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The Tribes of Israel


722 years before the birth of Christ, the armies of the Assyrian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Israel (the land of the ten northern tribes) and carried the inhabitants off into captivity. The Kingdom of Judah in the south, was barely spared from the same fate by the strenuous efforts of the prophet Isaiah and their righteous king Hezekiah (and some large-scale, last minute repentance). Little more than 100 years later, the Assyrians, in turn, were conquered by the Babylonians. When their Assyrian overlords were subjugated, however, the Israelite “exiles” did not return as they were, by this time, already lost to history.


  • Mormon Doctrine, Pages 455-458 (Elder George Reynold’s discussion)
  • Prophecy And Modern Times, W. Cleon Skousen, Deseret Book Company, (11th printing 1961-currently out of print), pages 54-58.

Scriptural References

  • D&C 133:26-34
  • 2 Nephi 29:12-13
  • 3 Nephi 15:12-24
  • 3 Nephi 16: 1-3
  • 10th Article of Faith
  • Genesis 49
  • Deuteronomy 33:1, 6-25
  • 2 Kings 18: 9-12
  • Jeremiah 16:14-16
  • Isaiah 11: 10-16
  • Isaiah 35: 8-10


39 And whereas thou sawest that he gathered another peaceable multitude unto him;
40 Those are the ten tribes, which were carried away prisoners out of their own land in the time of Osea the king, whom Salmanasar the king of Assyria led away captive, and he carried them over the waters, and so came they into another land.
41 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,
42 That they might there keep their statutes, which they never kept in their own land.
43 And they entered into Euphrates by the narrow passages of the river.
44 For the most High then shewed signs for them, and held still the flood, till they were passed over.
45 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.
46 Then dwelt they there until the latter time; and now when they shall begin to come,
47 The Highest shall stay the springs of the stream again, that they may go through:therefore sawest thou the multitude with peace. ” (II Esdras 13:39-47)



To understand the full meaning of the following discussion, it is important to understand the implications of what a “birthright” is. “A birthright comprises certain privileges, blessings and responsibilities to which a child is entitled by virtue of his birth…. . Evidently, the firstborn’s rights included the right to be shown deference by his siblings throughout his life (Genesis 43: 33) and to inherit a double portion of the family holdings (Deuteronomy 21: 17). This would help him to care for his mother and unmarried sisters when the father passed away. The firstborn also was given the right to preside over the family after the death of the father, though this right could be bartered away, as happened to Esau (Genesis 25: 29-34) or forfeited by unrighteousness, as happened to Reuben" (Genesis 35: 22, 49: 3-4; 1 Chronicles 5:1, Book of Mormon Reference Companion, pages 95-95). The birthright, customarily, was usually given to a man’s oldest son, though there have been some rather striking exceptions to this rule. Obviously, in regards to Old Testament and Book of Mormon times, there is also a side to this subject that involves significant spiritual blessings for the recipient of the birthright and his descendants. This point is more than made clear by Jacob’s words when he bestowed the birthright upon his son Joseph. Though the term “birthright” is not specifically used in the Book of Mormon, it is clear that its conferring upon their younger brother Nephi has much to do with the animosity Laman and Lemual feel toward him (Book of Mormon Reference Companion, pages 95-95; see also 1 Nephi 2: 22-23, 7:8, 16:37; 2 Nephi 1:24, 27-29, 5:3-6).

