In 721 B.C., after a lengthy series of attacks and subjugation of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Assyrians finally swept in and finished what they had begun. They devastated and leveled cities, uprooted trees, salted the earth. The Assyrians were brutal, flaying people alive, putting out the eyes of children, and rewarding soldiers with loot according to how many severed heads they brought to their commanders. Those they did not slay, they carried away into Assyria. This was a population transfer, as the Assyrians planted heathen gentiles into Israel to replace the Israelites they had removed.
Assyria, named for the god Ashur (highest in the pantheon of Assyrian gods), was located in the Mesopotamian plain. It covered essentially the area that is now modern Iraq. The Assyrians were a war-like people. “Their history is one of kings and slaves, wars and conquests, bloody victories and sudden defeat.” (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, The Story of Civilization, 1:266.) Assyria increased in power over the centuries under strong kings who conquered and subjugated their neighbors. “Infantry, chariots, cavalry (introduced by Ashurnasirpal to aid the infantry and chariots), sappers, armor made from iron, siege machines, and battering rams were all developed or perfected by the Assyrians. Strategy and tactics were also well understood by the Assyrian officers”. (See Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 1:270–71.)
Assyria attained its greatest apex of power, “controlling the area that included not only Assyria but also Babylonia, Armenia, Media, Judea, Syria, Phoenicia, Sumeria, Elam, and Egypt. This empire ‘was without doubt the most extensive administrative organization yet seen in the Mediterranean or Near Eastern world; only Hammurabi and Thutmose III had approached it, and Persia alone would equal it before the coming of Alexander’” (Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 1:270).
The capital of Assyria was Nineveh, to whose people the prophet Jonah had preached. Israelite prophets not only foretold of the destruction of Israel and the carrying away of it’s people, but also of the future destruction of Nineveh, which fell in 612 B.C. The Assyrians had found the tactic of population transfer beneficial to the easier rule of conquered kingdoms, but this pattern strained Assyrian by filling it with hopeless, destitute people. Having also to endlessly defend its frontiers, Assyria eventually crumbled.
“Finally, under Nabopolassar, the Chaldeans and Babylonians drove the Assyrians out of Babylonia in 625 B.C. The Medes and Babylonians then united and captured Ashur in 614 B.C. Two years later Nineveh, capital of Assyria itself, fell. With the destruction of Assyria, Babylon became the world empire that all countries in the Near East feared and paid tribute to.”
When we speak of the “lost tribes,” we are actually referring to two types of people. The Israelites were slain and captured and carried away because of their wickedness. This wickedness included turning to the heathen faiths of surrounding countries, so most of the Israelites probably assimilated eventually into the culture and society of Assyria. Over the next hundreds of years, they migrated by families to other parts of the world.
However, the apochrypha of the Bible contains information on a group of Israelites who repented. How many there were, we don’t know, but they realized they were being punished for their transgressions and together decided to repent and supplicate God for deliverance. The Lord heeded their petition and through miracles led them off into the “north countries” where they have remained hidden into the present.
“But they took this counsel among themselves, that they would leave the multitude of the heathen, and go forth into a further country, where never mankind dwelt, that they might there keep their statutes, which they never kept in their own land. And they entered into Euphrates by the narrow passages of the river. For the most High then shewed signs for them, and held still the flood, till they were passed over. For through that country there was a great way to go, namely, of a year and a half: and the same region is called Arsareth. Then dwelt they there until the latter time” (2 Esdras 13:41–46).
“…according to the account of Esdras, they appear to have at first moved in the direction of their old home; and it is possible that they originally started with the intention of returning thereto; or probably, in order to deceive the Assyrians, they started as if to return to Canaan, and when they crossed the Euphrates and were out of danger from the hosts of Medes and Persians, then they turned their journeying feet toward the polar star.” (In James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, p. 512.)
This is verified in the Book of Mormon. When Christ visited the Book of Mormon peoples after His crucifixion and resurrection, He explained to them that He had still another branch of Israel that had been broken off and led away, and that He needed to go and visit them to organize His church among them:
“Neither at any time hath the Father given me commandment that I should tell unto them [the Jews] concerning the other tribes of the house of Israel, whom the Father hath led away out of the land.
