Many ethnic groups have come and gone throughout the ages and only few have demonstrated an ability to survive the tests of time. With war and changing political borders as well as dispersion, many people groups have succumbed to the forces of assimilation or absorption into some other body. But one particular race of people has demonstrated an ability to hold on to its identity despite numerous events that would have destroyed it. For 4000 years, the religious and ethnic people we know as the Jews have continued to exist even long after they ceased to be a political body. Throughout the world, they number about 15 million strong living in their host nations with a sort of “dual citizenship”, being members of the nations in which they live but on another level identifying with an ancient heritage in the Near East.
The people of Israel have their origin in the person of Abraham, a Chaldean who at the prompting of God made his way to the land of Canaan to receive the inheritance of a land for his posterity. But after only a few generations in Canaan, the descendants of Abraham found themselves in Egypt where they grew in number over a period of a few hundred years. After the remarkable events of the Exodus, a couple million people departed from Egypt and invaded Palestine claiming it as their homeland. For the next 400 years, the people grew in strength in the land of Israel until reaching an apex under the kingdom of Solomon where the territory of the nation became the largest it would ever be.
What history has called the Diaspora of the Israelites begins at this time and then continues for the next thousand years as the nation is slowly but surely scattered to the wind. Within a century or two of Christ, there were very few remnants of the ancient Israelites still remaining in Palestine. Those who were once a cohesive people in Canaan would now find their homes throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and even to the remotest parts of the earth.
We trace now what is known from history, tradition, legend, and the bible itself regarding the migrations of the Jewish people away from the land that was once given them by God. To be sure, the journeys of this people away from their home country were often sad and marked by the effects of their own sin, but our first record of the dispersion of the Jews seems to begin in that happy time under the prosperous reign of Solomon.
In the first book of Kings, we have the record of an encounter between this very famous and wealthy king of Israel with the Queen of Sheba who came from a land that has historical connections with southwestern Arabia and northeastern Africa. We are told that she had heard of the fame of Solomon and came to him from the south country for the purpose of testing him with hard questions, probing the depths of his wisdom. Every question she asked of him, he explained to her, and nothing that she queried was too difficult for him to answer. The passage from the book of Kings indicates that Solomon gave the queen all that she desired and asked for, and then she left to return with her large caravan to her own country.
But we may not know all of the details about the relationship between the King of Israel and the Queen of Sheba from the biblical account. The records of the Ethiopians suggest that there might have been more happening in her six month stay in Canaan than we would otherwise assume. The virgin queen who was known as Makeda to her own people had desired to have a purely platonic relationship with Solomon during her visit, but the Ethiopian historical document intimates that Solomon was enamored of her and seduced her through a trick. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us as we know the king had 700 wives and 300 concubines, and it is reported that the king targeted Makeda as a new addition by setting a feast with foods that would make her very thirsty. He then made her promise that she would take nothing that belonged to him, but then during the night when she was dying of thirst she reached for a cup of water. Solomon quickly discovered this and charged her with breaching their agreement and subsequently lay with the queen.
From their union, there is a tradition that a son was conceived who was known as Menelik I. After being raised in his mother’s home country, it is purported that he returned to his father only to take back with him members of the Israelite tribes including priests and Levites thereby introducing the Jewish religion to the Ethiopians.
It seems likely that the Queen of Sheba was a ruler of a kingdom in Arabia according to archaeological evidence, and from that locale the religion of the Jews spread into Africa. The South Arabians crossed the Red Sea centuries before Christ and intermarried with the Black Habashat tribe in what is today modern Ethiopia. The official language of that country, Ge’ez is a one of Arabian rudiments mixed with native African elements and some Greek as well. The land of Ethiopia seems to have derived much of its culture from the Arabian invaders who brought with it their artwork and Middle Eastern deities. Undoubtedly, the Semitic influence on this African nation was the source of the ancient Jewish communities in Ethiopia that have persisted until modern times, although it is not completely clear by what path it got there.
Whether or not Judaism became introduced to Ethiopia through the son of Solomon is unclear. However in the centuries that would follow, there is strong evidence for migrations of significant numbers of Israelites from Palestine into southern Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Shortly after Solomon’s death, tensions arose between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and the other ten northern tribes. Choosing not to become a part of the ensuing civil war that split Israel into two kingdoms, tradition holds that a number of Israelites from the tribe of Dan decided to uproot themselves from Canaan and resettle in Upper Egypt. From there they worked their way up the Nile into the land of Cush comprising modern day Sudan and Ethiopia.
