Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. His new book, The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History, looks at the legendary story of the ten lost tribes of Israel and offers a unique prism through which to view the many facets of encounters between cultures, the processes of colonization, and the growth of geographical knowledge. In the excerpt from the introduction below, we learn why God scattered the tribes.
In the beginning, there was one unified kingdom under the great kings, David and Solomon, in the land of Israel, home of the twelve tribes, who had descended from the third patriarch, Jacob. Things were good under Solomon and the kingdom enjoyed prosperity and many years of peace. However, as Solomon aged, he began to sin. He married foreign women and worshipped their gods. He even built altars for these gods in Jerusalem, next to the temple he himself had built for the Lord God. As a result, God becomes angry with him and sends his messenger Ahijah the Shilonite to a “mighty man of valor” from the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam, son of Nebat. He is to lead the Ephraimites out of the kingdom and tear it into two.
As the biblical account has it, on his way out of Jerusalem, Jeroboam encounters Ahijah, who in a dramatic gesture tears his own new garment into twelve pieces. He then turns to Jeroboam: “take thee ten pieces: for thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee.” Ahijah explains that one tribe, Judah, will remain in the hands of the Davidic house, “for my servant David’s sake and for Jerusalem’s sake, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.” The prophet soon repeats this message, again speaking of God’s plan to divide up the united Davidic kingdom: “But I will take the kingdom out of his son’s hand and will give unto thee even ten tribes”.
This prophecy is the first mention in the biblical narrative of the “ten tribes” – indeed, it coins the term, which appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible of the New Testament. Here, it appears twice within a few verses. God chooses a man specifically from the tribe of Ephraim for the job of leading the ten tribes. Ephraim and Manasseh, sons of Jacob’s most beloved lost son, Joseph, receive a deathbed blessing from the patriarch. Like Judah, they belong in the category of “blessed tribes.” But while both of them are blessed, in a significant dramatic gesture, Jacob crosses his arms and places his right (indicating greater blessing) hand on the head of his youngest grandson – Ephraim.
Ahijah’s prophecy quickly becomes reality. Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, is far less smart than his father and grandfather. He rules tyrannically and foolishly and abuses the dominion over the rest of the tribes given to the tribe of Judah. Schisms and unrest spread among the people of the kingdom. Armed with God’s promise, Jeroboam rebels and leads his tribe of Ephraim to secede from the united Davidic kingdom, creating a separate dominion in the northern part of the Holy Land. Nine other tribes follow him, and the Ephraimite monarchy becomes the kingdom of Israel, home of the ten tribes. The great united kingdom of Israel no longer exists. Instead, there are the smaller Israel and Judah. The new Israelite kingdom controls an expanse of land from a point only a few kilometers north of Jerusalem to the mountains of Lebanon. In the south, the house of David remains with only two tribes, Judah and its smaller neighbor, Benjamin, and wth the temple in Jerusalem, which is still the cultural and religious center of all twelve tribes.
But the story does not end there. Fearing that the people of the new secessionist kingdom might revert to Judah’s dominion when they go to worship in Jerusalem, Jeroboam decides to build a new center for worship within the boundaries of his won domain. The Bible tells us that he “took two calves of gold” and said to the people: “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold they gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt”. Jeroboams’s political and cultural shrewdness proves to be grave error with everlasting consequences. Worshipping the two calves is the “original sin” of the ten tribes, and it never leaves them…
In a typical burst of wrath, God vows to destroy not only the clan of Jeroboam, but his entire kingdom. The same Ahijah the Shilonite delivers another horrifying prophecy: “For the Lord shall smite Israel as a reed is shaken in the water and he shall root up Israel out of this good land which he gave to their fathers and shall scatter them beyond the river because they have made their graves provoking the Lord to anger”. This banishment form the divine domain, perhaps a historical recasting and transposition of the story of the expulsion from Eden, is crucial in the later formulations of the tribes’ location. It would later be come to be understood as expulsion from the inhabited civilized world.
In the wake of Ahijah’s prophecy, the Israelite kingdom is plunged into 200 years of political turbulence that culminate in its destruction. The house of Jeroboam falls first, and the kingdom sees many dynasties rise and fall. None of the kings removes the golden calves that had made God so angry. On the contrary, they begin worshipping even more foreign gods. The country continues to suffer from chronic political instability. Israel’s end finally comes when the Assyrian Empire, the “Rod of God,” as the prophet Isaiah so loved to call it, conquers Israel and deports its people. The biblical narrative laconically reports, “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away into Assyria and places them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan and in the cities of the Medes”.
The authors of 2 Kings hasten to remind the reader why it all happened: because Israel had sinned against God and deserted him. “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and remove them out of his sight; there was none left but the tribe of Judah only”….