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The Lost Tribes of Israel

Around 926 B.C., the kingdom of Israel split in two. Up to that point, all twelve tribes of Israel (plus the priestly tribe of Levi) had been united under the monarchies of Saul, David, and Solomon. But when Solomon’s son Rehoboam ascended to the throne, the ten Northern tribes rebelled and seceded from the union. This left only two tribes—Judah and Benjamin (plus much of Levi)—under the control of the king in Jerusalem. From that time on, the tribes were divided into two nations, which came to be called the House of Israel (the Northern ten tribes) and the House of Judah (the Southern two tribes).

This situation continued until around 723 B.C., when the Assyrians conquered the Northern kingdom. To keep conquered nations in subjection, it was Assyrian policy to break them up by deporting their native populations to other areas and resettling the land with newcomers. When the House of Israel was conquered, most people belonging to the ten Northern tribes were deported and settled elsewhere in the Assyrian kingdom, including places near Nineveh, Haran, and on what is now the Iran-Iraq border. They were replaced by settlers from locations in or near Babylon and Syria.

These settlers intermarried, together with the remaining Israelites, and became the Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament (a few hundred of whom still survive today). The Israelites who had been deported also intermarried with the peoples of the places where they had been resettled. They eventually lost their distinct identity, disappeared, and their culture was lost to history. Some refer to them as “the Lost Tribes of Israel.”

A movement called “British Israelism” claims to have found the ten “Lost Tribes,” however, and in some very unlikely places.

For many years, one of the leaders in the British Israelism movement was Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Church of God.” Especially for Americans, Armstrong was just about the only person they ever heard advocating British Israelism. With his own paid television program, Armstrong regularly advertised his book The United States and Britain in Prophecy, which advocated the view.

British Israelism was not Armstrong’s only eccentric view. Among other things, he believed in Saturday rather than Sunday worship and, most seriously, he rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and claimed that individual humans could be added to the Godhead.

After Armstrong’s death, the Worldwide Church of God did a serious review of the doctrines it had taught up to that point and moved to a more biblically and theologically orthodox position. Today, the organization is basically another Evangelical Protestant church (they have even been admitted to the National Association of Evangelicals), though with a few distinctive practices. Many of their congregations still worship on Saturdays, for example, but they no longer regard keeping the Jewish Sabbath and feasts as points of doctrine. They have embraced the doctrine of the Trinity, denied that created beings can become part of the Godhead, and acknowledged that other churches contain true Christians. They have also rejected the distinctive idea behind British Israelism—the claim that the Lost Tribes of Israel are to be specially identified with the Anglo-Saxons.

Unfortunately, there are still advocates of British Israelism out there, and, though the book is out of print, Herbert W. Armstrong’s The United States and Britain in Prophecy continues to circulate. It teaches the notion that the Lost Tribes of Israel are really the descendants of Anglo-Saxons, which is to say the British and Americans of British extraction.

This exotic doctrine had been around for decades before Herbert W. Armstrong founded his church in 1933, and it appeals, naturally enough, to those of British heritage. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a member of the “chosen race” (assuming there is one)? And according to Armstrong, that’s precisely what the Anglo-Saxons are—God’s chosen race, where can be found the direct descendants of King David and, even today, the true “heirs” to King David’s throne.

The Argument Begins

“We know Bible prophecies definitely refer to Russia, Italy, Ethiopia, Libya, and Egypt of today. Could they then ignore modern nations like Britain and America? Is it reasonable?” This is how Armstrong’s argument begins, and notice what kind of argument it is. If these “lesser” countries are mentioned in Scripture, would it be fair for God to ignore us, important as we are? You might call this an “appeal to pride.”

Never fear, says Armstrong. “The fact is, [the British and Americans] are mentioned more often than any other race [sic]. Yet their prophetic identity has remained hidden to the many.” Why is that? Because the Bible doesn’t refer to them by their modern names, but by an ancient name. And what is that name? None other than Israel.

“Hold it!” you say. The people who came from Israel are Jews. Britons and Americans, for the most part, aren’t Jewish. How can one claim otherwise? Easily. Armstrong assures us that, “The house of Israel is not Jewish! Those who constitute it are not Jews, and never were!”

Actually, there is something of a point here. The term “Jew” originated as a way of referring to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah, whether their own tribe was Judah, Benjamin, or Levi. The term appears late in Israel’s history—after the division into northern and southern kingdoms—and it can be fairly claimed that the term does not apply to the members of the ten northern tribes, who are properly known as “Israelites” since they belonged to the House of Israel rather than the House of Judah.