Tribe of Joseph

Genesis 49:22-26 (see also Deuteronomy 33:13-17 for Moses' elaboration of Jacob's blessing to Joseph)-The account of father Jacob/Israel’s blessing upon Joseph and bestowing the birthright upon him (NOTE:Joseph was the second youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob. Reuben, who was originally supposed to receive it, was the oldest of Jacob’s sons. Joseph received the birthright after Reuben’s forfeiture because he was the oldest son of Jacob’s second wife, Rachel, and Leah's other sons-Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun-had likewise forfeited their claim on it due to unrighteousness. The birthright could not go to the sons of Bilhah or Zilpah because they were Rachel’s and Leah’s handmaidens/Jacob’s concubines). Jacob/Israel bestowed the greatest blessings upon Joseph and his descendants. This fact is still recognized by modern-day Jews. These blessings (and the birthright) involve a great leadership role for Joseph’s descendants, through which they will bless the other tribes of Israel and the world. They also involve something that is often overlooked by students of the Old Testament: a rather sizeable land inheritance. According to Apostle Orson Pratt, there are some important things to be understood from Jacob's blessing to Joseph and his descendants:"First, he should become a multitude of nations. In the second place, his branches should run over the wall. Now what does this mean?The Lord in ancient times had a meaning for everything. It means that his tribe should become so numerous that they would take up more room than one small inheritance in Canaan, that they would spread out and go to some land at a great distance. . . . . Joseph's peculiar blessing, which I have just read to you, was that he should enjoy possessions above Jacob's progenitors to the utmost bounds of the everlasting hills. This would seem to indicate a very distant land from Palestine. . . . . I suppose that Jacob saw this land as well as Moses and he designates it a land afar off; the utmost bounds would signify a very distant land. He said this land was over and above, what his progenitors gave to him and he would give it to Joseph. . . . . The precious things of heaven were to be given to Joseph on this land. Blessed of the Lord be this land for the precious things of heaven. . . . . revealed to the people of Joseph on the great land given to them unto the utmost bounds of the everlasting hills" (Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 14:9, 18:167-168; D&C 101:80). The land of the "Everlasting Hills" is America, which, incidentally, is where Zion shall be established in the last days (3 Nephi 15:12-13; 2 Nephi 10:10-13; D&C 57:1-3; 133:26-32). Lehi and his sons in the Book of Mormon were descendants of Joseph through the tribe of Manasseh (Alma 10:3). Joseph Smith is a literal descendant of Joseph through Ephraim (2 Nephi 3:1, 14-15).

Tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh

Genesis 48-The account of their grandfather Jacob/Israel purposely crossing his arms and laying his right hand upon Ephraim, (the younger of the two boys), thereby bestowing the birthright upon him. Jacob literally, "adopted" Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons, thereby, placing them into the same generation as their uncles, the twelve patriarchs (Genesis 48:5-6; JST Genesis 48:5-6). This made for 13 actual "tribes" of Israel (12 of them, subsequently, with a land inheritance and one-Levi-without a land inheritance). Also, keep in mind that Ephraim's tribe occupies Joseph's "place" from this time onward. Ephraim and Manasseh were the two sons of Joseph born (of his Egyptian wife Asenath) soon after Pharaoh appointed him a ruler over Egypt (Genesis 41: 38-52). Joshua, the great prophet and military leader who led Israel after Moses’ departure, was of the tribe of Ephraim. The history of the tribe of Ephraim after it led a successful rebellion from Judah in 925 B. C. is rather tragic. This rebellion created two separate and distinct political entities:Judah in the south and Israel (a confederation of ten tribes) in the north. Though Israel’s first king, Jeroboam (of the tribe of Ephraim), began his reign in righteousness, it was not long before he was swept-up into idolatry and wickedness. Through its despicable example, Ephraim continually influenced the other nine northern tribes to engage in the most grievous spiritual depravity imaginable and served as the main rabble-rouser in fomenting hatred toward Judah in the south(1 Kings 16:32; 18:19-20, Isaiah 11: 13). Judah and Israel (under the leadership of Ephraim) were often at war with each other, each even entering into alliances with neighboring idolatrous nations in hopes of finally annihilating the other (1 Kings 15: 18-20). The Lord frequently called prophets to administer unto Ephraim and the nine other tribes (Elijah, Elisha, Hosea and Micah, to name a few). But the spiritual gains were always short-lived and the “backsliding” would quickly resume shortly after a prophet’s ministry ended. In its approximately 200 years of history, Israel had 19 kings; a good number of them were from the tribe of Ephraim and almost all of them were very wicked (in these circumstances, it is not hard to imagine why some of them died of unnatural causes-1 Kings 15:25-28).

