Review: Benite’s The Ten Lost Tribes

The following is a review that will be published in the Journal of Mormon History. I encourage readers to join the Mormon History Association and thereby receive this wonderful publication quarterly.

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite. The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 302 pp. Illustrations, maps, endnotes, bibliography, index. Hardback: $29.92; ISBN 978–0–19–530733–7

Nine tenths of those who come into this Church are the pure blood of Israel, the greater portion being purely of the blood of Ephraim. He was the first-born, and the first blessing of old Jacob was upon Ephraim. Joseph was a saviour to the house of his father, and will be to the whole house of Israel in the last days. We are Israel, we are already a portion of that venerable house. . . . You will never see a man called to preside in the Priesthood of God on the earth who is not purely of the blood of Abraham. –Brigham Young [1]

Mormon Israelism is peculiar, both in regards to the indigenous population of the American continents as well as to persistent beliefs, readily observed in the patriarchal blessings of each member, that most members are descendants of and heirs to the ten lost tribes of Israel. It is consequently no surprise that Mormonism figures prominently in Zvi Ben-Dor Benite’s recent world history of the ten tribes. However, Benite fundamentally miscomprehends Mormonism in relation to his subject.

Benite’s stated task is a world history, tracing the ten tribes across time and place, from the kernels of historicity to the most developed modern myths and beliefs. Overall, he succeeds in communicating that history. The story of the tribes is vast, spanning millennia of cultural evolution and exchange. After introducing his volume, Benite begins with the foundational narrative of the Bible, which describes the political division of Israel and Judah, followed by Assyria’s subsequent defeat and depopulation of Northern Israel. Importantly, Benite uses extant Assyrian records and up-to-date scholarship to contextualize not only the actual events but the consumption of their interpretation within the self-reinforcing framework of contemporary Assyrian propaganda. This framework then expands as the known world expands from the Persian and Islamic spheres of influence and then to the New World.

The significance of the ten tribes to various religions and their spiritualization is also a key theme throughout the work. Perhaps due to the popularity of authors such as Margaret Barker, the idea of Josiah’s reformation with its crafty Deuteronomists may not be as unpalatable to Mormons as it might have been just a few years ago. Benite shows just how such reformations transformed the lost ten tribes into a spiritual (and political) force. The lost tribes as a contiguous people, however, do not really exist until after the Jewish Bible. “The rudiments of a tale about the loss of an Israelite group were encoded in the biblical era,” writes Benite, “but the emergence of a distinct entity known as ‘the lost tribes’ or the ‘ten tribes’ is a legacy of the postbiblical period, and it is only then that the ten tribes come into being as a distinct collective category within ‘the people of Israel’ and are assigned a distinct place within world geography and a role in world history” (58). Perhaps the most significant development in the history of the tribes was the creation of the book of 2 Esdras, a pseudepigraphal work, which, building upon other apocrypha, elucidated the theology and geography of the tribes.

Through reinterpretation, rabbinic and other, the tribes chose exile for purity’s sake and became a powerful people. Midrashic sources describe their return, from across a sabbatic river and from deep within the earth. The history is punctuated with pivotal appearances by characters, frauds–pious or not–that expanded the myth and for some, gave it concrete reality. The current state of Israel naturalizes the Falasha (Jewish Ethopians) based on the association of Ethopia with the tribe of Dan by Eldad ha-Dani, one such ninth-century trickster.

Christian interest in the ten tribes is of rather late vintage. It was not until the second millennium C.E. that Christians engaged the tribes, exchanging knowledge with Jews, with each crafting narratives favorable to their own perspectives. Christians associated the tribe with the myth of Prester John. Benite shows how, with the expanding world, both Protestants and Catholics sought for the ten tribes, first on the borders of the Old World, then in the Canary Islands, and then in the New World. The belief that native peoples in the American continents were the lost tribes was common well into the nineteenth century. Benite also addresses the origins of British Israelism, another important context for Mormonism (see here).