Armstrong asserted: “Certainly this proves that the Jews are a different nation altogether from the House of Israel,” claims Armstrong. “The Jews of today are Judah! They call their nation ‘Israel’ today because they, too, descend from the patriarch Israel or Jacob. But remember that the ‘House of Israel’—the ten tribes that separated from Judah—does not mean Jew! Whoever the lost ten tribes of Israel are today, they are not Jews!”

“By the year 721 B.C., the House of Israel was conquered and its people were soon driven out of their own land—out of their homes and cities—and carried captives to Assyria, near the southern shores of the Caspian Sea!” So it was in 721 B.C. that the Lost Tribes got “lost.”

The Year Nothing Happened

Had the tribes remained faithful to God, all would have been well, Armstrong explains. “But, if they refused and rebelled, they were to be punished seven times—a duration of 2,520 years—in slavery, servitude, and want.” They did rebel, and Armstrong theorizes that their punishment extended from 721 B.C. to A.D. 1800.

And what remarkable thing happened in 1800? Not a whole lot. In fact, 1800 was a pretty dull year for history. But Armstrong disagrees, saying that from that date, Britain and America became world powers; the former (at that time) politically, and the latter economically (and later, also politically).

According to Armstrong’s scheme, the figure of “2,520 years of punishment” is arrived at by multiplying the “seven years of punishment” by 360—the number of days in the year as it was reckoned by the ancients—on the principle that each “day” of punishment really stood for a whole year of punishment. If you think this is convoluted reasoning, just wait until you read the remainder of the argument in The United States and Britain in Prophecy. It’s enough to note here that Armstrong determines from Scripture that the Lost Tribes ended up on islands in the sea, and these islands are northwest of Palestine.

We’re told, for example, that the forty-ninth chapter of Isaiah begins with, “Listen, O isles, unto me.” Do you see how this suggests the British Isles? Armstrong says, “Take a map of Europe. Lay a line due northwest of Jerusalem across the continent of Europe, until you come to the sea, and then to the islands in the sea! This line takes you direct to the British Isles!”

The skeptic might note that the line first comes to the Aegean islands, which are also in the sea—the Mediterranean Sea—but this would mean the Greeks are the Lost Tribes; therefore, the theory would not play into the desires of some British or Americans to identify themselves with the Lost Tribes.

Linguistic Legerdemain

You want more proof? Armstrong has it. “The House of Israel,” he explains, “is the ‘covenant people.’ The Hebrew word for ‘covenant’ is brit [b’rith]. And the word for ‘covenant man,’ or ‘covenant people,’ would therefore sound, in English word order, Brit-ish (the word ish means ‘man’ in Hebrew, and it is also an English suffix on nouns and adjectives). And so, is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the ‘British’? And they reside in the ‘British Isles’!”

This reasoning may impress some, but no linguist would take this seriously. The word “British” is not derived from Hebrew but from the Celtic word Brettas. It’s significant that the Celtic Brettas referred to the Britons, who were inhabitants of England before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons that Armstrong claims were Israelites. Neither does the common English suffix -ish derive from the Hebrew word for man. Instead, it derives from the Greek diminutive suffix –iskos

It was bad enough to suggest that the word “British” is Hebrew, but Armstrong made another claim: If you take the name “Isaac,” you see it’s easy for someone to drop the “I” when speaking quickly and to end up with “Saac” as the name of the patriarch. He had descendants, of course, and these may be called “Saac’s sons,” from which we get the word “Saxons.”

“Is it only coincidence,” asks Armstrong, “that ‘Saxons’ sounds the same as ‘Saac’s sons’—sons of Isaac?” This doesn’t even qualify as a coincidence, since Armstrong had to make up the nickname of “Saac” in order for the “coincidence” to exist. In reality, the term “Saxon” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “seax,” which means knife or dagger, not the Hebrew word “Isaac” (Yitskhaq), which means “laughter” (see Gen. 17:15–19, 18:9–15).

Armstrongism’s Appeal

What makes Armstrong’s notion so attractive to some folks? First, it appeals to their nationalistic vanity: “I’m of English descent, and now I see that I’m right in the thick of things, biblically speaking. Having English blood in my veins makes me special. It puts me above the rest of the crowd.” It also perpetuates ethnic prejudice: “Thank God I’m not Italian! I never liked Italians anyway, and now I see they aren’t descended from the Lost Tribes and so are only secondary players in the divine drama—something I always suspected.”

At first glance, Armstrong’s argument seems to be based on a sophisticated understanding of Scripture: “Armstrong provides lots of citations, and I can’t find fault with his argument. It’s so convoluted and technical it must be right.” But, still, it’s wrong, no matter how satisfying it seems to some.

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004

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