Since the earliest days of the Gospel Restoration, the vast majority of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints have been descendents of Ephraim either by blood or by adoption. As can be seen here, Ephraim’s “birthright” plays a major role in the restoration of the Gospel and the work of the Lord in the last days. Ephraim is now finally rising to the occasion and acting responsibly as a leader of righteousness to his brethren as in the days of Joshua (Genesis 48:18-20, D&C 133:30-34).

Tribe of Judah

Fourth son of Jacob, first Jew. Genesis 49: 8-12. Judah’s blessing at the hands of his father Jacob also involves, amongst other things, a leadership role. Judah holds the scepter of future kings whom his brother’s descendents will bow down to. However, he does not possess the greater blessing of the birthright as does Ephraim. Caleb, King David, King Solomon, Jesus Christ (who has direct, royal lineage back to David and Solomon), Peter, James and John are descendents of Judah. Doctrine and Covenants 113:3-6 and Isaiah 11:1, 10-12 seem to indicate that Joseph Smith is also a literal descendant of Judah through Kind David's father Jesse.

Tribe of Dan

Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, had two sons, one of whom was Dan (Genesis 35:25). Not much is understood about Dan and his role in the scheme of gospel events. However, there are tantalizing clues in the Hebrew meaning of his name (which translates "judge") and his blessing at the hands of Jacob/Israel (Genesis 49:16-18, Deuteronomy 33:22). Curiously, no members from the tribe of Dan are to be "sealed" among the 144,000 referenced in Revelation 7:5-8 (for some reason it seems that his nephew Manasseh will be substituted for him). No reason is given for his exclusion, but it doesn't seem to be for any particular unrighteousness on Dan's part.

The Tribe of Levi

Third son of Jacob/Israel. Levi was probably not given a land inheritance because he and his brother Simeon deceitfully murdered the men of a city while defending their sister’s honor (Manasseh, Joseph’s oldest son, was given Levi’s land inheritance in his stead). They are the only two of Jacob’s sons who did not receive a blessing from their father (Genesis 49: 5-7). The Levites, however, seem to have redeemed themselves somewhat in that they proved valiant during the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32:26-28). After this, the Levites became the “peculiar property” of the Lord (which is, most likely, another reason they did not receive a land inheritance).

From the days of Moses onward, the Levites were charged with administering the daily rituals of the priesthood and the tabernacle/temple among the other twelve tribes. In their special calling, they (along with the priests) served as the only authorized ministers of the Mosaic Law. Their duties included slaughtering the sacrifices, acting as musicians and generally assisting the priests. They were also responsible for moving the portable tabernacle before the temple was built. They actively performed their sacred duties from 30 to 50 years of age. They were dispersed throughout the other tribes and each land-inherited tribe set aside four cities within its borders wherein the Levites took up residence (making for a total of 48 cities-Numbers 35:2-7). Six of these cities (three on either side of the Jordan River) were set apart as "cities of refuge" for those who had accidentally committed homicide (Numbers 35:6, 11-15). This set-up lasted for hundreds of years until shortly after the successful rebellion of the northern ten tribes of Israel from Judah. 2 Chronicles 11: 13-15 states that not long after their secession, the northern tribes became idolatrous and prevented the priests and Levites from observing the rites of the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood. This necessitated their departure southward to the kingdom of Judah. The northern tribes continued their spiritual downward “spiral” until they were finally ripe for destruction at the hands of the Assyrians some 200 years later. Some notable Levites from the Bible are Moses and the Apostle Barnabus (Paul’s one time missionary companion).

