Exploring the Legend of the Ten Lost Tribes

Throughout its long history, the myth of the 10 Lost Tribes has served as a kind of signpost, a spotlight illuminating the 'right’ path to take in response to the most complex existential questions of Jewish history.

Eli Yassif
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Eli Yassif

The legend of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, exiled from the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Assyrian King Shalmaneser V, is ancient. According to the narrative, the exiled Israelites were trapped behind the mysterious Sambation River, which rages with rapids and throws up sand stones six days a week and only stops flowing on the Sabbath − when Jews are not allowed to travel.

While it was regarded as merely a myth for many years − appearing in several written and oral versions − something striking occurred in the year 880 C.E. that left an imprint on Jewish consciousness for centuries to come. One day, a small, very dark-skinned Jew named Eldad showed up in the Jewish community of Kairouan, in modern-day Tunisia, claiming to be descended from the Tribe of Dan, one of the 10. He related fascinating accounts of the life and customs of this majority of the Jewish people that had disappeared. Of particular interest was the knowledge he claimed to have of early religious law and the archaic Hebrew that he spoke.

From this point onward, the existence of the 10 Lost Tribes was regarded as a fact, as something whose validity could be tested in reality. Where do the lost tribes reside? Perhaps in Central Asia or equatorial Africa?

Or − as according to hypotheses raised after the discovery of the New World − maybe in the Americas, so that the tribes are actually Native Americans? There are numerous hypotheses, fictions and hair-raising adventures associated with researchers and travelers who sought to reach these peoples, whether for anthropological, religious or emotional reasons.

Defining the story of the 10 Lost Tribes as a myth is often, and misleadingly, understood as an assertion that any attempts to identify the tribes will, by definition, not succeed because the story is, after all, an imaginary rather than a factual historical or anthropological one. But that is not why this story is one of the greatest myths of Jewish culture. Rather, its significance results from the fact that it illuminates some dark corners of Jewish consciousness, creates a narrative of support and encouragement when Jewish communities in the Diaspora have faced tough situations, and unequivocally through narrative technique, expresses a profoundly important point that has accompanied Jewish history since its inception: the nature of the Diaspora and the minority Jewish community’s attempt to confront a Muslim or Christian majority.

‘Carried over the waters’

As far as we know, the oldest source that refers to the myth is the Fourth Book of Esdras from the Jewish Apocrypha, written shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, toward the end of the 1st century C.E. This tradition interprets one of the central visions described in 2 Esdras 13:40-48 ‏(King James Version‏): “Those are the ten tribes, which were carried away prisoners out of their own land in the time of Osea the king, whom Salmanasar the king of Assyria led away captive, and he carried them over the waters, and so came they into another land. But they took this counsel among themselves, that they would leave the multitude of the heathen, and go forth into a further country, where never mankind dwelt, that they might there keep their statutes, which they never kept in their own land. And they entered into Euphrates by the narrow places of the river. For the most High then shewed signs for them, and held still the flood, till they were passed over. For through that country there was a great way to go, namely, of a year and a half; and the same region is called Arsareth ... But those that be left behind of thy people are they that are found within my borders.”

The odd, somewhat mysterious locution “Arsareth” ‏(translated from the Hebrew, it apparently means “other land”‏) appears to be a neutral expression describing a geographical relocation like any other emigration, having no other particular significance. But a later, medieval text, cited in the Midrash called Genesis Rabbati, echoes a much earlier tradition: “Genesis 30:24 states: ‘And she called his name Joseph, saying, “The Lord add to me another son.”’

Why was Benjamin called [an]other? To teach us he was other in the exile. Rabbi Yuda Bar Simon said, ‘The tribes of Judah and Benjamin did not go into the same exile as did the 10 Tribes. The 10 Tribes were exiled to beyond the Sambation River whereas Judah and Benjamin were scattered throughout many lands ... and the tribe of Ephraim and half the tribe of Manasseh are there... And they are vexed in spirit and dull of heart, they own horses, and have mercy on no one. They have no possessions, only a wealth of enemies, but they are so fierce one man [among them] can fight one thousand. But the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are scattered throughout many lands, making Benjamin other in its exile.’ Another opinion states that Benjamin imitates the deeds of others.”