The source of this tradition stems from the extraordinary testimony of a 9th century Jewish Black man from the region of Ethiopia by the name of Eldad-ha-Dani (the Danite.) He journeyed to Lower Egypt where he came in contact with the Jewish community living there and surprised them when he claimed to come from a Jewish kingdom way down south. To authenticate this, he spoke an unknown dialect of Hebrew and carried with him Hebrew books. He related to those he visited how he followed the Mosaic tradition very much as they did. Eldad-ha-Dani explained that his people descended from the Danites who fled the land of Israel when civil war broke out between the North and the South.
The Jews of the Biblical land of Cush are known as Falasha Jews or the community of Beta Israel. They are undoubtedly Negro by race but have a rich Jewish heritage that goes back thousands of years. Surprisingly, the Beta Israel community has little genetic evidence linking them to other Jewish communities around the world. However there is some indication of ancient Jewish ancestry indicating that a small group of Jews may have entered into Africa and converted/intermarried with the local Negro population. While DNA testing does not substantiate that large numbers of Israelites mixed with the African population, we are forced to conclude that these African Jews are Jews more by conversion than by ancestry.
After the breakup of the Northern and Southern kingdoms in Israel, the twin nations embarked on the slippery slope toward banishment from their land. Though there were political reasons that drove them out of the land of Israel, we understand from the Bible that there were more fundamental spiritual issues that caused them to be dislodged from Canaan.
Yahweh had complained through his prophets that the people were not faithful to him and were habitually worshipping other gods. From the time of Moses, it was one of the principle tenets of Judaism to worship the Lord alone, and yet the temptation to entertain other deities was all too strong for the Israelites. Especially when they conquered Canaan on their way out of Egypt, it was particularly appealing to offer sacrifice to the local deities of the people they were now encountering. After all, if those local gods were helpful to the residents who preceded the Israelites, it would seem reasonable that they would be good to them as well. However this was strictly forbidden.
Though this failure to give Yahweh full allegiance was serious, it was probably not the main issue that stirred up the anger of the Lord. The practical matters of religion were of equal if not more importance, and God was angry that the people had failed to live in an upright way. The prophet Isaiah highlighted this problem as did all the prophets predicting the doom of the people. Early in his writings, he indicted the Israelites saying, “Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow … Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless: the widow’s case does not come before them.”
Less than 250 years after the breakup of Israel into two kingdoms, the northern tribes were ripe for punishment. Around 745 B.C., King Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom and there is some evidence that he began deportations of the people at that time. However it seems that the Israelite King Menahem staid off the full ferocity of the Assyrian invasion, for we are told that after Menahem paid to Tiglath-Pileser thousands of talents of silver in tribute, he withdrew. Although it wasn’t long thereafter that we are told that “he took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria.”
Nearly 20 years later, the last king of Israel, Hoshea made a very bad mistake in withholding tribute from Assyrian king Shalmaneser V in the hope that So king of Egypt would come to his rescue. In consequence, Shalmaneser invaded the entire land, laid siege to Samaria the capital for 3 years and afterwards deported the Israelites to Assyria. We are told, “He settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes.”
In keeping with the policies of the invading empires, the Assyrians relocated other peoples to Canaan to replace those who were exiled. Apparently the idea was to effectively break ties between the conquered people and their homeland to avoid the potential threat of insurgence in the future. The Book of II Kings maintains, “The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns.” We are told that there were some incidents in which the people were getting killed by lions and the Assyrian king interpreted it to mean that the local deity, Yahweh was not happy that his worship was being ignored. So he gave an instruction that a priest should be sent back from exile to teach the people the worship of the Lord. It would seem from this anecdote that the land was so severely stripped of inhabitants that it was necessary to repatriate someone to teach the new residents the way of the Lord.
The fate of the deportees has been a subject of much debate and speculation for centuries. We are told by the Jewish historian Josephus that “the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers.” However identifying the descendants of these people has been a challenge for modern scholars. It seems likely that a good number of the deportees assimilated into the nations in which they were sent, but there is some evidence that some have survived at least with traces of their Israelite identity intact until the present time.