Benite’s unfamiliarity with Mormonism, however, is betrayed by casual mistakes: referring to the Church as “the Mormon Church of the Latter-day Saints” (187) and dating the Kirtland Temple theophany to 1831 (186). He relied heavily on R. Clayton Brough’s The Lost Tribes [2] for the bulk of his Mormon sources. This volume, while somewhat useful, is dated and historiographical flawed. Benite frames the tribes in a theology of loss (14–22) which the author rightly recognizes as being reflected in Mormonism (185 & 198). The garden of Eden, Zion (both ancient and modern), and Israel were all just beyond the reach of early Mormons and served as archetypes for the Restoration. However, Benite does not see this broader resonance and is not clear in his explication of the Book of Mormon, framing it as an attempt to save the history of the ten lost tribes and their American landing from science, which was beginning to dismantle such theories:

As revelations, Mormon claims are immune to any scientific challenge—not the case with the Jewish Indian theory, which relied on ethnographic findings. Nevertheless, scientific challenges to Mormonism have been an integral part of its history since its inception. And for its part, Mormon science is interested in proving the correlation between the various nations mentioned in the Book of Mormon and, for instance, the mound builders. (187)

Though many nineteenth-century authors such as Ethan Smith asserted an American geography for the ten tribes, the Book of Mormon does not. The bulk of its narrative revolves around Hebrews which traveled to America before the Babylonian captivity. True, the Book of Mormon incorporates the history of similar refugees led by God from before the Assyrian deportation and after the tower of Babel, but all the characters of the Book are outside of the lost tribes. [3]

Furthermore, as evidenced in the opening quotation of this review, Mormons not only saw Hebrews in Native Americans, but also in themselves. Benite acknowledged early Mormon discourse regarding Zion and Israel, but he failed to see the prominent and intense belief that Mormons are literally descendants of the lost tribes. Related to British Israelism, early Mormons generally viewed the tribes as assimilated in the cultures of the world. Their descendants were indistinguishable from the unmixed populations except by their reaction to the gospel. Two years after the organization of the Church, the Evening and Morning Star printed “The Ten Tribes,” an article, which delineated the early Mormon view, based on tradition but also heavily influenced by the Book of Mormon’s allegory of the olive tree (Jacob 5), that God scattered the tribes all over the world. [4] Joseph Smith and other early Mormons did appear to believe in the traditional eschatological return of the remnant tribes from “the northern countries,” [5] but it is not until the early and middle twentieth century that Mormon leaders invested more heavily in the myth, with many believing in supernaturally obscured intact tribes. [6]

Benite completely misses this development of Mormon thought on the subject over time, instead focusing on unrepresentative data and mistaken interpretation. Despite this error with regards to Mormonism, his volume will nevertheless be useful to many readers and offers a robust bibliography for further study.


  1. Brigham Young, Sermon, October 9, 1853, in “Minutes of the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Millennial Star 16 (January 28, 1854): 52.
  2. R. Clayton Brough’s The Lost Tribes: History, Doctrine, Prophecies and Theories About Israel’s Lost Ten Tribes (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1979).
  3. See Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 66.
  4. [No author], “The Ten Tribes,” Evening and Morning Star 1 (October 1832): 33–34.
  5. Joseph Smith, Letter to N. C. Sexton, January 4, 1833, Kirtland, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 273–74. See also Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, 67, 85; Revelation, November 3, 1831, in Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds., Revelations and Translations: Manuscript Revelation Books, Facsimile Edition, in THE JOSEPH SMITH PAPERS series, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 207-8 [D&C 133:26–34]. Joseph Smith may have also believed that God removed the tribes from the planet. Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson, eds., Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press/Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2009), 407-8; Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833–1898, typescript, 9 vols. (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983-85), 5:385, 6:363; Bathsheba W. Smith, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor27 (June 1, 1892) 344.
  6. James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith: A Series of Lectures on the Principal Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News. 1899), 335–40, 348–50; Orson F. Whitney, Saturday Night Thoughts: A Series of Dissertations on Spiritual, Historical and Philosophic Themes (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1921), 128–29; John H. Taylor, Sermon, Conference Report, October 1937, 41–42; Bruce R. McConkie, “Lost Tribes of Israel,” in his Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 455–58. Individuals such as B. H. Roberts extensively engaged ten tribes scholarship.