This opinion, repeatedly stressing the “other land” motif of Fourth Esdras, is evidence of the multi-layered meaning of that phrase. Both sources clearly differentiate between two types of exile but do so in a diametrically opposed fashion: the exile of the tribes that set off for a distant land, beyond the river, which Fourth Esdras calls “Arsareth,” so that they could maintain their Jewish way of life, which differed greatly from the peoples among which they were exiled, versus Genesis Rabbati, in which the “other” exile was that of Judah and Benjamin.

This difference is not meaningless: While the Apocrypha attributes otherness to the land of the 10 Tribes, the Midrash projects otherness onto our own exile. That is, it is the very places that are part of our own lives that are “the other land,” and are subject to a process of estrangement and alienation.

According to the Midrash, the otherness of Judah and Benjamin’s exile consists of two features: The tribes are “scattered throughout many lands,” and they engage “in the deeds of others.” By way of these two characteristics, the Midrash defines “our” exile − that is, of the society in which the myth of the tribes was created and told. This distinction becomes even sharper when we are contrasted to the 10 Lost Tribes: Whereas we are “scattered throughout many lands,” and are therefore subject to the whims of the ruling majority, the life of the tribes is lived in a single territory in which they rule. Whereas we engage “in the deeds of others” − that is, we adapt ourselves to the conduct and customs of the nations among which we live, but the 10 Tribes live in a land no one ever lived in before, and can therefore maintain their ancient customs unimpeded, without having to take into account “the deeds of others.”

An unusual literary episode that survived in “The Hebrew Alexander Romance,” a narrative from the 12th or early 13th century, tells of how Alexander the Great and his army, in the course of a long military conquest, reached the Sambation River and crossed it on the Sabbath. The king sent his chronicler, Menahem the Scribe, to meet with the 10 Tribes: “And it came to pass that when Menahem the Scribe met with the Jews and spoke to them in Hebrew they said to him, ‘Are you a Jew?’ and he answered, ‘Yes.’ As they heard he was a Jew, their anger was greatly kindled, and they said to him, ‘How did you not fear the God of your ancestors and committed an evil in the eyes of the Lord by desecrating the Sabbath? The sentence of death is now upon you.’

Menahem answered them saying, ‘Do not be angry with me. It was fear of the king that forced me to cross the water on the Sabbath. Had I not done so, I’d have been left on my own and endangered my life because of the wild animals. Did the Torah not say, “Only take heed to thyself and keep thy soul diligently” ‏(Deuteronomy 4:9‏)? And our sages, too, said, “... which if a man do, he shall live by them” ‏(Leviticus 18:5‏) − live by them but not die by them.’ But they said to him, ‘You lie ... Now leave this land because the death sentence is now upon you because you desecrated the Lord’s Sabbath by walking more than 2,000 [cubits].’ When Menahem the Scribe heard this, he was greatly saddened, so he went to the king. The king said to him, ‘Why do you look so gloomy today?’ and Menahem told him all that had happened.”

This narrative sounds almost like a literary rendition of the mythical description in 2 Esdras and the Midrash of Genesis Rabbati. In the romance, the nature of that “other land” is characterized in very concrete terms. It is isolated from contact with the surrounding world and its purpose is to allow the Jews to live according to the Torah, without the slightest deviation. This stands in stark contrast to “our” exile, the one from which Menahem hails, which values survival, and obligates emulation of the customs

and manners of the foreign nations − even if this means material damage to a prime Torah principle, if it is a matter of physical survival. In other words, engaging “in the deeds of others.”

Still, it bears asking why Menahem the Scribe was so saddened and downcast even after he was back in Alexander’s camp, and safe from the death sentence imposed on him by his fellow Jews. Clearly he wasn’t concerned for his own personal safety, but rather for the honor of the society whence he came and which he represented. Only now, facing the fierce integrity of his fellow Jews from the 10 Tribes, does he fully comprehend the depth of the compromises, concessions and lies that his society, in exile, are living in order to survive. Only when facing the tribes’ model of exile does he understand the identity of “our” exile.

But we must also not forget that the type of exile embodied by the 10 Tribes doesn’t actually exist in reality; it’s a fictitious, literary construct created by the need to define the nature of our own exile and placing it under a powerful, unforgiving spotlight revealing every flaw, distortion and lie. This, after all, is how the tribes responded to Menahem’s claim that he had no choice but to cross the Sambation on the Sabbath together with Alexander’s army out of fear of wild animals: “You lie. You were not endangered by wild animals, because there are no wild animals in this land.”