Admittedly much is shrouded in legend and may be only circumstantial evidence. We have the testimony of one Benjamin of Tudela, a Jew from Spain who set out to travel the world in the Middle Ages. When he visited Arabia in 1165, he came across a settlement of people known as the Jews of Kheibar. He claimed, “These tribesmen are of the tribes of Reuven and Gad, and the half-tribe of Menasseh. Their seat of government is a great city surrounded by the mountains of the North. The Jews of Kheibar have built many large fortified cities. The yoke of the gentiles is not upon them. They go forth to pillage and to capture booty in conjunction with the Arabs their neighbors.”
Some centuries later in 1605, Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci made the surprising discovery of a community of Jews in the city of Kaifeng, China. Ten to twelve families were apparently dwelling there and attended a synagogue which was constructed in 1163.
More recently in the 20th century those in search of remnants of the Lost Tribes have done extensive research into a community in India known as the Bnei Menashe who assert that they are descended from the tribe of Manasseh. According to their oral tradition, after capture by the Assyrians they originally migrated to China and then some centuries later settled in India. Though the sands of time had erased much of what we would call an Israelite identity, the people still retain religious elements that bear a strong resemblance to the traditions of the ancient Israelite community. They have very similar birth, marriage, and funeral rites to Judaism. Additionally they like the ancient Hebrews celebrate three annual festivals, one of which bears a striking parallel to Passover. One of the songs they sing speaks of crossing a divided red sea, being led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The lyrics also talk about the people’s enemies being swallowed by the sea and make an allusion to collecting quail and drawing water out of a rock which of course are distinct stories from the Book of Exodus.
Though possessing what was seemingly an authentic oral tradition akin to the practices of the Israelites, the Bnei Menashe had no written texts and hardly knew anything about Judaism proper. Not until one of their leaders had a dream in the 20th century about his people returning to Israel did they begin to study Judaism and rekindle what they believed to be their long lost heritage.
In terms of genetic studies, the Bnei Menashe have some indication of Middle Eastern ancestry in the DNA of the women tested. This probably indicates that there was a fair amount of intermarriage during their eastward migration as we would expect. If indeed they are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh which left the land of Israel some 2700 years ago, much interbreeding with the indigenous people of Asia was sure to dilute the original bloodline.
The Bnei Menashe hail from Eastern India near the Myanmar border, but there is another group of Jews on the western side of the country with a strong claim to the ancient Hebrews. In and around the city of Mumbai is a community known as Bene Israel which were discovered by an Indian Jew in the 18th century when he noticed that this group of Indians were practicing some distinctly Jewish traditions and rituals. For example, they kept the Sabbath, circumcised their male children, and kept dietary laws in line with the Mosaic tradition. Additionally they observed fasts and festivals in keeping with the Torah and could recite the important Hebrew prayer the “Shema.”
The Bene Israel maintain that they are descendants of those who migrated from the land of Israel in ancient times but slowly assimilated to the indigenous peoples around them. So, by modern times, they only clung to vestigial elements of Judaism having long been separated from the mainstream. Having come into contact with modern Judaism, this body of people has been since indoctrinated in the fullness of the Jewish faith and become more or less normative.
Some who have studied the Bene Israel suggest that they may have been exiles from the Northern Kingdom, for when they were discovered in their isolation, they did not celebrate the festival of Hanukah. This of course would indicate that they are the descendants of a Jewish community from at least the 3rd century B.C. However it is very well possible that they are simply remnants of the Diaspora of the Southern Kingdom, and some have speculated that they hail from Persia as a community that was originally living in one of the many provinces of that Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. In any event, the Bene Israel do have very positive genetic markers linking them with the hereditary Israelite priests or Cohanim.
Though there has been much interest for centuries in finding the Ten Lost Tribes who seemingly vanished after their deportation, there has been comparatively less focus on those Israelites who were left behind by the Assyrians. Frequently students of the bible are left with the impression that the invaders hauled off every last one of the Hebrews living in the Northern Kingdom leaving a vacuum of Israelite blood in Canaan, but biblical and extra-biblical evidence seems to indicate that this was not really the case.
On one hand we are told from the scriptures how the King of Assyria needed to send back an Israelite priest to train the new settlers how to worship Yahweh, and we are led to believe that there were no other Hebrew souls remaining in the region who could have done so. Yet on the other hand, other passages from the Books of Kings and Chronicles suggest otherwise.