  1. Very nice discussion, J. I posted some related thoughts on lineage recently at T&S.

    A couple of points from All Abraham’s Children that didn’t make it into that post were (1) that LDS speakers have, over time, identified “the blood of Israel” in every geographical region where LDS missionary work has (eventually) had success; and (2) that there is a spectrum of opinion among even LDS patriarchs (speaking in private interviews) what the lineage designation given in LDS patriarchal blessing signifies, with some viewing it as simply a symbolic statement rather than a literal declaration of real-world descent.

    The bottom line is that it is very difficult to specify the present-day status within LDS doctrine of the claim that members of the LDS Church have some connection to the Ten Tribes.

  2. Good points, Dave. I enjoyed that discussion. JFSII’s views on lineage are very problematic (see, e.g., The Way to Perfection). I tend to think (without empirical data of course) that most members take a strong fundamentalist or literalist reading, while a strong minority view it symbolically.

  3. Summary works like Benite’s always make you wonder about the trust factor. But even Mormon historians have their troubles with the facts in broad works like this. But it’s a start. You also make excellent points about our strange love affair with the lost tribes. Thanks much, J.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Nice review, J. I appreciate this JMH preview!

    Of course, in light of modern population genetics, the historic Mormon understanding of tribal descent as announced by PBs doesn’t even make any sense. If a given Patriarch had descendants that extend until today, then virtually everyone alive today is descended from that same Patriarch. So in a genealogical sense an assignment to a tribe is meaningless. Sure, I’m a descendant of Ephraim. And Dan. And Reuben. And Judah. Et cetera. And so are you, whether you’re Mormon or not. The whole concept of “believing blood” just doesn’t work.

  5. So in a genealogical sense an assignment to a tribe is meaningless.

    Tribal assignment is normally done in a patrilineal fashion. It doesn’t matter how many sons of Jacob you are descended from, you naturally belong to the tribe of the son who is your nth great grandfather. So it is not meaningless. It is where you fit in the _patriarchy_.

    If you are not a patrilineal descendant of Jacob, the only way you can belong to one of the tribes is to be adopted, presumably by someone who themselves is either adopted or a natural born member of the tribe.

  6. Thanks.

    Kev., I agree that even Church leaders recognize some flexibility in assignments — e.g., explanations of how siblings and parents have differing tribal identities. I also agree that mathematical models show that if they have living descendants (which is a fair assumption) then every living human is a descendant of every son of Israel.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    If we’re talking about simple descent, then the concept is so broad as to be meaningless. If we’re talking about the vast majority of Mormons being descended from Ephraim in a pure patrilineal line, the concept is too narrow to be believable (unless we accept some form of British Israelism–which I don’t).

  8. wondering says:

    Mark D. makes a good point–when talking about ancestors and descendants you really need to be clear about whether you mean patrilineal descent or just descent in general.

    But notice that Brigham Young and other leaders generally don’t make clear that they are talking only about patrilineal descent. In fact, in the above quote, BY keep talking about “pure” descent, and being “purely of the blood of Abraham,” which wouldn’t make any sense if he was talking about patrilineal descent. I interpret the statement to mean that BY believes that ALL his lines of ancestry go back to Abraham.

  9. wondering says:

    Some more thoughts…

    I think it would be a mistake to think that patrilineality is generally implied when we talk about descent. Some reasons why:

    1. General English usage of terms like “ancestor” and “descendant” don’t imply patrilineality. For example, it would be completely normal to say that my mother’s father’s father is my ancestor, and it would be very strange and misleading if I were to claim that he is not my ancestor.

    2. Genealogy/family history as practiced in the church puts no special emphasis on the patrilineal line.

    3. Terms such as “the blood of Israel” are often used. Everyone knows that people are related “by blood” to their mothers just as much as to their fathers. If patrilineal descent was implied, I would expect people to talk about the “birthright of Israel” or something like that. This is even more clear when there is talk of “blood” being more or less “pure.” It is possible to have degrees of “purity” in overall descent, but with patrilineal descent you either are or you aren’t.

