The ten lost tribes have occupied, and continue to occupy, a special place in Jewish and Christian imagination. But interestingly enough, the Hebrew Bible itself does not have much to say about them.
The biblical story is simple. In the beginning there was one united kingdom in the land of Israel, ruled by the great kings David and Solomon. The kingdom was the home of the twelve tribes, who had descended from Jacob. National life was relatively harmonious under Solomon. The kingdom enjoyed prosperity and many years of peace. However, as Solomon aged he began to sin, and God became angry with him. As a punishment, God split the kingdom in two: Judah and Benjamin in the south and the ten remaining tribes under the leadership of Jeroboam, of the tribe of Ephraim, in the north.
The designation “ten tribes” itself occurs in the Bible only twice, and in the same scene. The first is when Jeroboam, the future king of the northern kingdom, meets Ahijah, the prophet of God. In a dramatic gesture, the prophet tears his own garment into twelve pieces and turns to Jeroboam: “Take for yourself ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘See, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes’” (1Kgs 11:31).
The kingdom of Israel, home to the ten tribes, controlled an expanse of land that extended from a point only a few kilometers north of Jerusalem up to the mountains of Lebanon. The way the Bible tells it, the history of the kingdom of Israel is nothing but two hundred years of political turbulence and sin. This history ends with the destruction of the kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians exile the inhabitants of the kingdom to the east, and from that moment the ten tribes are lost from the historical record. However, the prophet Isaiah promises their return: “On that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria ... will come” (Isa 27:13). Thus was born one of the most powerful biblical conundrums: if the ten lost tribes must return one day, where are they now?
The idea of finding and restoring the ten tribes became the basis for many “theologies of ingathering.” One of these theologies claims that the lost tribes migrated to the Americas. That view developed over time into a whole new scripture, the Book of Mormon, whose prophet Nephi promises, like Isaiah before him: “But now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them” (3Nephi 17:4).
Across the Atlantic, Richard Brothers (1757–1823), a retired naval officer and a radical Calvinist, revealed himself as a prophet of the lost tribes in 1794 in London. The fact that he was writing from the confinement of Fisher Mad-House, Islington, did not deter many from following him and producing the doctrine of Anglo-Israelism: a fiercely nationalist theology based on the idea that the British Isles were the home of the lost tribes. Brothers himself insisted, “There are many families of Hebrew extraction in this kingdom [England].” With this claim, Brothers charged the old discussion about the place of the ten tribes with a new meaning. In his formulation, finding the ten tribes now meant revealing the true identity of the Britons/Anglo-Saxons. But above all, he went on to develop a prophetic vision of British “return” to Jerusalem and future grandeur. Unlike Mormonism, Anglo-Israelism never developed a coherent scripture. But many in England and later across the Atlantic subscribed to the idea that England or the United States were “Ephraim’s Empires” and enjoyed the blessing of God.