It was a common practice of the conquering empire to relocate the indigenous peoples particularly if they had a tendency to be uncooperative as did both kingdoms in the land of Israel. However, the focus of the invading forces was the deportation of the people of money, power, and influence who could organize a rebellion. There was little interest in banishing the commoners from the land. The biblical record of the fall of Judah about 150 years after her northern sister Israel indicates that the Babylonians left behind the poor of the land to work the fields and vineyards. That is, the agricultural workers who posed no threat were allowed to stay and continue with their lives. And we have no reason to believe that the Assyrians didn’t execute the same policy in the Northern Kingdom.
The Assyrian records reveal that the Israelite deportations only represented a limited percentage of the population, particularly the nobility of the land. Over the twenty years or so that the Assyrians were invading Israel, it is estimated that only about 40,000 people were taken into captivity, and that was only about a fifth of the total population. This is substantiated by the records of the Assyrians which indicate that the final deportation under Sargon II included a total of 27,000 people. Of those who were left behind it seems that many fled south into the land of Judah, for archaeological evidence suggests that Jerusalem expanded five-fold in this period. This mass immigration required a new wall to be built and the construction of an aqueduct by Hezekiah to bring more water into the city.
Indeed in the time of Hezekiah, right after the deportations by the Assyrians there seems to have been quite a number of Israelites left in the land. After the Northern Exile, Hezekiah decided to have a large scale celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem and extended an invitation not only to the people of Judah but according to the Book of Chronicles he “also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh inviting them to come to the temple of the Lord.” A proclamation was sent out from Beersheba to Dan inviting the people to come to the Holy City. The letter that the couriers delivered began, “People of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that he may return to you who are left, who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.” Unfortunately we are told that many of the Israelites ridiculed the message, but “some men of Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulon humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem.” The Jewish historian Josephus recounts the same story in his chronicles of the Jewish people adding a few other details. According to him, “many there were of the tribe of Manasseh, and of Zebulon, and of Issachar, who were obedient to what the prophets exhorted them to do, and returned to the worship of God. Now all these came running to Jerusalem, to Hezekiah, that they might worship God [there].”
The continued presence of Israelites in their native land after the Assyrian exile is corroborated even 100 years later in the time of King Josiah. Josephus tells us that after cleansing the land of altars and shrines to other gods, “Josiah went also to such other Israelites as had escaped captivity and slavery under the Assyrians, and persuaded them to desist from their impious practices, and to leave off the honors they paid to strange gods, but to worship rightly their own Almighty God, and adhere to him.” Though the bible doesn’t mention this event, it does record in the Book of Chronicles how fundraising was going on among the Israelites in Josiah’s time. We are told, “They went to Hilkiah the high priest and gave him the money that had been brought into the temple of God, which the Levites who were the doorkeepers had collected from the people of Manasseh, Ephraim, and the entire remnant of Israel.”
Many Israelites apparently survived the fall of their kingdom and continued to dwell in their native land, but it is also true that even before the dissolution of their kingdom, a number of them had emigrated south to live in the land of Judah. Even before the appeals of Josiah and Hezekiah calling the remnant of Israel to return to the way of the Lord, large numbers of Israelites were flocking south to live under the reign of the righteous King Asa. According to the Book of Chronicles, “[Asa] assembled all Judah and Benjamin and the people from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon who had settled among them, for large numbers had come over to him from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him.”
That there were substantial members of the Northern Tribes living among the people of Judah is also corroborated by the Book of Chronicles where it lists the people who returned from the Babylonian captivity late in the 6th century B.C. Besides those of the tribe of Judah proper, we are told that people of Ephraim and Manasseh also returned with them.
Apparently remnants of all 12 tribes were living in Judah after the Babylonian exile, for we have the words of Josephus again to support that the people of Israel persisted in their ancient land even until the 3rd century B.C. It was at that time that the Greek king Ptolemy Philadelphius’ librarian was eager to collect all known writings together into the great library of Alexandria, and having learned that the Jews had many books and writings, he sought to have them translated into Greek. So honoring this request, the king wrote a letter to the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem “to send six of the elders out of every tribe, and those such as are most skillful of the laws, that by their means we may learn the clear and agreeing sense of these books, and may obtain an accurate interpretation of their contents, and so may have such a collection of these as may be suitable to thy desire." Ultimately 72 Jerusalem scholars drawn from each of the twelve tribes completed that work which we know as the Septuagint, that version of the Old Testament which became the standard even among Jews and was used by Christ himself.
