Commentary Magazine


Across the Sabbath River by Hillel Halkin

Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel
by Hillel Halkin
Houghton Mifflin. 392 pp. $28.00

The idea that the Israelites—the people later called the “Jews”—once lost ten of their twelve tribes begins with two notices in the biblical book of Kings. The first records events from about 733 B.C.E.:

Pekah son of Remaliah became king over Israel and Samaria—for twenty years. He did what was displeasing to the Lord. . . . In the days of King Pekah, King Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor—Gilead, Galilee, the entire region of Naphtali; and he deported the inhabitants to Assyria.

The second relates an assault of larger scale and greater consequence by Tiglath-Pileser’s son and successor, Shalmaneser V, in 722 B.C.E. This time, “the king of Assyria captured Samaria. He deported the Israelites to Assyria and settled them in Halah, at the [River] Habor, at the River Gozan, and in the towns of Media.” The sites listed are found today in the northern parts of Iraq and Syria and in northwestern Iran, but the Bible gives no indication of the subsequent fate of the Israelite exiles deported there.

The thought that the exiles disappeared forever, melding (as countless Jews have done) with the peoples around them, is not one the biblical authors accepted lightly. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, about a century later, envisions Rachel, the matriarch of three of the tribes, in mourning:

Rachel weep[s] for her
       children.
She refuses to be comforted
For her children, who are
       gone.

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