  10. Mark Brown says:

    Somebody ought to do some work on the LDS concept of adoption and clear all this up………

  11. I think it would be a mistake to think that patrilineality is generally implied when we talk about descent

    We are not really talking about descent per se though. The subject at hand is why a person naturally (i.e. by birth) belongs to one tribe of Israel rather than another. The simple rule, the one that was actually used in Old Testament times, is patrilineal descent.

    It is hard to see how there is any other easily determinable possibility except matrilineal descent. Most Israelites would naturally count all twelve sons among their ancestors. There wasn’t some sort of rule against intermarriage with members of the other tribes.

    It didn’t matter anyway. It was just which one of the sons of Israel your nth great grandfather was. All of your grandmothers could have been non-Israelites by birth (Ruth comes to mind) and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference as to which tribe you were counted a member of. You couldn’t be a priest unless you were a patrilineal descendant of Levi, nor a high priest unless a patrilineal descendant of Aaron, etc.

    It goes without saying that one could be a patrilineal descendant of one of the twelve sons of Jacob with only the slightest physical resemblance to the “in-bred” Israelite population as a whole, and no one really cared as long as religious practices were maintained (which was a problem as one might guess).

  12. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but when we talk about Jesus being the offspring of David there are notable females that act as carriers in that line-Ruth and Mary. So His line is not completely patrilineal…if ciourse we could take out Mary and sbstitute Joseph -but that is a complicated relationship.

    As for the adoption issue..I do remember one of my husband’s relatives talking about his sister who was a “wayward youth” and saying she didn’t havethe blood of the tribes of Israel in her veins. My husband and I were both disgisted…what dies that mean for our blood siblings who chose to leave the church? blood transplant?

    There is much about adoption in the scriptures and it seems based on choice not lineage that Heavenly Father identifies His children. It is as if they had been born in that lineage-I don’t imagine any actual change in the blood for that.

    I like the abiguity on the meaning of our PB identified tribe…the importance is the role and how we accept it anyway…I doubt Cain’s uber recognizeable patrilineal lineage helped him much

  13. of course…sheesh if ciourse….sigh

  14. britt, Jesus is a special case, the exception that proves the rule. Under normal rules (i.e. to anyone who didn’t recognize his divine parentage) he wouldn’t qualify to be king of the Jews at all, or at least not until the entire patrilineal descendancy of Judah died out, leaving the latter without a natural heir.

    As far as Ruth is concerned, she was a Moabite by birth. Both her husbands were members of the tribe of Judah. Not that it made them better people or anything.

  15. Good point about Ruth. I just think it is precisely because Jesus is a special case that we should consider Him. He couldn’t really be the offspring of David without being Mary’s son. Interesting about the rest of the offspring of David having to die first-I don’t suppose they felt spiritual death was good enough to negate the birthright.

    Of course Jesus’ fatherhood is rather important as well…

  16. C. Harrell says:

    J. In your review of Benite’s book, you state that the predominant view of the early saints was that the ten lost tribes were simply “assimilated in the cultures of the world.” You then cite Phelp’s EMS article as a source of evidence for this view. Unfortunately, this same article has been cited by others, such as Grant Underwood, as evidence of an early LDS belief that the ten tribes were intact and living in the North. Phelps himself wrote to OC in 1835 stating, “There may be a continent at the north pole, of more than 1300 square miles, containing thousands of millions of Israelites, who, after a highway is cast up in the great deep, may come to Zion, singing songs of everlasting joy. . . . This idea is greatly strengthened by reading Zenos’ account of the tame olive tree in the Book of Mormon” (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2 [October 1835]: 194). Are there other, less equivocal, sources you can refer me to that indicate an early LDS belief that the ten tribes were scattered among the nations of the earth? This is a topic I am addressing in an upcoming publication, so I appreciate your perspective on it.

