17.2.1. Beyond the River

One of the legends associated with the tribes is that they were deported to a mysterious land where they continue to live as a separated group maintaining their ethnic identity. This idea is often connected with a passage from the Apocryphal book of 2 Esdras.1 In 2 Esdras, the “lost tribes” are mentioned in the interpretation of the seer’s vision given by God:

“And whereas thou sawest that he [the Son of God] gathered another peaceable multitude unto him; 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. 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, That they might there keep their statutes, which they never kept in their own land. And they entered into Euphrates by the narrow places of the river. For the most High then shewed signs for them, and held still the flood, till they were passed over. 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.” (2 Esdras 13:39-45).2

The mysterious land where they are thought to dwell is said to be beyond the “River Sambatyon:”

Their inability to rejoin their brethren was attributed to the fact that whereas the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (the Kingdom of Judah) were “scattered throughout the world,” the ten tribes were exiled beyond the mysterious river Sambatyon (Gen. R. 73:6), with its rolling waters or sand and rocks, which during the six days of the week prevented them from crossing it, and though it rested on the Sabbath, the laws of the Sabbath rendered the crossing equally impossible. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, however (Sanh. 10:6, 29c), the exiles were divided into three. Only one-third went beyond the Sambatyon, a second to “Daphne of Antioch,” and over the third “there descended a cloud which covered them”; but all three would eventually return.3

Also spelled Sanbation, or Sambatyon, legendary “Sabbath River” beyond which the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were exiled in 721 BC by Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria. Legends describe it as a roaring torrent (often not of water but of stones), the turbulence of which ceases only on the Sabbath, when Jews are not allowed to travel. So firm was belief in the existence of the river that the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus located it in Syria and Pliny asserted it was in Judaea, while the Spanish-Jewish scholar Nahmanides identified it with the River Habor (Al-Khabur River) of the Bible (2 Kings 2K. 17:6). Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph also saw fit to mention it, as did the 17th-century Jewish scholar Manasseh ben Israel, who carefully studied Eldad ha-Dani’s 9th-century account of his reputed discovery of the “sons of Moses” beyond the river.4

The fanciful legends which surround the lost tribes are typical of apocryphal writings:

The lost tribes live in a place (to the East; 4 Ezra 13, 2 Bar 77, Ant 11.5) which is not cold but pleasant (Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew), and where a son does not die before his father (Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew , Commodian), where the body suffers neither pain nor sores and dies after a long life and in a state of rest (Commodian). The people of the lost tribes fulfill the Law (4 Ezra 13: 42, Commodian), are hidden beyond a river (Commodian; it is called Sambatyon in some Jewish works, e.g. Tg. Ps.-J. on Ex. Ex. 34:10), and shall return to the Land of Israel in order “to rescue their captured mother [=Jerusalem]” (Hic tamen festinat matrem defendere captam. Commodian). They desire neither gold nor silver, neither eat flesh (Commodian, Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew) nor drink wine; they are nourished by honey and dew, and drink water flowing from paradise (Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew). A man has one wife, and each is free from sexual lust; they offer their first born to God (Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew). They do not lie (Commodian, Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew; cf. Hist. Rech.); and youths do not speak in the presence of adults (Ethiopic Acts of St. Matthew).5


1 The apocryphal book of II Esdras describes a dream in chapter 13 in which there is a miraculous parting of the Euphrates River into Armenia where the 10 tribes seemingly remain. However, this evidence must be disregarded as Josephus records in Antiquities XI v2 that the ten tribes of the captivity were still in Mesopotamia in the first century AD after Esdras was written, and 750 years after British Israelists claim that they had left for the north and the east. [www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/5951/BI.html].

2 The Apocrypha: King James Version (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1995), 2 Esdras 13:39.

3 Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, “Ten Lost Tribes,” in Geoffrey Wigoder, ed., Encyclopedia Judaica CDROM Edition Version 1.0 (Keter Publishing House, Ltd., 1997), s.v. “Ten Lost Tribes.”

4 Britannica CD 99 Multimedia Edition, s.v. “Sambation.”

5 James H. Charlesworth, “Lost Tribes, The,” in David Noel Freeman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996, c1992), 4:372.