Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) had twelve sons:
Their descendants were known as the twelve tribes of Israel, with each tribe named after one of these sons of Jacob.
After Israel’s descendants were delivered from captivity in Egypt, the Lord led them back to the land of their ancestors and divided that land into twelve parts: one for each tribe. Because the tribe of Levi had been chosen to serve as priests, they didn’t inherit land. So the tribe of Joseph received portions of the land for each of his two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh.
After the death of King Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel was divided. The northern ten tribes formed the kingdom of Israel (also known as Joseph, or Ephraim), and the southern two tribes formed the kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 11:31, 35).
Years later (about 740 B.C.E.), the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and forcibly relocated its inhabitants to other parts of its empire ( The kingdom of Judah was miraculously spared the same fate, but about 150 years later (~600 B.C.E.), it was similarly conquered by the Babylonian empire (“Captivities of the Israelites,” Bible Dictionary).
Lehi and his family left Jerusalem just before it was destroyed. The tribes in the north had long since been scattered by the Assyrians (although some members of those tribes remained in the south. Lehi, for example, was a descendant of Joseph.) But Nephi tells us that those tribes, although scattered, continued to produce sacred records. He promised that those records will one day come to light:
And it shall come to pass that the Jews [the two southern tribes] shall have the words of the Nephites [part of the tribe of Joseph] and the Nephites shall have the words of the Jews; and the Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel; and the lost tribes of Israel shall have the words of the Nephites and the Jews (2 Nephi 29:13).
During the Savior’s mortal ministry, He told His Jewish listeners that He had “other sheep…, which are not of this fold.” He assured them that those other “sheep” would hear His voice, “and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16).
After His death and resurrection, the Savior visited the American continent. He told the people there that they were some of the “other sheep” He had spoken of in Jerusalem (3 Nephi 15:21). Then, He went on to say:
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.
For they of whom I speak are they who have not as yet heard my voice; neither have I at any time manifested myself unto them.
But I have received a commandment of the Father that I shall go unto them, and that they shall hear my voice, and shall be numbered among my sheep, that there may be one fold and one shepherd; therefore I go to show myself unto them (3 Nephi 16:1-3).
Shortly after, He explained who these “other sheep” were:
Now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them (3 Nephi 17:4).
We don’t have a record of that visit. We don’t know where He went or whom he visited. The northern tribes had been scattered centuries earlier, had intermarried with other people, and had lost their tribal identity. Still, from the Savior’s words, it seems clear that some members of those tribes were prepared to receive Him, and that His visit to the American continent is not the only visit He made after His resurrection.
When speaking about the scattering of Israel, President Russell M. Nelson emphasized the same point made by the Savior—the word “lost” depends on your point of view:
Ten tribes were carried captive into Assyria. From there they became lost to the records of mankind. (Obviously, the ten tribes are not lost to the Lord.) (“The Gathering of Scattered Israel,” General Conference, October 2006).
So, even though we know very little about the lost tribes of Israel, we know at least three important things:
- We will one day have their words.
- The Savior visited some of them after His resurrection.
- They are not lost to God.
Today, I will be grateful for the reminder that God loves all of His children. No matter how “lost” we may become from the perspective of other people and even ourselves, we are never lost to God.