What Happened to the Ten Northern Tribes of Israel?—2 Kings 17:24

The destruction of Samaria and the disappearance of its population has led to much speculation regarding the fate of Israel’s “lost” tribes. But one thing is certain: they were not lost. The Bible identifies where they were sent, and Assyrian documents describe what many of them were doing there.

Three Assyrian monarchs deported Israelites to different parts of their empire. In the years 734–732 BC, the military campaigns of Tiglath-pileser III in the coastal region of Israel, in Galilee, and Gilead, significantly reduced the population of the northern kingdom. Annals 18 and 24 claim to have deported 13,520 Israelites to Assyrian territories. Demographic studies in the Lower Galilee demonstrate the decline of settlements in the area at the end of the eighth century BC. The book of 2 Kings 15:29 and 1 Chronicles 5:26 describe Tiglath-pileser III’s campaign and the destination of the transferred Israelites.

Ten years after Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V besieged and then captured Israel’s capital, Samaria, in 722 BC. The Assyrians deported the Israelite King Hoshea sometime before the city’s actual fall (2 Kings 17:4). The death of Shalmaneser V during the winter of that year delayed the removal of Samaria’s inhabitants. According to Assyrian documents, in 720 BC, the new Assyrian king Sargon II removed 27,290 Israelites from Samaria and the Ephraimite hill country. The book of 2 Kings 17:6 says that the captives were sent to Halah in the Assyrian province of Halahhu, Habor, Gozan (modern Tell-Halaf in northern Syria), and various cities of the Medes, that is, the city of Harhar and others in modern-day Iran.

Officials responsible for sending the deportees to Assyria verified the skills of each prisoner of war. The presence of Israelites among those prisoners is attested in individuals bearing Hebrew names, generally with the complete or partial name of Yahweh attached to it. So far, scholars have identified approximately 70 Israelite deportees in the Assyrian records, providing a glimpse into the daily life of many of them in Assyria.

Surprisingly, many Israelites received military positions. One text says that Sargon II included many Samaritan charioteers in his troops. A certain Azri-Yau (“Yahweh is my help”) was a bodyguard in Nineveh, and a man named Ahi-Yau (“Yahweh is my brother”) was an archer. It is quite possible that Rabshakeh, the official sent by Sennacherib to address the leaders of Jerusalem in 701 BC, was an Israelite since he was able to speak Hebrew fluently (2 Kings 18:26, 28). Documentary evidence shows that Israelite priests, skilled laborers, merchants, and landowners lived and worked in Assyria. The Assyrians included them in their society and generally treated them well.

Another group of deportees performed agricultural work in such places as Gozan and Laqe, receiving only the minimal food ration per day. Others participated in the construction of Sargon’s new capital Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad), and still, others became slaves and debtors.

Although many captured Israelites were incorporated into Assyrian society, no tribes, clans, or even extended families remained intact during the process of deportation. Only nuclear families stayed together, and the tribes of Israel undoubtedly ceased to exist.—After a few generations, many Israelites assimilated into the Assyrian culture, changing their names, language, and religion and thus losing any tribal identity. They would have intermarried with the people of their new homes, further erasing any tribal heritage. Furthermore, many would have remained in the territory of the former kingdom of Israel. During various religious reforms, several northerners apparently moved to Judah, as indicated by archaeological evidence of sudden population growth in the south during specific periods and by hints in the biblical text itself. The lists of returned exiles in Ezra show that even they identified themselves not by any tribal genealogy but from where their ancestors had come. The self-understanding as belonging to a specific tribe had vanished with time. Any attempt to find “pure” northern tribes somewhere in the Middle East is doomed to failure.


Younger, “The Deportations of the Israelites,” 201-227.

Younger, “‘Give us Our Daily Bread’–Everyday Life for the Israelite Deportees.”

Younger, “Israelites in Exile. Their Names Appear at All Levels of Assyrian Society,” 36-45, 65-66.