Assyrian attack on a town with archers and a wheeled battering ram, 865–860 BC.

Were the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel Ever Lost?


When examining the mysteries of the 8th century BC, all one has to do is look in the Bible or an ancient history book to realize that Assyria had no outside threats. The Hittites and Egyptians were a shell of their former glory and imposed no threat to the Assyrian borders. The once mighty United Kingdom of Israel, under the reign of King David, and later his son Solomon, divided into two separate kingdoms after Solomon’s death. The kings of Israel were too busy fighting amongst themselves. Syria, to the northwest of Assyria, was not a threat to Assyrian expansion either. As for Phoenicia, they were unstable on land and had no real standing army other than those they relied on to volunteer. The rest of the smaller tribal groups were mere principalities or city-states similar to Phoenicia. From the view that the ancient biblical historical texts 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles gives us, one could say the reason the Middle East was so easy to take was because it was so fragmented and thus no single nation surrounding Assyria—whether it be a city-state or a community of tribes—posed any real threat to Assyria.

So how did Assyria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel come to blows? And what happened to the ten tribes of ancient Israel that were said to be lost in time after being conquered by the Assyrian Empire?

Collecting from Israel’s Kings

In 738 BC, King Tiglath-pileser made his way west to collect tribute and to expand the ever growing Assyrian Empire. He began his regional tour starting with what was left of the fractured kingdoms of the former Hittite empire. Turning back south to Syria and then heading west to the city-states of Phoenicia, he subdued the citizens without a fight, collecting just about anything and everything the individual kingdoms could offer. This kept Assyria out of their lands by turning them into Assyria's vassals.

Tiglath-Pileser III: Detail from a stela from the walls of his palace.

Tiglath-Pileser III: Detail from a stela from the walls of his palace. (Public Domain)

Next on the list for Assyria was the kingdom of Israel. Menahem was the king of Israel at the time when Tiglath-pileser III arrived at their border. For a long time before the Assyrian threat, the Hebrew prophets Hosea, Amos, and Joel foretold the coming destruction of Israel if they did not repent of their sins and come back to the god Yahweh:

And Pul the king of Assyria came against the land: and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that his hand might be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand. And Menahem exacted the money of Israel, even of all the mighty men of wealth, of each man fifty shekels of silver, to give to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria turned back, and stayed not there in the land.

Illustration of King Menahem, of the northern Israelite Kingdom of Israel.

Illustration of King Menahem, of the northern Israelite Kingdom of Israel. (Public Domain)

The storm was on the horizon and it was time to pay financially, for King Menahem gave a thousand talents of silver to Tiglath-pileser by extracting 50 shekels from each wealthy man. An enormous 60,000 citizens of wealth gave up their money to the Assyrian coffers. After getting his tribute, Tiglath-pileser left the outskirts of Israel, leaving the kingdom intact and still in the hands of Menahem. One can only speculate if this was a one-time tribute deal, or multiple times year after year. In either case, Menahem had just made his kingdom look impotent before the king of Assyria. Nevertheless, what could King Menahem have done? All one has to do is read II Kings 15:16, and realize that most of his people would not fight for him anyway.

King Menahem remained on the throne six more years before he died. His son Pekahiah took the throne and reigned for only two years before he was murdered inside the palace by Pekah and 50 Gileadites in Samaria (II Kings 15:23-26). It seems Pekah murdered Pekahiah because Pekahiah continued to let Assyria dominate Israel. This made the people of Israel mad, and the result was a murdered king by a man of the military.

King Pekah made an alliance with King Rezin of Damascus. This indicated that Pekah was cutting the Assyrian yoke off Israel's neck. Pekah would also go to the Edomites and the Philistines for their support of a joint coalition or alliance to stop the Assyrian war machine from expanding farther west or south. This alliance was really an attempt to counter-balance the Assyrian power to the east, and once Assyria got word of what was going on, their king, Tiglath-pileser III, took action.

The First Captivity

When the Assyrians marched down the coast, it is most likely that the second wave of invasion was held back for some time before the force continued its march from the north, advancing inland as described in II Kings 15:29. This second wave of attack that Tiglath-pileser sent was the tip of the sword. While the coastal invasion was pushing South, one can speculate that parts of the army turned inland from the coast, pushing towards the east and flanking the population therein, while the larger northern army began its descent south into the tribal lands of Dan and Naphtali and beyond.

Map showing Tiglath's conquests (green) and deportation of Israelites. Tiglath-Pileser III discouraged revolts against Assyrian rule with the use of forced deportations of thousands of people all over the empire.