In the time of the Savior, we also have record of presence of the Northern Tribes dwelling in Judea. The Gospel of Luke relates how at the presentation of the child in the temple, his family was greeted by the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna. She, we are told was “of the tribe of Asher,” members of which tribe came to visit Jerusalem at the time of Hezekiah. That the Twelve Tribes were all still in existence at this time seems to be further substantiated by James, the Lord’s brother who addressed his epistle “to the twelve tribes scattered abroad.”
There seems to be ample evidence that full blooded Israelites continued to live in the land of Canaan until at least the time of Christ. While we can piece together some of the biblical and extra-biblical accounts of them over the centuries, those people that we know as Samaritans are even more mystifying.
The Samaritans are identified early on as that replacement people that the Assyrians settled in the land of Israel after the deportations. Also known as Cutheans, a term that marks their origin, they came to adopt the worship of Yahweh as converts of sorts once they came to inhabit the land of Canaan. When the Babylonian exiles returned in the late 6th century B.C., the Samaritans seemingly were eager to embrace them as fellow Jews and sought to help them rebuild the temple. But they were rebuffed by the returning exiles who apparently did not consider them authentic members of the Jewish religion either by conversion or descent. The Cutheans were harshly told by the Jews, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel.”
In the centuries after the Babylonian Exile, the Samaritans at times called themselves kin of the Jews and at other times distanced themselves from them. Josephus takes a hostile position to them much like the writers of Ezra and Nehemiah and denies that they share any Israelite ancestry, for he says, “when the Jews are in adversity, they deny that they are of kin to them, and then they confess the truth; but when they perceive that some good fortune hath befallen them, they immediately pretend to have communion with them, saying that they belong to them, and derive their genealogy from the posterity of Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh.”
Modern Samaritans claim to be the direct descendants of the Northern Tribes and while it is clear that the Cutheans are their principal ancestor, it seems likely that the Israelites intermarried with them over the centuries until the point that we could rightly say that they are a mixed breed. DNA studies show the same ancestry among the Samaritans as exist among the various Jews of the modern nation of Israel.
While the Samaritans might have been converts to the Jewish religion originally, it seems that they intermingled with those of true Israelite ancestry. At least this seems to be an implication of Josephus’ writings, for he tells us that one of the leaders of the Cutheans had a daughter whom he married to the Jewish high priest’s brother around the time of Alexander the Great. This Samaritan promised to build a temple up north on Mt Gerizzim, and this notion attracted his son-in-law as well as many other priests to defect into the region of Samaria to participate in that effort. If not from earlier times, it seems that at least by this occasion Jewish blood had mixed with the Cutheans to forge a people with Jewish identity both by conversion and race.
So far we have focused primarily on the dispersion of the Ten Tribes both inside and outside the land of Canaan. Like her northern sister, Judah would also be scattered to the wind beginning primarily with the Babylonian Exile in the early 6th century B.C. Perhaps the people of Judah had learned a lesson from the fate of the Kingdom of Israel and were able to forestall their own deportation 150 years beyond the captivity of the Northern tribes in no small way by cooperating with the Assyrians. At the time of the Israelite exile, King Ahaz of Judah took the silver and gold from the temple of the Lord and gave it to Tiglath-Pileser as a tribute. Later his son Hezekiah, also functioning as a vassal did the same thing to avoid another attack.
Judah had some rest for about a century as the Assyrian empire was crumbling, but the rise of the Babylonian became a new threat and it wasn’t long before the final kings of Judah became vassals of Nebuchadnezzar. When they were foolish enough to rebel as the Israelite kings did, swift reprisal came and after besieging Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar emptied the temple of the Lord of all its treasures. When the final vassal king rebelled seeking help from Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city for 3 years leaving the city in a state of severe famine. When finally the army broke through the walls, they carried off those who remained into exile except for the poor whom they left to work the vineyards and fields.
The Book of Kings tells us that Nebuchadnezzar carted off “all the officers and fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans.” In the interest of separating the powerful and influential from their homeland, the Babylonians only exiled those who could otherwise be considered a threat if left unwatched. The common folk who were mostly farmers posed no such problem, and so those who worked the fields were left in their villages. It is estimated that at most 25% of the residents of Judah actually made the journey to Babylon (perhaps 20,000 out of a population of 75,000.)
