with their land and tradition while in exile, with no land nor sovereignty. Most of what we would call religion, be it standardized prayers, blessings or rituals, and even the codification of the Oral Law into the Mishna and Talmud, were created after the Assyrian Exile, primarily by people of Judah.
And to really drive the point home. The method of Assyrian deportation was carefully constructed to insure that repopulated groups do not congregate in any meaningful way that would enable rebellion. The exile itself was so aggressive and abrupt, what means of scholarship would have survived in any form, and with the time required, to enable it to contemplate a religion?
All of that considered, what percentage of the society was learned enough to maintain a strong identity?
The Babylonian Exile was largely tranquil, once Jews settled in Babylon. Jews had a lot of autonomy, and scholarship was maintained, with the wherewithal to contemplate this newfound existence without a land or a Temple.
So what would you find, if you were to identify a descendant of any of the Tribes?
It is not clear, but the likelihood of finding anything that would be recognizable to us is highly unlikely . That is probably why the Return of the Ten Lost Tribes is the stuff of Messianic proportions.
The fate of the Ten Tribes is tragic, indeed. And in direct proportion, so is the rebuilding of their land.
This is why the rebuilding of Shomron today is so bewildering, marvelous and miraculous.
In the spirit of this past week’s public Torah reading, which describes the death of Rachel on the road, foreshadowing the exile of her children. But there is still home, and her children will indeed come back home again.
Thus said G-d: A cry is heard in Ramah— Wailing, bitter weeping— Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted For her children, who are gone.
Thus said G-d: Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor —declares G-d: They shall return from the enemy’s land.
And there is hope for your future —declares G-d: Your children shall return to their home. (Jeremiah 31:14-16)
 Cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah, 469.
 See also Cogan’s book Bound for Exile, Jerusalem: Carta 2013, which is a continuation of The Raging Torrent, and which focuses on the material about the exiles in their respective locations.
Note on the second edition of The Raging Torrent, for the connoisseur: There are significant differences between Cogan’s first and second editions, in terms of the sources used for Assyrian royal documents. I have asked the author about it. Prof. Cogan told me that Luckenbill’s two volume book included translations of the documents that were known in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was published in 1926-1927. However, more studies have emerged over the following decades and many more documents published, requiring revised translations. That is why he instead used Leichty for Esarhaddon, and more.
 Cf. Talmud Megillah 14b.
 The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (10:3) discusses the place of the Ten Tribes in the world to come, and the possibility of their return. Rashi points out that Jeremiah only brought back some of them.
 Translation taken from sefaria.org.
 Unfortunately, in stark contrast to the Olympics, contemporary with this period of time. The Olympics were panhellenistic rituals in honor of Zeus and Hera. Greek cities which were at war with each other, would lay down their arms, and compete for glory, through sports!
 I owe thanks to Rabbi Joey Dweck for this perspective.
Cogan, M. The Raging Torrent, Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. Second Updated & Expanded Edition. Carta, Jerusalem (2008).
לנדי, י. ואלה דברי ימי ירמיהו. תקופת ירמיהו הנביא: סקירה היסטורית, גיאוגרפית וארכיאולוגית
קולמוס הפצת ספרים, ירושלים (2016).י
Van de Mieroop, M. A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 B.C. Second edition. Blackwell Publishing (2007).