“And verily, I say unto you again that the other tribes hath the Father separated from them; and it is because of their iniquity that they know not of them.
“And verily, verily, I say unto you that I have other sheep, which are not of this land, neither of the land of Jerusalem, neither in any parts of that land round about whither I have been to minister.
The Return of the Lost Tribes
“The prophets of old saw that in the last dispensation, the dispensation of the fulness of times, would come a complete gathering and restoration of the house of Israel. With the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 6 April 1830, this great restoration began. The ensign (see Isaiah 11:12 ) has been unfolded to the nations, and Israel is invited by her King to gather again in preparation for the great day when He will personally reign in their midst.
“At a conference held 3–6 June 1831 in Kirtland, Ohio, the Prophet Joseph Smith explained that John the Beloved was then ministering among the lost tribes of Israel, preparing them for their return to again possess the lands of their fathers (see History of the Church, 1:176; D&C 77:14 ). Five years later, Moses appeared in the Kirtland Temple to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and committed to them the keys of the priesthood for “the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north” ( D&C 110:11 ). It is apparent from this passage that though the main body of ten of the tribes is lost, there are representatives of all twelve tribes scattered throughout the earth. This statement can be explained as follows:
1. When Assyria attacked the Northern Kingdom, many fled to the safety of the Southern Kingdom.
2. When the Lord led Israel out of Assyria, some remained behind (see Talmage, Articles of Faith, p. 325).
3. As the ten tribes traveled north, some stopped along the way—many possibly being scattered throughout Europe and Asia.
4. From time to time the Lord has led groups of Israelites into other areas of the earth: the Nephites and the Mulekites being two such groups (see 1 Nephi 22:3–5 ). Concerning this scattering, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “One of the most interesting and significant parables ever written is that revealed to Zenos and recorded in the fifth chapter of Jacob in the Book of Mormon. It is a parable of the scattering of Israel. If we had the full key to the interpretation, then we would have in detail how Israel was transplanted in all parts of the earth.” ( Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:56–57.)
5. The scriptures teach that remnants of all the tribes of Israel were scattered among the nations of the earth and in the last days will be gathered out from among these nations and from the four quarters of the earth. The remnant known as the lost ten tribes will return as a body out of the north countries.” (See Deuteronomy 4:27 ; 28:29, 64 ; Jeremiah 16:14–15 ; 31:8 ; Ezekiel 11:15–17 ; Hosea 9:16–17 ; Daniel 9:7 ; 1 Nephi 22:3–4 ; 19:16 ; 3 Nephi 5:23–24 ; 21:26–29 ; D&C 110:11 ; 133:26–32 .)
The Doctrine and Covenants talks about the return of the Lost Tribes in the Last Days:
“And they who are in the north countries shall come in remembrance before the Lord; and their prophets shall hear his voice, and shall no longer stay themselves; and they shall smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence. And an highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep.
After the people of the Lost Tribes have dwelt in Zion for some time, 12 thousand people from each of the twelve tribes will be chosen (144 thousand in all) and sealed to “go forth among all people, nations and tongues, and gather up and hunt out the house of Israel, wherever they are scattered, and bring as many as they possibly can into the Church of the first-born, preparatory to the great day of the coming of the Lord. One hundred and forty-four thousand missionaries! Quite a host. All this has got to take place.” (Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 18:25.)
Orson Pratt then stated, “…the ten tribes will leave Zion, and will go to Palestine, to inherit the land that was given to their ancient fathers, and it will be divided amongst the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. They will go there to dwell in peace in their own land from that time, until the earth shall pass away. But Zion, after their departure, will still remain upon the western hemisphere, and she will be crowned with glory as well as old Jerusalem, and, as the Psalmist David says, she will become the joy of the whole earth. ‘Beautiful for situation is Mount Zion on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.’” (In Journal of Discourses, 18:68.)
*This article has been adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.