The story of those left behind begins in the Book of Jeremiah. After exiling a certain percentage of the Judeans, Nebuchadnezzar installed a Jewish man named Gedaliah to be a governor over those who remained in the land. He was a good man but perhaps was naive and didn’t recognize that he had enemies. He was assassinated by a man named Ishmael who was of the royal Jewish bloodline and undoubtedly resented Judah being governed by a puppet of the Babylonian empire. After this event, a large contingency of Jews fled to Egypt perhaps fearing reprisal from Nebuchadnezzar. Despite the warning of Jeremiah not to leave the land of Canaan, they departed their homeland anyway and took him along with them. Ultimately the Babylonian king invaded Egypt and took a number of them back with him, but some number of the Jews seemed to escape beyond his reach and worked their way into Upper Egypt further south. It was there that they constructed the Temple at Elephantine on the Nile probably in the middle part of the 6th century B.C.
We primarily know about the existence of the religious center through a letter that was written to the governors of Judah shortly after 410 B.C. when this temple was badly damaged in an anti-Semitic attack. The letter requesting assistance in rebuilding this temple refers to it as the house of “Yaho,” a variation of the Tetragrammaton which is normally rendered “Yahweh.” The appeal mentions that the building was “razed to the ground” although the “doors are still standing.” The “roof of cedarwood . . . and whatever else was there, everything they burnt with fire.” The basins of gold and silver and the other articles of the Temple were also taken.
Apparently, while the satrap of Egypt was out of the country, local devotees to the Egyptian god Khnub took the opportunity to snuff out the rival cult next door. It seems that this hostility drove the Jewish community further up the Nile into present day Sudan and Ethiopia. It would be hard to dismiss them as another potential source of the ancient Jewish community in Ethiopia that we have identified as the Falashas or Beta Israel (House of Israel.)
It seems that these migrations of Jews into Egypt and beyond were only to be repeated time and again over the subsequent centuries. After some 50,000 Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile, a good number of them were only to be shipped off again to Egypt, ironically to the land that Moses led them out of 1000 years earlier. Not long after the Greeks conquered the Near East wresting power from the Persians, the people found themselves getting relocated to Lower Egypt. Ptolemy Soter who was one of Alexander the Great’s successors was the king of Egypt. Josephus tell us that after marching into Jerusalem, “Ptolemy had taken a great many captives, both from the mountainous parts of Judea, and from the places about Jerusalem and Samaria, and the places near Mount Gerizzim, he led them all into Egypt, and settled them there.”
A couple centuries later when the people of Judah were embroiled in a fight for independence against the Seleucids, the Syrian branch of Alexander’s vast empire, there was yet another migration into the land of Egypt. At that time, the leaders of the Jewish resistance, the Maccabean warrior-priests had usurped the role of high priest which was the rightful inheritance of the descendants of Zadok who held it centuries earlier. A man named Onias who otherwise would have received this privilege was snubbed, and seeking to fulfill the high priesthood elsewhere went into Egypt to seek the assistance of King Ptolemy Philometor and his wife Cleopatra.
Appealing to the need for a house of worship for the Alexandrian Jews whom King Ptolemy’s predecessor had relocated to Egypt, Onias requested that a temple be built in the city of Leontopolis to meet that need. Perhaps seeing himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Onias also convinced Ptolemy and Cleopatra that he was accomplishing a long foretold prediction in this work, and the Egyptian leaders not wishing to stand in the way of a revered prophet aided him in his endeavor.
Isaiah had predicted, “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and witness to the Lord Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the Lord and keep them.” That prophecy may indeed have been at least in part fulfilled by Onias when he and his fellow priests and Levites entered Egypt to construct another temple of Yahweh. Whether Onias made it a self-fulfilling prophecy or whether he was the God appointed figure to carry it out must probably remain a mystery.
In the time of Onias, the people of Judah were miraculously successful in obtaining their independence from the Seleucids who were mistreating them and forbidding them to practice their ancient religion. 400 years after the nation disintegrated during the Babylonian invasion, the Jews won their autonomy through a hard fought war. But unfortunately it wasn’t to last very long. Less than 100 years after achieving independence, they came under the shadow of the Roman Empire as a client state. Though Jewish kings continued to rule their domains within Canaan for many decades after that, their power was limited and subject to the Roman presence which was all around them.
This created a bitter taste in the mouth of a good many Jews who longed for the unfettered monarchy of David and Solomon. There were no lack of insurrections and skirmishes with the Romans over the decades as result. After a series of corrupt Roman governors were in power in the middle of the first century A.D., the people had had enough, and minor revolts escalated into a full scale war in the late 60s. Of course, no nation could be a match for the mighty Roman Empire, let alone a tiny one like Judea, but the people in their obstinacy elected to do battle with a formidable foe.
