“Our President wants to know if you guys have been circumcised.”
An 1810 drawing of the Lewis and Clark expedition (not the original caption)
Before sending Lewis and Clark out west on their famous expedition, President Jefferson prepared a list of scientific questions for them to investigate on their expedition. Most were the kinds of questions you might expect, concerning things like geography, geology, plant and animal life, weather, and so forth. But there was one very odd assignment. The president wanted to know if there were any similarities between the religious beliefs and ceremonies of the Indians and those of the Jewish people. Jefferson, like many of his day (and some yet today), was fascinated by the ten lost tribes of ancient Israel, and wondered if they perhaps might be out there on the Great Plains. They weren’t. They aren’t anywhere. They are gone. And their disappearance from the pages of history twenty-seven centuries ago should not be surprising. It is what happens to every people group whose armies are defeated, whose nations are destroyed, and whose people are scattered.
After the rule of King Solomon in the tenth century B.C., the nation of Israel was divided by civil war. Ten of the twelve tribes (what we would call states) formed their own nation in the North. Two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, kept the capital city of Jerusalem and the territory in the South. The southern kingdom endured, and their descendants are now called Jews, named after the larger of the two states, Judah. The northern kingdom lasted about three hundred years, and was then defeated, destroyed, and scattered– end of story.
Over the years legends have arisen about those ten lost tribes migrating somewhere and surviving. President Jefferson was aware of these legends, and therefore told Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them in their journey West. If the explorers were invited to any bar mitzvahs or Passover suppers, Jefferson wanted them to make note of it. But they weren’t, and there has been no sign of the ten lost tribes anywhere.
The northern tribes as a distinct people just simply disappeared. Whoever wasn’t killed in the war that obliterated the nation in 722 B.C. was either put into slavery, or, intermarried with people from other cultures. Either way, as slaves or by inter-marriage, they then blended in with other tribes and peoples, and became something else. Some who blended in with others became Samaritans, and there were some of them around yet at the time of Jesus. But they were something different. Those ten tribes of Israel were indeed lost.
This has happened to countless groups and cultures of the world’s people. They just disappear. Many individual members of the group may live on, but as they blend in with other, dominant groups, their distinction as a nation or a culture disappears. Have you ever met any Moabites, Ammonites, or Philistines? Probably not. They are also all gone.
The Southern half of the Kingdom, Judah, lasted 150 years longer than the North. In 565 B.C. they were defeated, destroyed, enslaved, and carried off into exile. But for them, that was not the end of the story. After 70 years, they were allowed to go back and rebuild their land. This new nation of Israel lasted a few more centuries, and was the nation into which Jesus was born.
In the generation after Jesus, Israel was again defeated and destroyed, and the people were scattered. The usual result of that would be their disappearance as a people. But the Jews did not disappear. They did not blend in. The Jews survived and thrived in cities all around the world. They survived as a dislodged and dispersed people, without a homeland, for nineteen centuries. Then, in just the last century, it became possible for them to go home again.
Sixty-eight years ago yesterday, on May 14, 1948, the modern nation of Israel was born. It was a new, but not new, nation. The Jews had survived as a distinct people, now once again they would have a land. One historian said, “Israel is the only nation in the world that is governing itself in the same territory, under the same name, with the same religion, and the same language as it did 3,000 years ago.” And the Jews did it without having a land of their own for two-thirds of that time. They are unique in world history. No other people comes even close to that kind of resilience.
How did they do it? How were they able to maintain their identity as a people after losing almost everything? They lost their independence, they lost their government, they lost their land, they lost the Temple which was the center of their religious life, and they even lost their common language. In 1948 the new nation had to resurrect the ancient Hebrew language for their national language, because no one but scholars had spoken it for centuries. Everyone had to learn it. So after losing everything and being scattered for 19 centuries, how did the Jews survive as a people?
The answer is easy. There was one thing they did not lose, and that was their Book. They had their Scriptures, those same 39 books that you have in the Old Testament of your Bible. That was the one thing they could bring with them where ever they went, and from it, they took everything: their beliefs, their way of life, their rituals, their common history, the stories they told their children and lived their whole lives by, and even their language. It was all in their book. It was by that book that they survived as a distinct, unique people, though scattered and dispersed throughout the world. (continued…)
II Kings 17:5-6a…18 — The king of Assyria invaded the entire land, marched against Samaria (the northern kingdom) and laid siege to it for three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria… The Lord was very angry with Israel (the northern kingdom) and removed them from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah was left.
Deuteronomy 32:46-48 — (Moses said to the people), “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you— they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
Isaiah 60:19b-21 — The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. Then all your people will be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.
The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4); A prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services: