Some scholars have challenged the Bible’s claim that the entire population of the northern kingdom went into Assyrian captivity. Some think most of the Israelites fled south and assimilated into the population of the kingdom of Judah. What really happened? Let’s examine the record.
The chain of events leading to Israel’s fall and massive deportation began with the Assyrian monarch Tiglath-pileser III. In three campaigns he implemented what historians call the Galilean captivity (ca. 733-732 B.C.). He captured Damascus and established a military presence at the border of Egypt. He deported into the upper Mesopotamian River valley large segments of the Reubenite, Gaddite and Transjordan Manassite populations (1 Chronicles 5:26 1 Chronicles 5:26And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgathpilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, even the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan, to this day.
American King James Version×) and Naphtali and cities in the territories of Issachar, Zebulun and Asher (2 Kings 15:29 2 Kings 15:29In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abelbethmaachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria.
American King James Version×).
The Assyrian monarch Shalmaneser V initiated and carried out most of the climactic 724-722 B.C. campaign into the remainder of the northern kingdom. Shalmaneser, however, “was deposed soon afterwards by another king, Sargon II. This name, ‘True King,’ seems to betray the suspect nature of Sargon’s claim to the throne…Sargon II moved the Assyrian capital to his own foundation of Khorsabad, built in imitation of Nimrud, and the older city was neglected…Shalmaneser V…did not have time to commemorate his achievements in stone, and it was his successor, Sargon II, who claimed credit for the victory” (Julian Reade, Assyrian Sculpture, pp. 48, 65).
The landmark 19th-century discoveries of British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard dispelled any doubts that the Assyrian kingdom was a formidable force that ferociously dominated the ancient Near East off and on from the ninth through the seventh centuries B.C. It is indisputable that the Assyrians invaded and conquered the northern kingdom as part of that domination.
The precise figures involved, at least those outside the biblical record, are still beyond historical verification. Some scholars argue that only a small number of leaders—the northern intelligentsia—fell into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians. The rest, they say, either fled as refugees or were assimilated into the alien populations transplanted in the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:24 2 Kings 17:24And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelled in the cities thereof.
American King James Version×).
Others believe that the enslavement and removal of Israelites involved almost the entire northern population. How are we to know who is correct? How many Israelites did the Assyrians deport?
Archaeologists have found a set of Assyrian court records that provide some specific numbers. King Sargon II claims to have taken 27,290 captives from Samaria. This number is decidedly small in contrast to the entire population of the northern kingdom. But there is a logical reason for such a small number.
Conservative Bible scholar Eugene Merrill notes that Shalmaneser V “took Samaria in his last year…[then] Sargon, who probably was not the son of Tiglath-pileser, as some claim, but a usurper, reigned over the vast Assyrian Empire from 722 to 705. One of Assyria’s most militant rulers, [Sargon] claims to have undertaken significant campaigns in every one of his seventeen years. In the annals of his first year he takes credit for Samaria’s fall. In actual fact the biblical assertion that Shalmaneser V was responsible is correct; as several scholars have shown, Sargon claimed this major conquest for his own reign so that the record of his first year would not be blank” (Kingdom of Priests, 1996, p. 408).
Sargon took advantage of the fact that Shalmaneser V was deposed before his military exploits were fully recorded. Though Sargon may have accurately recorded the results of his own invasion and deportation of Israel’s northern kingdom during his first year, he left unrecorded the much greater Israelite deportation by his predecessor, leaving the impression that his own feats were greater than they actually were.
Eugene Merrill’s logical explanation of Sargon’s extremely low figures regarding deportees is significant because it squares Assyrian history with the biblical record. The relatively few thousands of deportees recorded by Sargon simply do not take into account the massive deportations already undertaken by his predecessors, Tiglath-pileser III and Shalmaneser V.
For any who believe in the accuracy of the Scriptures the biblical record is the most reliable historical source. In regard to the northern kingdom’s deportation, the report of 2 Kings is probably the most essential biblical testimony: “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them from His sight; there was none left but the tribe of Judah alone …The LORD rejected all the descendants of Israel, afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them from His sight …
“For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them, until the LORD removed Israel out of His sight, as He had said by all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away from their own land to Assyria, as it is to this day” (2 Kings 17:18-23 2 Kings 17:18-23 18 Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight: there was none left but the tribe of Judah only.
19 Also Judah kept not the commandments of the LORD their God, but walked in the statutes of Israel which they made.
20 And the LORD rejected all the seed of Israel, and afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of spoilers, until he had cast them out of his sight.
21 For he rent Israel from the house of David; and they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king: and Jeroboam drove Israel from following the LORD, and made them sin a great sin.
