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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Did God lose ten tribes of Israel?

As my last post dealt with the question of God's perspective on refugees and immigrants, I thought that it would be a good time to talk about a book I've been reading. The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Published by Oxford University Press, 2009) by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Professor of History and Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, is an interesting read for anyone who has been exposed to the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong relative to the modern identity of the ten "lost" tribes of Israel.

If there was ever any doubt, Benite makes it very clear that Mr. Armstrong was not the first person to embark on a quest to find out what happened to the tribes of Israel who were defeated and carried into captivity by the Assyrians. In fact, not only was he not the first person to "discover" their fate, this book places Mr. Armstrong's efforts in this regard into the context of a historical phenomenon that has spanned thousands of years, the entire globe and the work of many people!

Benite summarizes his book as being "about the messengers, visionaries, and dreamers who over the centuries have searched for the lost tribes - through scholarship and travel, through both scientific and religious means." He went on to say that his book "is particularly concerned with the speculation (emphasis mine) that has evolved over the past two millennia over the precise identity and location of the ten lost tribes."

Of course, from the perspective of archeologists and historians, the first question is: Were ten tribes of the Hebrews ever really lost? In answering that question, Benite and other scholars have examined the biblical accounts of Israel and its downfall, contemporaneous Assyrian accounts of what happened to them, the subsequent analysis of historians and other interested parties, archeological discoveries in the Middle East and other places, and the role that romance and legend have played in determining the fate of the Israelites. When one puts all of these seemingly disparate threads together, the answer that emerges is this: most of the people from the ten tribes who constituted the northern kingdom were never really lost.

Benite points out that the numbers listed in both the biblical and Assyrian accounts indicate that only a portion of the population of the northern kingdom was removed by the Assyrians. The archeological evidence available to us from that period confirms this conclusion. Moreover, the Bible itself confirms that not all of the people of Israel were removed from the Promised Land (see the account of King Josiah's reforms that included the Israelites who had survived the Assyrian deportation in II Chronicles 34:1-10).

Unfortunately, for Mr. Armstrong and his followers, the only source that mattered was the scriptural one - all others were considered to be irrelevant and/or so inferior as to be of no use or consequence in determining the fate of the Israelites. However, it is now the opinion of a large portion of modern scriptural critics that much of the "history" of the Ten Tribes was manufactured and/or modified by Jewish writers with an agenda many years after the actual events relating to those people had transpired (remember the Kingdom of Judah survived the Kingdom of Israel by well over one hundred years). Indeed, from the accounts of I/II Samuel, I/II Kings and I/II Chronicles, it is clear that the Jewish authors of these materials drew on older sources and interpreted them in the light of their own times and circumstances (notice that, at the end of each king's reign, we are told that "the rest" of their acts are recorded in other books).

Context is critical to properly evaluating and interpreting the scriptural accounts of this period. We must remember that the Jewish priests and religious scholars who authored these accounts were writing from the perspective of the post-Babylonian exile of their own people. As a consequence, they were motivated to explain/interpret history in a way that comported with their own reality. Hence, their stories about the origins of the Hebrew people and nations (and their decline, fall, captivity and exile) were made to conform to their view of God and their belief that their tragic and tortured history must represent Divine punishment for the sins of their ancestors. After all, the story of the Israelites is one of loss, separation and alienation.

Benite describes it thus: "The sense of loss is embedded in the historical core of the story. The ten tribes fleetingly appear in the biblical narrative only to disappear definitively from it thereafter. The story begins with the tearing apart of a whole people into two, vividly and viscerally echoed in the tearing of Jeroboam's robe, and continues with the deportation of one part to somewhere else. How are the pieces to be put back together? The sense of loss that pervades the story derives not so much from any termination of the tribes, but rather from their ongoing - but unreachable - existence. This, then, is the true and most wrenching loss of the story - the history of this unknown-but-known and missing people, which is unfolding in a distant-but-close and unfound place. As the history of the remaining children of Israel, the people of Judah, unfolds, unfolding silently alongside it is the ever-present if unknown history of the missing tribes."