Map showing Tiglath's conquests (green) and deportation of Israelites. Tiglath-Pileser III discouraged revolts against Assyrian rule with the use of forced deportations of thousands of people all over the empire. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Tiglath-pileser mentions conquering Naphtali and his conquest of the coast in his inscription:

on the border of the Land of Omri [viz. Israel] ...the wide land of Naphtali in its entirety, I brought within the border of Assyria. My official (tartan) I set over them as governor. Hanno of Gaza fled before my weapons.

This inscription shows two different events at the same time. Notice that Tiglath-pileser III mentions taking “Naphtali in its entirety” and that he brought them into Assyria. Notice what he has to say at the end. “Hanno of Gaza fled before my weapons.” This inscription may show that at the same time as Tiglath-pileser’s army had just completed the takeover of Naphtali, it may have also completed the final phase of conquering Gaza, which had been a Philistine city. This inscription seems to show us that before taking Naphtali, Tiglath-pileser’s army had been conquering the coastal regions of the Levant until it reached the border of Egypt.

Illustration of Assyrian relief of Tiglath-Pileser III besieging a town.

Illustration of Assyrian relief of Tiglath-Pileser III besieging a town. (Public Domain)

While Tiglath-pileser took many people into captivity, he did not take them all. However, of those taken into captivity, he also mentions taking Israelite forces in his military annuals:

“carried off [to] Assyria the land of Bit-Humria (Israel). [...its] 'auxiliary [army,'] [...] all of its people.”

From this small fragment, Tiglath-pileser III not only tells us that he deported a large amount of Israel's people, but that he also took the Israelite army and incorporated them into the Assyrian army as auxiliaries.

The Second Captivity

This was the beginning of a nine-year rule for King Hoshea in II Kings 17:1.

Hoshea had to pay tribute to Tiglath-pileser for putting him on the throne and making the kingdom of Israel vassals to Assyria again. When Tiglath-pileser died around 727 BC, we can speculate that Hoshea probably stopped paying the annual tribute. This would have meant that the new king, Shalmaneser V, tried to extract tribute from Hoshea as well (II Kings 17:3). From the evidence in II Kings 17:3, it can be said that either King Shalmaneser V or an Assyrian official had started paying visits at this time, not only to Israel, but to all the vassals of Assyria. By showing up with his army, he was making sure that those who had sworn allegiance to him in the past would continue honoring that allegiance to Assyria. It might also be possible to say that he was simply making his rounds, collecting gifts, as he was the new king in town. However, this did not last long, for we read in II Kings 17:4 that Hoshea stopped paying tribute and pulled his support from mighty Assyria.

Illustration of Hoshea, the last king of the Israelite Kingdom of Israel.

Illustration of Hoshea, the last king of the Israelite Kingdom of Israel. (Public Domain)

King Shalmaneser invaded what was left of Israel. He sacked and destroyed the city of Shechem and the old Israelite capital of Tirzah. He also hit Hazor, tearing down the walls of the city before he besieged Samaria, the capital of Israel, for three years. Some say he died shortly before or after the fall of Samaria, though Shalmaneser is recorded to have taken Samaria On the 27th of Tebet Shalmaneser ascended the throne in Assyria and Babylonia. He shattered Samaria.”

The first inscription is more about his military campaigns throughout his rule, found on a prism known as MS 2368, in which Sargon mentions conquering Israel, and thus refers to them as “Bit-Humriya” (House of Omri). The second inscription is the one most are familiar with when dealing with the fall of Samaria:

I besieged and conquered Samerina.

27,290 people, who lived in its midst, I carried away.

50 chariots I gathered from their midst.

The bereaved I taught proper behavior.

I appointed my commissioner over them.

The levy of the former king

I laid upon them.

When reading the inscription mentioned above, many fail to notice, or maybe understand, that it took three years to capture the city. That suggests that Samaria was either heavily defended with large numbers of forces or that Assyria only brought a small to medium sized force to besiege the city.

After many years, the men inside Samaria grew tired, hungry, and most of all insane to a degree. The psychological impact on these men, living with the dead, decaying for three years, and having to smell it over a cold meal, made them prefer to die than give in. Finally, after three years and a new Assyrian king, the city fell to the besiegers. Instead of slaughtering the defenders, King Sargon II had something better for them.

Sargon II [right] and dignitary. Low-relief from the wall of the palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), c. 716–713 BC

Sargon II [right] and dignitary. Low-relief from the wall of the palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin in Assyria (now Khorsabad in Iraq), c. 716–713 BC. (Public Domain)

It is interesting to note that Sargon used the people he captured from Samaria to drive the captured chariots. One-hundred men were the requirement for the 50 chariots. The remaining 27,190 most likely became an auxiliary unit for the Assyrian army. In addition, the same inscription found on the Nimrud Prism says that Sargon captured 200 chariots and equipped them with the captured men:

[The inhabitants of Sa]merina, who agreed [and plotted] with a king [hostile to] me, not to do service and not to bring tribute [to Ashshur] and who did battle, I fought against them with the power of the great gods, my lords. I counted as spoil 27,280 people, together with their chariots, and gods, in which they trusted. I formed a unit with 200 of [their] chariots for my royal force. I settled the rest of them in the midst of Assyria. I repopulated Samerina more than before. I brought into it people from countries conquered by my hands. I appointed my eunuch as governor over them. And I counted them as Assyrians.

