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) and Naphtali and cities in the territories of Issachar, Zebulun and Asher (2 Kings 15:29).
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).
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).
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 13:33; 2 Chronicles 11:13-16) and his successors—most notably Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 16:28-33; 1 Kings 18:3-18)—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). 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.