22 For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they departed not from them;
23 Until the LORD removed Israel out of his sight, as he had said by all his servants the prophets. So was Israel carried away out of their own land to Assyria to this day.
American King James Version×).
Although the Bible plainly states that the Assyrians carried the northern kingdom’s population away as captives, biblical passages and indirect archaeological evidence indicate that some refugees from the northern tribes were living among the people of Judah well after Israel’s fall.
Probably a few northerners moved south shortly after the separation of Israel from Judah in protest of the contemptible practices Jeroboam I (1 Kings 12:25-33 1 Kings 12:25-33 25 Then Jeroboam built Shechem in mount Ephraim, and dwelled therein; and went out from there, and built Penuel.
26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David:
27 If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.
28 Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said to them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
29 And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan.
30 And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even to Dan.
31 And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi.
32 And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like to the feast that is in Judah, and he offered on the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made.
33 So he offered on the altar which he had made in Bethel the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast to the children of Israel: and he offered on the altar, and burnt incense.
American King James Version×; 1 Kings 13:33 1 Kings 13:33After this thing Jeroboam returned not from his evil way, but made again of the lowest of the people priests of the high places: whoever would, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places.
American King James Version×; 2 Chronicles 11:13-16 2 Chronicles 11:13-16 13 And the priests and the Levites that were in all Israel resorted to him out of all their coasts. 14 For the Levites left their suburbs and their possession, and came to Judah and Jerusalem: for Jeroboam and his sons had cast them off from executing the priest’s office to the LORD: 15 And he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made. 16 And after them out of all the tribes of Israel such as set their hearts to seek the LORD God of Israel came to Jerusalem, to sacrifice to the LORD God of their fathers.
American King James Version×) and his successors—most notably Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 16:28-33 1 Kings 16:28-33 28 So Omri slept with his fathers, and was buried in Samaria: and Ahab his son reigned in his stead. 29 And in the thirty and eighth year of Asa king of Judah began Ahab the son of Omri to reign over Israel: and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty and two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD above all that were before him. 31 And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshipped him. 32 And he reared up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made a grove; and Ahab did more to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.
American King James Version×; 1 Kings 18:3-18 1 Kings 18:3-18 3 And Ahab called Obadiah, which was the governor of his house. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly: 4 For it was so, when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah took an hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.) 5 And Ahab said to Obadiah, Go into the land, to all fountains of water, and to all brooks: peradventure we may find grass to save the horses and mules alive, that we lose not all the beasts. 6 So they divided the land between them to pass throughout it: Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself. 7 And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him: and he knew him, and fell on his face, and said, Are you that my lord Elijah? 8 And he answered him, I am: go, tell your lord, Behold, Elijah is here. 9 And he said, What have I sinned, that you would deliver your servant into the hand of Ahab, to slay me? 10 As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom, where my lord has not sent to seek you: and when they said, He is not there; he took an oath of the kingdom and nation, that they found you not. 11 And now you say, Go, tell your lord, Behold, Elijah is here. 12 And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, that the Spirit of the LORD shall carry you where I know not; and so when I come and tell Ahab, and he cannot find you, he shall slay me: but I your servant fear the LORD from my youth. 13 Was it not told my lord what I did when Jezebel slew the prophets of the LORD, how I hid an hundred men of the LORD’s prophets by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water? 14 And now you say, Go, tell your lord, Behold, Elijah is here: and he shall slay me. 15 And Elijah said, As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him to day. 16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him: and Ahab went to meet Elijah. 17 And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, Are you he that troubles Israel? 18 And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but you, and your father’s house, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and you have followed Baalim.
American King James Version×)—introduced. This first wave of migrants into Judah would have been men and women seeking a less overtly polluted religious environment in which to worship God.
But, just before the northern kingdom’s exile, a much larger number of northerners probably headed south to Judah to escape the Assyrian onslaughts of the eighth century B.C. No one disputes that the population of Jerusalem expanded greatly during that time.
Do these events indicate that God simply assimilated enough people from the northern tribes into Judah and that the Jews who returned from the later Babylonian captivity under Ezra and Nehemiah comprised all that God intended to preserve as His holy people Israel? Some scholars advocate this theory, but they overlook a critical fact.
The Babylonians exiled the remaining inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C. This exile included those who had migrated to Judah from the former northern kingdom. Seventy years later only a small portion of those Jews exiled to Babylon returned to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The Scriptures show that those who volunteered to return and rebuild a Jewish presence in Palestine came almost exclusively from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi (Nehemiah 11:3-36 Nehemiah 11:3-36 3 Now these are the chief of the province that dwelled in Jerusalem: but in the cities of Judah dwelled every one in his possession in their cities, to wit, Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the Nethinims, and the children of Solomon’s servants.