  17. C. Harrell, I’m looking forward to your book.

    I stated in the original post:

    Two years after the organization of the Church, the Evening and Morning Star printed “The Ten Tribes,” an article, which delineated the early Mormon view, based on tradition but also heavily influenced by the Book of Mormon’s allegory of the olive tree (Jacob 5), that God scattered the tribes all over the world.

    It could be that I am misreading “The Ten Tribes” article; it is rather peculiar. Do you think I am? I confess that I have not done exhaustive research on the topic. In rereading it a couple of times now, perhaps I was mistaken.

    After that sentence, I then go on to show that early Mormons including JS believed in the traditional (or not so traditional) eschatological return of the 10 tribes from the earliest moments. It makes sense to me that Phelps is among those that believed such things. I think the letter that you cite doesn’t necessarily show ten tribes exclusivity to the north pole (though it very well might – how is that for slippery). He is describing the possible number of inhabitants in Indian territories and then goes on to say:

    The parts of the globe that are known probably contain 700 millions of inhabitants, and those parts which are unknown may be supposed to contain more than four times as many more, making an estimated total of about three thousand, five hundred and eighty millions of souls: Let no man marvel at his statement, because there may be a continent at the north pole, of more than 1300 square miles, containing thousands of millions of Israelites, who, after a high way is cast up in the great deep, may come to Zion, singing songs of everlasting joy. The Lord must bring to pass the words of Isaiah, which say to the NORTH, “Give up; and to the South; keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth.” From the north and south END, I presume, as no one has ever pretended, that there was an end to the globe any where else.

    This idea is greatly strengthened by reading Zenos’ account of the tame olive tree in the book of Mormon, page 131. The branches planted in the nethermost parts of the earth, “brought forth much fruit,” and no man that pretends to have pure religion, can find “much fruit” among the Gentiles, or heathen of this generation.

    I.e., what scattered peoples to the south was Isaiah talking about? Zenos is also pre-exhilic. Does the fact that hethens are not bringing forth fruit mean that the remnant tribes in those places were apostate? Perhaps such questions are over-complicating Phelps?

  18. Heh. I cited Underwood’s treatment of that letter (n5) for evidence of traditional views. Thought it was familiar. Also, I probably should have been more clear that by “tradition” I was referring to pre-Mormon Christian beliefs.

  19. britt, I should say rather that since Joseph was a member of the tribe of Judah, Jesus would potentially be qualified in the eyes of those who believed that Joseph was his father. Or perhaps for those who believed that he had another father but that Joseph legitimately adopted him. See Luke 3:23 et seq.

  20. North doesn’t have to mean the North Pole. If ten tribes went North, they must (or might) have settled in Siberia (Russia Novosibirsk mission being larger then the whole US). Even now population of Siberia is only 25 millions – back then it was nearly empty – come and live. Maybe that’s why Joseph Smith felt the need to bring the gospel to Russia.

  21. Thank you Mark for explaining that.

  22. C. Harrell says:

    J. Thanks for the clarification, and I concur that from the beginning the Saints seemed to embrace an eschatological return of the ten tribes. In Jan. 1833, JS said they wouldn’t return until the wicked are destroyed. I also agree that Phelps’ Oct 1832 EMS article is somewhat obscure. For example, he doesn’t seem to be consistent in his use of the term “Israel”–the House of Israel? the ten tribes? Though he speaks of the House of Israel, including the ten tribes, as being scattered, he ultimately defers to the apocryphal account of Esdras to explain that, in the case of the ten tribes, after they were taken captivity into Assyria, they migrated “into a further country, where never mankind dwelt.” There they would stay “until the latter time” when God will miraculously bring them back. Phelps then states that this explanation “ought to convince the world where Israel [i.e., the ten tribes] went” (p. 34).
    This EMS article is the second in a three-part series. In the introductory article that appeared in August, Phelps states that while “the Jews [were] among all nations,…the Ten Tribes…went to that country ‘where never mankind dwelt.’” Thus, it seems that Phelps was suggesting that the ten tribes, or at least a contingent thereof, were intact.