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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.

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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 lost tribes of Israel

The lost tribes of Israel were the tribes of the northern Kingdom of Israel deported by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. They are presumed to have mixed with the surrounding population, and are lost to history.

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 LDS church and the British Israelism of others, and Herbert W. Armstrong's teachings mentioning that 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.

British Israelitism was not originally anti-Semitic, even though its successor ideology today forms the basis of anti-Semitic groups such as Christian Identity. In some sense, early British Israelites could be regarded as philo-Semitic, and even today, other, similar ideologies are at least neutral. British Israelism has among its tenets that the British Empire was to usher in the millennial reign of peace.

See below for a discussion of movements based on "Israelism".

The myth of the ten lost tribes

A common belief, among both Jews and Christians, is that there are ten lost tribes of Israel. To understand the issue, however, one must first note that there is no tribe of Joseph. Instead, in the Bible we read that Isaac gave a blessing such that there would be an inheritance for Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. But note the math: 12 - 1 (Joseph) + 2 (Ephraim and Manasseh) = 13.

The people today known as Jews are descended from those who lived in the southern half of ancient Israel (and, of course, from those who converted to Judaism since that time.) Most people mistakenly think 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, it 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

The Jews are the descendants of the tribes of Kingdom of Judah, as well as refugees from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Thus, today's Jews can be considered Israelites, as they are the only distinct ethnic group descended from the Israelite tribes that has maintained its identity. 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.

Whatever the 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 sometimes popularly identified as Israelites themselves. 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.

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.

Anti-semitic pseudo-Israelite religions and cults

Ironically, there are many anti-semitic groups which claim to be only "true" Israelites. One examples of these Anti-Semitic groups is the British Israelites; another example is the Black Israelites of New York City, who preach hate-speech towards Jews in particular, and towards white people in general. Perhaps the most brazenly anti-semitic of these groups is 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.

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