Nevertheless, what is interesting, (and something Stephanie Dalley points out in her article regarding the Assyrian tablets, “Foreign Chariotry and Cavalry in the Armies of Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II”) is that Sargon seemed to have allowed the Israelite charioteers to retain their identity! This Israelite charioteer unit was possibly the only foreign unit to keep its national name in Assyria's main royal army, and it seems that this unit either was at Calah or stationed just outside Calah. Sargon must have respected them very much to give them such a position. Below is the chariot list that bares the names of the Israelites that Sargon II captured and incorporated into his royal army.

16 Ib-ba-da-la-a Da-la-PAP

17 Ja-u-ga-a                       A-tam-ru

18 PAP?-id-ri                      Ab-di-mil-ku

19 EN-BAD                          Na-ar-me-na-a

20 Gab-bi-e                        Sa-ma?-a

21 PAPid-ri                          Ba-hi-e

22 PAP-i-u                           AP(gimir)13 uru SA-miri-ni

23                                       SU pdPA.U.GIN-in

The author Bob Becking suggests, “The Samaritan cohorts according to line 23 are under the control of "Nebu-belu-ukin,” and can be seen as the remnant of the chariot brigades captured by Sargon. According to the editors, all personal names in this fragment are West Semitic. This view must be modified.” The interesting part in this list is the name Sama. Sama is speculated to be a form of the word or name for “Samaria,” who happened to be an Israelite who was the commander of teams for the royal Assyrian army. He had significant influence with Sargonid family for his name appears on administrative and economic inscriptions. Stephanie Dalley has this to say about Sama:

“From this evidence it is reasonable to suggest that Sama' the Samarian commander of teams who served Sargon as a reliable, professional soldier in the royal army of Assyria, was a close friend of the king and had access to and perhaps influence over members of the royal family. As such he would have had opportunities to become closely acquainted with Sargon's vizier Nabu-belu-ukin who probably acted as the first commander of the Samarian unit. Whether or not Sama' actually played a part in negotiating preferential treatment for Samaria, the evidence for his career is an indication of the important role played by Samarians in Nimrud and Nineveh in the late eighth and early seventh centuries.”

Scene from Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) campaign against the Elamite city Hamaru, shows an Assyrian chariot with charioteer and archer protected from enemy attack by shield bearers. Assyrian relief from Nineveh. Alabaster relief, made about 650 BC. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Nevertheless, the names of the men who occupied the chariots for the Samaritan cohort are in question, but not entirely. In the Samaritan cohort list we find the name Ja-u-ga-a. This is Hebrew and means “YHWH (or Yahweh) is exalted.” In addition, we come across the name Ad-di-mil-ku, which seems to be of Canaanite background. The name also seems to have a Hebrew element. The rest of the names in the list fall in two categories, some are West Semitic, while others appear to be Assyrian or Babylonian.

The mystery of the lost ten tribes of Israel endures in legend today, but the provided evidence does show that those who had a military occupation and served the Assyrian army as auxiliary units seemed to have retained their identity. As for the overall Israelite population, they too can be found, but by an individual basis, based on who held different jobs of a non-military nature.

It appears that the so-called “Lost Ten Tribes of Israel” were never lost. Instead, they served, and over a generation or two, integrated within the local Assyrian populations, eventually losing their identity. 

Top image: Assyrian attack on a town with archers and a wheeled battering ram, 865–860 BC. Source: Public Domain

By Cam Rea

References

Becking, Bob. The Fall of Samaria: An Historical and Archaeological study. New York: E.J. Brill, 1992.

Caiger, Stephen L. Bible and Spade: An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology. Oxford: University Press; Humphrey Milford, 1938.

Chavalas, Mark W., and K. Lawson Younger. Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Dalley, Stephanie. "Foreign Chariotry and Cavalry in the Armies of Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II." British Institute for the Study of Iraq, Vol. 47 , 1985: 31-48.

Gordon, Cyrus H. The Ancient Near East. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965.

Hallo, William W., and K. Lawson Younger. The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions, Monumental Inscriptions and Archival Documents from the Biblical World, Vol 2 . Leiden: Brill, 2000.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the Jews. New York: Harper Perennia, 1988

Rogers, Robert William. A History of Babylonia and Assyria, Volume 2, 6th ed. New York: The Abingdon Press, 1915.

Walton, John H. 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009.

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