Needless to say it didn’t end well for the Jews. At least a couple million people died of either starvation or the sword during the war, and many of those who survived were enslaved. Many were forced to work the Egyptian mines as a punishment which was seemingly a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy. The seer had predicted, “[God] will remember their wickedness and punish their sins: They will return to Egypt.”
After the war ended in about 74 A.D., Jewish communities continued to live in Palestine, but even after such a brutal beating it was clear that they hadn’t learned their lesson. By the 130s another uprising was in full force under the leadership of a Messianic figure named Bar Kokhba. After the carnage that ensued in that the final Jewish-Roman war in the Holy Land, a harsh Roman policy toward the Jewish people followed. Though in the wake of the First War, the Romans showed themselves merciful to the Jews in allowing them to continue to live in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba rebellion no clemency was shown.
Destroying all vestiges of the Jewish presence in the Holy City, the Romans ran a plough through it and forbade any Jew to ever enter it again. They proceeded to eradicate the Jewish national identity first by changing the name of the province from Judea to Palestine and the name of the Holy City from Jerusalem to Aelia. Launching a campaign to settle non-Jews in the land, the Romans made it difficult for Jews to continue to dwell in their ancestral homeland through taxation, discrimination, and social exclusions. As a result, the majority of those who had survived the wars were forced to leave the country for more hospitable lands. After much bloodshed, Rome had made it clear that they would not allow the possibility of another uprising again.
Though there would be communities of Jews still living in Palestine from Roman times until the present, for all intents and purposes the Jewish homeland was destroyed and it was not an option for those scattered throughout the known world to return again. From a political perspective, their banishment from Canaan was a direct result of rebellion against their overlords. But it is important to note the deeper spiritual reason that they forfeited their homeland. Of course, it was no small matter when the people collectively cried out for the death of their Messiah and put themselves under a curse saying, “May his blood be on us and our children.” Consequently the next 2000 years saw them as global wanderers, a people without a homeland and a nation often unwelcomed and persecuted wherever they should travel.
And it seems that Jewish communities spread just about everywhere. Josephus noted in his Antiquities of the Jews that the Babylonian Exile resulted in permanent populations of Hebrews in what are now modern day Iraq, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and Kurdistan. From there they spread into Central Asia and to the Caucasus and as we have noted even to India.
Those Jews who had entered into Egypt over the course of the centuries spread over Northern Africa. It is believed particularly that those slave communities which were the result of the Jewish-Roman wars became the seed of the European Jewish populations. We identify those people as Ashkenazi Jews from the Hebrew word for Germany. Those of North African and Middle Eastern stock are technically known as Sephardic Jews.
We have noted a Jewish presence in Sub-Saharan Africa which might have been seeded by a few different scenarios, and it is interesting to note that besides the Falashas of Ethiopia, there may be an authentic Jewish presence at the very bottom of the continent in South Africa. The tribe known as the Lemba people has been studied for several decades because they appear to possess a religion and culture very similar to Judaism.
Their oral history describes their departure from Judea about 2500 years ago and a migration first to Senna (in modern day Yemen) followed by an entrance into East Africa and a long journey to the bowels of the continent. Among the Jewish-like traditions that they practice, there is an observance of the Sabbath along with dietary laws like those that forbid the eating of pork and other animals proscribed by the Torah. The Lemba practice male circumcision and also carry out a ritual type of animal slaughter for food which is definitively Middle Eastern in origin. And very like the Jewish people, the Lemba historically frown upon Lembas marrying non-Lembas.
Of course we have cited traditions such as these among other people groups of Asia and Africa of whom it is speculated that there was a Hebrew origin. But the Lembas seem to have genetics on their side. There is not only an indication of Middle Eastern ancestry in their DNA, but the Lemba apparently have the genetic markers showing a link to the Jewish priesthood (Cohen) at a rate even higher than the bona fide Jewish populations.
