QUESTION: On several occasions I have heard mention of the “Ten Lost Tribes.” I was told that this referred to the ten northern tribes of Israel. Were they really lost? And if so, how can certain prophetic scriptures regarding Israel still be fulfilled?

ANSWER: The ten northern tribes were not really lost. That old myth, which is found in Jewish and Christian tradition and is exploited by some cults, is based on a misunderstanding of Scripture.

The theory of the ten lost tribes

The theory supposes that when the Assyrians captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., ten of the twelve tribes were carried off into exile, where their identity was totally obliterated. The theory, however, ignores many other biblical facts. Assyria did invade and capture some of the residents of the Northern Kingdom, but not all of them. By that time, many people from all of the tribes had moved into the Southern Kingdom. In (II Chronicles 11:1–17 NKJV) we read that after the civil war that split Israel into two parts:

The Levites left their suburban lands and their possession, and came to Judah and Jerusalem; for Jeroboam and his sons had cast them off from executing the priest’s office unto the Lord; …And after them, out of all the tribes of Israel, such as set their hearts to seek the LORD God of Israel came to Jerusalem, to sacrifice unto the LORD God of their fathers. So they strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and made Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, strong.

If the theory of the Ten Lost Tribes were correct, this would already have occurred by the first century, in the time of Jesus’ birth. Yet in the New Testament we read that Jesus and his family were from the tribe of Judah (Matthew 1:2–16 NKJV); Saul of Tarsus was from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1 NKJV); the priests and Levites were from the tribe of Levi (John 1:19 NKJV); but Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, was from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:32 NKJV).

All twelve tribes

There is other New Testament evidence, as well. Saul of Tarsus, who wrote much of the New Testament, also considered that representatives of all twelve tribes were extant and identifiable in his day. He wrote in Acts 26:6–7 NKJV, “And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers, unto which promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God day and night, hope to come.”

There is an entire New Testament book addressed specifically to the twelve tribes of Israel then living. The Book of James begins, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.”

The 144,000 witnesses

Some hold to the opinion that all twelve tribes must continue to exist because God will use them in the end times. Scripture designates special witnesses near the time of Yeshua’s return who will number 144,000 – 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes (Revelation 7:4 NKJV). Even in the New Jerusalem the names of the twelve tribes will be inscribed on the twelve gates of the city.

Perhaps most important, however, we have the story of Jesus himself. When the apostles asked him about their future reward for following him, he answered, “Ye who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Not lost

No, the ten tribes are not lost. The Almighty could never lose anything, let alone the “apple of his eye,” those whom he has inscribed on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:16 NKJV). Contrary to some racist theories, the ten tribes did not migrate en masse to the British Isles nor to the United States. They are not American Indians, or British Israelites, or Jehovah’s Witnesses (or any other cult). They all existed at the time of Jesus and were identifiable as Jews. They exist today and will continue to exist. Most Jewish people today may not be sure of their tribal heritage, but there is One who knows. He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, and should it suit his purpose, he is able to reveal it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This answer was based on a Bible study written by Loren Jacobs while he was serving with Jews for Jesus. Loren is currently engaged in independent Jewish missionary work in the Detroit area.

This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.