As Benite goes on to point out, this sense of loss has engendered a great deal of interest within the Judeo-Christian communities down through the centuries in finding their missing brethren. He talks about how the search for the "Lost Tribes" became global in nature, and how the Greek and Roman notions of ecumene (oecumene/oikoumene - the known or inhabited world) influenced that search. The Israelites were always just beyond reach - just out of sight, constantly wandering around the globe.

As Benite points out, this has generated all kinds of speculation regarding the fate of the Israelites. He talks at some length about the rabbinic traditions which placed the missing tribes in or just beyond "Sambayton." Likewise, as I have already noted, he talks about the influence of the Greek and Roman notions of the known world in placing the Israelites at the ends of that map (in Spain, China and Ethiopia). He also talks at great length about the roles that certain myth-makers, story-tellers and explorers have played through the centuries in expanding the number of places across the globe where the Israelites might be found. Benite also recounts the story of how the speculation concerning the origins of the Native Americans led to the conclusion by many that they were the descendants of the Lost Tribes (included in this section is some of the story of Mormonism).

Finally, Benite arrives at a discussion of the development of Anglo-Israelism (the belief that the peoples of the English-Speaking world are the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh). He talked about how Richard Brothers (1757-1823) was one of the first modern proponents of the notion, and how he eventually ended up in an insane asylum (which, oddly enough, did not impede his writing on the subject or the growth of his following). Benite wrote: "Thus originated Anglo, or British, Israelism - the belief that the Anglo-Saxons (and related Europeans) are the descendants of the ten lost tribes, a superior chosen race, destined to rule the world. The movements proponents and opponents - in the United States and in England - focus on Anglo racial supremacy. The pamphlets, sermons, and books that this movement generates to this day are numerous and in most cases repetitive."

He continued: "As we have seen, invisibility has been one of the markers of the ten tribes' exile, and it was often contrasted with the visibility of the Jews. In different contexts, this idea was expressed or implied in varying ways. Brothers took the idea to a new height: the invisibility of the ten tribes was caused by their 'loss of Israelite memory' and by the fact that other traditions or 'genealogical manuscripts' - false pedigrees - covered their real identity...Finding the ten tribes now meant revealing the true identity of the Britons/Anglo-Saxons. This notion supplemented that of a British 'return' to Jerusalem." Benite went on to discuss just how popular these notions became in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Thus, although he mentions Herbert Armstrong's The United States and Britain in Prophecy in his bibliography, it is clear that Mr. Armstrong's contribution came rather late in the story of the search for what became of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

Benite concluded his work by returning to the overarching theme of his story: "The loss of the tribes, this 'huge tear that does not heal,' has spoken to and mobilized thousands of people across different times, places, and contexts, animating them to create different worlds - temporal, human, and physical. It is loss, then, that has, more than any other of its features, made the story of the ten tribes a truly global story and its history truly a world history. But ever nested within this profound loss and absence has been its mobilizing corollary: the idea of restitution, redemption, and wholeness." Perhaps Benite has at last captured the ultimate truth of the story: that God has (or someday will) redeemed that which was lost.

At any rate, the story continues to be relevant to the modern world. After all, God's instructions to the Israelites about their treatment of "strangers" was based on their own experiences as refugees/immigrants/aliens/strangers in a foreign land. Thus, the story of this dispersed people, and the hope for their being found and returned to their original home, continues to resonate in our world.

For believers, it is implicit in Benite's thesis that God never LOST the Israelites. We may continue to speculate about what happened to them, but God has always had them right before "His" eyes! Which, in the final analysis, makes our speculation a bit superfluous doesn't it?

1 comment:

  1. In a private e-mail response to this post, one of my friends commented: "
    If you add DNA research into the mix, the conclusion is inescapable: BI is little more than wishful thinking.
    Psychologically speaking, we all want to feel special. And sometimes we want to feel more special than others."