4 And at Jerusalem dwelled certain of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin. Of the children of Judah; Athaiah the son of Uzziah, the son of Zechariah, the son of Amariah, the son of Shephatiah, the son of Mahalaleel, of the children of Perez;
5 And Maaseiah the son of Baruch, the son of Colhozeh, the son of Hazaiah, the son of Adaiah, the son of Joiarib, the son of Zechariah, the son of Shiloni.
6 All the sons of Perez that dwelled at Jerusalem were four hundred three score and eight valiant men.
7 And these are the sons of Benjamin; Sallu the son of Meshullam, the son of Joed, the son of Pedaiah, the son of Kolaiah, the son of Maaseiah, the son of Ithiel, the son of Jesaiah.
8 And after him Gabbai, Sallai, nine hundred twenty and eight.
9 And Joel the son of Zichri was their overseer: and Judah the son of Senuah was second over the city.
10 Of the priests: Jedaiah the son of Joiarib, Jachin.
11 Seraiah the son of Hilkiah, the son of Meshullam, the son of Zadok, the son of Meraioth, the son of Ahitub, was the ruler of the house of God.
12 And their brothers that did the work of the house were eight hundred twenty and two: and Adaiah the son of Jeroham, the son of Pelaliah, the son of Amzi, the son of Zechariah, the son of Pashur, the son of Malchiah.
13 And his brothers, chief of the fathers, two hundred forty and two: and Amashai the son of Azareel, the son of Ahasai, the son of Meshillemoth, the son of Immer,
14 And their brothers, mighty men of valor, an hundred twenty and eight: and their overseer was Zabdiel, the son of one of the great men.
15 Also of the Levites: Shemaiah the son of Hashub, the son of Azrikam, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Bunni;
16 And Shabbethai and Jozabad, of the chief of the Levites, had the oversight of the outward business of the house of God.
17 And Mattaniah the son of Micha, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, was the principal to begin the thanksgiving in prayer: and Bakbukiah the second among his brothers, and Abda the son of Shammua, the son of Galal, the son of Jeduthun.
18 All the Levites in the holy city were two hundred fourscore and four.
19 Moreover the porters, Akkub, Talmon, and their brothers that kept the gates, were an hundred seventy and two.
20 And the residue of Israel, of the priests, and the Levites, were in all the cities of Judah, every one in his inheritance.
21 But the Nethinims dwelled in Ophel: and Ziha and Gispa were over the Nethinims.
22 The overseer also of the Levites at Jerusalem was Uzzi the son of Bani, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micha. Of the sons of Asaph, the singers were over the business of the house of God.
23 For it was the king’s commandment concerning them, that a certain portion should be for the singers, due for every day.
24 And Pethahiah the son of Meshezabeel, of the children of Zerah the son of Judah, was at the king’s hand in all matters concerning the people.
25 And for the villages, with their fields, some of the children of Judah dwelled at Kirjatharba, and in the villages thereof, and at Dibon, and in the villages thereof, and at Jekabzeel, and in the villages thereof,
26 And at Jeshua, and at Moladah, and at Bethphelet,
27 And at Hazarshual, and at Beersheba, and in the villages thereof,
28 And at Ziklag, and at Mekonah, and in the villages thereof,
29 And at Enrimmon, and at Zareah, and at Jarmuth,
30 Zanoah, Adullam, and in their villages, at Lachish, and the fields thereof, at Azekah, and in the villages thereof. And they dwelled from Beersheba to the valley of Hinnom.
31 The children also of Benjamin from Geba dwelled at Michmash, and Aija, and Bethel, and in their villages.
32 And at Anathoth, Nob, Ananiah,
33 Hazor, Ramah, Gittaim,
34 Hadid, Zeboim, Neballat,
35 Lod, and Ono, the valley of craftsmen.
36 And of the Levites were divisions in Judah, and in Benjamin.
American King James Version×). We find no scriptural evidence—or other historical evidence—that any significant numbers from the other 10 tribes were included in Judah’s return to their homeland.
Therefore, the prophecies that refer to a future restoration of the lost 10 tribes cannot be considered fulfilled in the return of some of the Jewish people to Jerusalem in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. Even those who did return comprised only a partial restoration of the Jews. The descendants of the rest of the exiled Jewish and Israelite families were scattered among the nations and most probably eventually lost their identity. Prophecy tells us that Christ will gather these, along with the lost 10 tribes, at His return.