In that case, why did Menahem cross the Sambation with the army, even though he knew this was a desecration of the Sabbath? It seems there can be only one answer: because he had become a member of Alexander’s army, because gentile society had become his own world, and because he could no longer separate himself from it − and not because a risk to one’s life permits one to desecrate the Sabbath. His own life had been transformed in that “other” exile; it is there that his identity and way of life had been forged. This is the bitter truth that Menahem’s encounter with the 10 Tribes exposes him to. And we are all Menahem.

This exposure to reality he and the Jewish society he represents in the story have been living with for centuries, and the cognitive internalization of its implications, are the true reason for his deep and abiding sadness.

Many medieval legends reveal a clear split between two positions or outlooks on life when it comes to relating to Jews within a Christian or Muslim majority: Is the relationship going to be one of separation and isolationism in order to zealously guard one’s Jewish identity, or is it going to be one of openness and participation in order to survive, and perhaps also so as to be part of the world and culture in which Jewish communities must lead their lives? In many local traditions, both from the Muslim East and the Christian West, the belief in openness, in proximity to the society of the majority, in acceptance of its laws and customs as a decisive means to survival and Jewish life in the Diaspora − all this is clearly expressed in many stories that have survived since the Middle Ages. Alongside these, many other tales express the opposite viewpoint, which rejects a life of openness and compromise.

The stories comprising the myth of the 10 Tribes radically alter the almost even balance between the two points of view running through the Jewish legends relating to the question. In the example of Alexander the Great, who camps next to the land of the tribes, the Jew − the representative of our exile, Alexander’s scribe − confronts the descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes. He leaves the encounter humbled and mortified, as someone whose choice to survive, rather than zealously guard the rigid commands of Judaism, emerges as a betrayal of principle, an erasure of identity, a path that is nothing but deceit and hypocrisy. The story’s marked preference for the zealous path taken by the tribes over the compromise and integration in the world at large is, in this case, clear cut.

The myth of the 10 Lost Tribes, one of the most ancient among Jewish legends, with multiple versions that have survived to this day, takes an unequivocal stance. Even if we hear variant or even contradictory voices in the annals of this tale − exile versus redemption, a peaceful utopia versus a fight to the finish − there is no disagreement whatsoever on one issue: how to relate to the majority society in which the Jewish exile is occurring. Throughout its long history, the myth of the 10 Tribes serves as a kind of signpost, a spotlight illuminating the “right” path to take in response to the most complex existential questions of Jewish history: What are the limits of tolerance of a minority society, such as the Jewish community, vis-a-vis the majority among which it lives?

As is the wont of folk tales in general, the myth takes the stances to their extremes and sets up sharp contrasts representing a reality that is much more complex and complicated, just as expressive presentations in literature and arts have done since the dawn of time. The separatist, extreme and purist stance, that of the 10 Lost Tribes, versus the compromising, perhaps even cowardly, stance of “our” exile are not intended to reflect reality, to say that this is how things happened in actual history: Rather, they are there to represent positions and speak for a certain worldview of what’s proper and right.

Indeed, the myth of the tribes presents a stance that is surprising in its cohesiveness. It hardly changes at all throughout its long history. Whether we like it or not, it represents − passionately and successfully − the isolationist stance, the one that demands that we maintain our pure Jewish identity no matter the circumstances, almost without consideration for the changes happening in reality, which are forced by the history of the majority onto the minority community. It seems to me that it is precisely this uncompromising, idealistic stance, so far from the reality of any real Jewish community anywhere, that is the crux of the myth and one of the most important explanations for the long survival of the Jewish people.

The contemporary significance and implications of this understanding of this ancient myth for our own times, especially for the relationship between the type of Judaism crystallizing here in the State of Israel and the one developing within Diaspora Jewry, especially American Jewry, is probably the subject for a different discussion.

The Urubamba River in Peru. There are those who identify it with the Sambation.Credit: Chimera Travel
Nathan of Gaza leads the 10 Tribes to Eretz Israel.
“The Finding of the Ten Tribes beyond the Sambation River, in the State of China.”