For two millennia, the descendants of Judah and Israel have lived scattered around the globe as a displaced people banished from their homeland. In a certain sense many have regarded themselves as perpetual refugees among the Gentiles. But that was to change late in the 19th century when the Zionist movement was born. Anti-Semitism would plague the Jews for all of the centuries they would live as exiles from their nation, but it wasn’t until the persecutions began to escalate at this time that it galvanized the Jewish community toward a solution. Finally convinced that Anti-Semitism would not disappear, it became clear to many that the rebirth of a Jewish homeland would be the only way to provide peace and safety for the frequently oppressed Jews. While at this time, there was clearly a secular motivation to reestablish the homeland for the security of people, at the same time there emerged in Palestine a religious interest in reviving the Jewish nation.
A major international step toward reforming the Jewish nation occurred in 1917 when the British made the Balfour Declaration which endorsed the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A few years later, the League of Nations added their support to this declaration and granted to Britain the Palestine Mandate. Momentum continued to build toward this goal, and it would seem that the events of World War II ensured that many Jews were willing to abandon the countries in which they were living for the solidarity of a Jewish state. Great numbers of Holocaust survivors fled to Palestine and the world community was behind them having witnessed firsthand the main need for the Zionist project. Finally with a large throng of repatriated Jews living in Palestine, the nation of Israel was reborn in 1948 and since then Jews the world over have immigrated to the land of Israel.
While there were clearly circumstances in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that motivated the Jews to seek a homeland of their own, it is important that we recognize that there were in fact spiritual forces behind the Zionist project. The Jewish prophets had predicted many centuries earlier that the people of Israel would be re-gathered to their ancient land as did Christ himself.
The prophet Jeremiah said, “I myself (God) will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.” Later in his writings he promised, “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety.” Isaiah echoed his sentiments predicting the divine call to come, “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth.”
The prophets seemed to name specific locations from which the scattered people would come, and Isaiah predicted, “Those who were perishing in Assyria and those who were exiled in Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” Jeremiah foretells that in the day of their restoration, the people will say, “As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.” These prophecies seem to acknowledge that exiles would return to the land of Canaan from the remnant of those settled in Assyrian (land of the north) and if we interpret this literally, perhaps we can see a fulfillment in the people of Bnei Menashe and Bene Israel. Since the rebirth of Israel as a nation, teams of rabbis have investigated the claims of both groups and have permitted them to immigrate to Israel as bona fide Jews. In tens of thousands they have come making “aliyah” (return to the Holy Land.)
Other specific locations from which the scattered people would return were mentioned by the prophets. Isaiah made a litany of nations from which the Israelites would return saying, “In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of this people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea.” The nation of Cush is particularly interesting here as we identify it with the modern nation of Ethiopia. Speaking a few chapters later about the people of Cush, Isaiah predicted, “At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord Almighty from a people tall and smooth skinned … the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty.” Zephaniah also reiterated the same message foretelling, “From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshippers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings.” It seems that we have had a fulfillment of these specific prophecies late in the 20th century when during the Ethiopian Civil War, tens of thousands of Falasha Jews were airlifted to Israel.
In the days of the prophets, Judah and Israel were of course divided into two separate nations, but they foresaw that in the day of restoration this distinction would pass and there would be one Israel once again. Jeremiah predicted, “In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel, and together they will come from a northern land to the land I gave your forefathers as an inheritance.” Ezekiel also recognized that this would happen when he said, “I am going to take the stick of Joseph – which is in Ephraim’s hand – and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick, making them a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.” If we have understood correctly that many Israelites had immigrated to the land of Judah after the Assyrian Exile, then we can see how the reintegration of the Northern and Southern kingdoms was underway even before the final banishment from Palestine in the Roman Era. Many of these Israelites had entered Egypt initially and from there populated much of Europe. It seems that the “northern land” Jeremiah had in view was probably Europe and by extension also America.
We may now ask what the divine purpose has been in regathering the scattered people of Israel into their ancestral homeland, and we also have the testimony of the prophets on this subject. The reemergence of the nation of Israel is an apocalyptic indicator of the highest importance in our day as indeed Jesus Christ predicted, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree (nation of Israel): As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.”
The Messiah had indeed foretold that the events surrounding his Second Coming would be intimately connected with the rebirth of the nation. In fact the prophets have foretold that the regathering of the people is in preparation for them to have a Righteous King to reign over them in their homeland, a king in the tradition of David. Jeremiah predicted, “I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.” Ezekiel also echoed this prophecy, “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”
Of course, the Savior is not coming back only to be the King of the Jews but to ultimately be the King of the whole world. Zechariah prophesied, “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.” From Jerusalem he will reign over the nations extending his way of peace and love to the ends of the earth.