It is important, first, to clarify a few matters concerning the names by which the nation of Israel has been known throughout its history. In Exodus 5:1 it is called My People; in Psalm 33:12 it is called God's Chosen Nation, in Exodus 1:15 its people are called Hebrews. In I Samuel 29:1 its people are called the Israelites. And in Esther 8:16 its people are called Jews.
What is the difference between the names Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew?
Abraham was the first person to be called a Hebrew. He was a Gentile. He lived in Chaldea, in the city of Ur. While he was in the land of Chaldea, God called him to leave his country to go into the land of Canaan. Only then did Abraham become a Hebrew.
The word "Hebrew" comes from the root word "Abar," which means to "cross over." Hebrew simply means one who has crossed over. It seems that Abraham was called by this name because he had come from his country, Chaldea, and crossed over the river Euphrates to come into the land of Canaan. Since Abraham was a Hebrew (Genesis 14:13), his descendants were also called Hebrews. The name "Hebrews" today is applied only to the nation of Israel. And, technically speaking, Abraham was neither an Israelite nor a Jew.
The first person to actually be called an Israelite was Jacob, Abraham's grandson. He was called Jacob at birth, but God changed his name to "Israel" at Peniel, when He said to him:
Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed (Genesis 32:28).
The nation which traced its ancestry back to the twelve sons of Jacob was variously referred to as "Israel" (Genesis 34:7), "the children/sons of Israel" (Genesis 32:32), or "the tribes of Israel" (Genesis 49:16). Again, we must keep in mind that Jacob was not a Jew.
The term "Jew" originally described an inhabitant of Judah (II Kings 16:6) and as such was employed in contemporary Assyrian texts (Laudaia) dating at least from the eighth century B.C. The New Bible Dictionary indicates that "the term `Jew' was commonly used by non-Jews to refer to the Hebrews, or descendants of Abraham in general." By New Testament times the plural "Jews" had become a familiar term for all Israelites. The feminine form,
"Jewess," is used in Acts 16:1 and 24:24; and the adjective "Jewish" is found in Galatians 2:14 (NIV) and Titus 1:14.
For all practical purposes, therefore, we can use the terms Hebrews, Jews and Israelites interchangeably to mean the same people.
Now, the most important questions are:
Is the present nation of Israel, which was recognized as an independent state by the United Nations on May 14, 1948, the same historical Israel of the Old Testament? Is it true that the ten northern tribes of Israel were completely deported to Assyria in 722 BC and were lost throughout history? And that the Israelites, therefore, the inheritors of the birthright through Ephraim and Manasseh, are a different people from the Jews who are descended from the southern tribes? Is it true that the English-speaking peoples today - Britain and America - are actually the birthright tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh of the "lost" tribes of Israel?
Close inspection of the answers to these questions will reveal that the nation of Israel which exists today is really Israel and that the teaching about the "lost ten northern tribes" is not accurate.
We are quite certain that there are no "lost tribes" as some teach. Scripture reveals that Ephraim and Manasseh were in the land of Israel one hundred years after the deportation of the ten northern tribes. We read in II Chronicles 34:9 (NIV):
They went to Hilkiah the high priest and gave him the money that had been brought into the temple of God, which the Levites who were the doorkeepers had collected from the people of Manasseh, Ephraim, and the entire remnant of Israel and from all the people of Judah and Benjamin and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
The book of Ezra confirms that all twelve of the tribes were represented at the dedication of Zerubbabel's temple two hundred years after the deportation. We read:
And the children of Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the rest of the children of the captivity, kept the dedication of this house of God with joy, and offered at the dedication of this house of God an hundred bullocks, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs; and for a sin offering for all Israel, twelve he goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel (Ezra 6:16,17).
All the tribes that returned the first time continued to live in Israel until the second dispersion. James in his epistle which was written at that time states this fact:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting (James 1;1 )
Thus, we see that so-called teachings about the "ten lost tribes" are in error.