The literal descendents of Aaron, however, are unique. Only the male descendents of his direct line were allowed to hold the office of “priest” (Exodus 40: 13-15). In the days of the tabernacle, they possessed exclusive rights in transporting the ark of the covenant. One of this priestly class was anointed to be the “high priest. ”This special servant of Jehovah was expected to be perfect and physically without blemish, a messianic foreshadowing (See Leviticus 21:10-24). This special “authority” possessed by Aaron and his descendents is often referred to as the Aaronic Priesthood. John the Baptist was a literal descendent of Aaron, hence his authority to baptize. Interestingly, of those Old Testament prophets and righteous leaders whose lineages we know, a good number were descendants of Aaron (Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Ezra, to name a few). These sons of Aaron officiated over the rest of the Levites, who were commanded to “minister” unto Aaron and his sons (Numbers 3:6). In modern times, Jews with the last name of Levi or Levine are descendents of Levi. As a “subgroup,” the direct descendents of Aaron often bear the last name of Cohen, Kahn or Kagan. Aaron’s descendants are still referred to as “Cohenim” (The Torah refers to a man who has been ordained as a representative of God as a “Cohen”). Because of their special, priestly status, the Lord has revealed that only literal male descendants of Aaron have a legal right to hold the office of Bishop (D&C 107:15-17). Currently, a "shortage" of Aaron's descendants in the restored church necessitates filling this position with High Priests from the Melchizedek Priesthood. The Levites and the sons of Aaron, though they are often aware of their distinct heritage, do not at this time perform any of the ancient rites as commanded in the Old Testament. The Lord, however, has promised emphatically that one day they will again (Ezekiel 44: 10-31, Malachi 3: 3-4; D&C 13).


After the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity (circa 539 B. C. ), the daily rituals of the temple were consistently observed by the priests and Levites until the destruction of Herod’s Temple by the Romans in the Summer of 70 A. D. At this time the Jewish nation was utterly destroyed and its people scattered to the farthest reaches of the known world. The Romans strictly forbade the Jews from even visiting the ruins of the destroyed temple and, to make a point, they changed the name of the province from “Judaea” to “Palestine" (In later, Byzantine times, they were allowed to return to the base of the temple mount's western retaining wall once a year to mourn the destruction of their temple and the loss of their homeland. This location is now called the "Western" or "Wailing" Wall and is the most holy of all Jewish religious sites). As a result, the daily temple observances abruptly stopped (and have not been practiced since) and Judaism ceased to be a “centralized” religion with the temple serving as its focal point. Likewise, in time, the "rabbis" would usurp the authority of the priests and Levites. A second failed attempt at rebellion from 132 to 135 A. D. almost completely depopulated Palestine of any remaining Jews. Overnight the region became a wasteland and the Jewish population remained quite small from this time forward up to the era of the Ottoman Turks (1517 – 1917). After this “second rebellion” the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who had a passionate hatred for Jews and Christians alike) razed Jerusalem to the ground and built a temple to the God Jupiter over the temple site. By the time Muslim invaders from Arabia arrived in the year 636 A. D. , early Christians in the area had come to believe that the temple mount was "cursed. "Finding the site in ruins, the Muslims cleared it of debris and built a mosque over the natural rock summit of the mount, believing it to be the location where Mohammed ascended into heaven on his winged horse.

In the many and disparate countries to which they had gone, the Jews kept the memories of their ancient homeland alive through songs, stories and a deep reverence for their scriptures. A longing to one day return there and reestablish their nation has been a major part of their identity as a people down through the centuries. The Hebrew term for this return is "aliya" and it not only pertains to the Jews, but also to their exiled brethren of the scattered House of Israel. This belief is pervasive and it is curious that the question first and foremost in His apostles minds after His resurrection was if Christ would then restore the Kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). It is also interesting that modern Jews chose to call their country "Israel" and not "Judaea. "

In the last century of Ottoman rule, Apostle Orson Hyde (himself a Jew) traveled to the Holy Land on a special mission, under the direction of Joseph Smith. Early in the morning of Sunday, October 24, 1841, while facing the old city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, he poured-out his heart in prayer, dedicating the Holy Land for the return of the Jewish people and the rebuilding of the temple. In his prayer, he pleaded with the Lord to "remove the barrenness and sterility of this land, and let the springs of living water break forth to water its thirsty soil. Let the vine and olive produce in their strength, and the fig tree bloom and flourish" (History of the Church, 4:456-457). This quiet, singular act went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Elder Hyde’s 20,000 mile, 32 month odyssey to Palestine and back was the climax of a series of events set in motion ten years earlier. When Orson joined the Church in 1831, Joseph Smith foretold that he would one day serve a mission to the Jews. Five years later during the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, the full meaning of this prophecy began to come into focus. On March 27, 1836 while offering the dedicatory prayer, the prophet prayed that the gathering of the Jews and the redemption of Jerusalem might soon begin (See D&C 109: 62-67). Just six days later (April 3rd-Passover) Joseph received a reply when he and Oliver Cowdery knelt in prayer behind the veil of the temple. At that time, they were visited by the Savior, Elijah, Elias and Moses, who “committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth…” (See D&C 110: 11). Since that time, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has possessed that authority/ability and the exercising of those keys of Moses has been manifested in at least a few different ways. Directing Orson Hyde to dedicate Palestine for the gathering of the Jews was just one of those ways. Elder Hyde was called to this special task during the April 1840 General Conference of the church. One month before the conference he received a vision, wherein he saw several large European cities. The spirit told him "Here are many of the children of Abraham whom I will gather to the land that I gave to their fathers; and here is the field of your labors" (History of the Church, 4:376). Some of the locations in which Elder Hyde preached the restored gospel were: London, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Mainz, Frankfurt, Munich, Istambul, Beruit and Cairo. Elder Hyde spent much time ministering unto the large Jewish populations of these and other cities, telling them that the time for their return to Palestine was fast drawing nigh. The timing/sequence of events that followed is uncanny and one cannot help but wonder if Elder Hyde's mission to the Jews in the 1840's was the "genesis" for a movement that suddenly appeared just 50 years later.

In 1882 Russian Jews, fleeing severe persecution under the czars, began arriving in Palestine. In 1895 a Swiss Jew named Theodor Herzl published a book called “Die Judische Statt” (The Jewish State). The coming forth of this book marked the beginning of what is now known as the “Zionist Movement. ”A basic tenant of this movement holds that the Jews must possess their own country for them to be secure as a people; another is that they must return to their ancient homeland of Palestine. Throughout the centuries Jews, wherever they lived, were considered second-class minorities and had to endure varying degrees of persecution and brutality. But the worst was yet to come. Starting in the late 19th century (and largely in response to ideas propounded in Herzl’s book), Jews began returning to Palestine in large numbers. The publication of the “Balfour Declaration” toward the end of World War I was another significant event. The atrocities of World War II, however, provided the last, necessary motivation for the United Nations to finally ratify the establishment of a separate Jewish state. On May 14, 1948 (little more than 100 years after Orson Hyde’s visit) Israel was formally established. This is nothing more than the beginning of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in which the Lord promised His chosen that in the latter days he would gather them back to the land of their inheritance (Amos 9:11-15).

It is estimated that the "Jewish" population of Palestine in the 19th century (when Orson Hyde visited) was no more than 7,000, with only one out of five hundred Jews living there. During their long years of absence Palestine had long since turned into a cultural and economic "backwater. "Indeed, it seemed as if there was a divine "blight" upon the land. The current state of Israel now boasts a population of some 7. 2 million with one in five Jews residing there. In addition, Palestine now blossoms as a rose with former wasteland reclaimed and turned into rich farmland (Amos 9:14,15; Zephania 2:7). Exodus 12:37 states that the adult male Israelites, alone, numbered "about six hundred thousand" at the time of the departure from Egypt (circa 1300 B. C. ). One can only conclude that the modern-day population of the twelve tribes of Israel is massive. The exiles have begun to return. We are, at this time, only seeing the beginning of it.

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