The Twelve Tribes originate from Jacob's twelve sons who were the progenitors of the House of Israel. The Lord gave Jacob a new name, "Israel," because of his righteousness. Jacob's (Israel's) wives and sons are as follows:
- Leah bore Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and a daughter—Dinah
- Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali
- Zilpah bore Gad and Asher
- Rachel bore Joseph and Benjamin
Several of these sons forfeited their birthright: Simeon and Levi slew the men of Shechem, when the prince defiled their sister, Dinah. Reuben committed incest by sleeping with Bilhah. Jacob (Israel) bestowed the birthright on Joseph, the first-born son of his favorite wife, Rachel (who died giving birth to Benjamin). The sons of Joseph were elevated in their status, being adopted by Jacob. Joseph's sons were Ephraim and Manasseh. The birthright went to Ephraim, the younger, but more worthy son. However, the descendants of both Ephraim and Manasseh received land in Canaan. Thus, there were thirteen tribes with Joseph's portion split between his two sons.
The tribes were awarded territory in Canaan after the Exodus from Egypt. The descendants of Levi became the priestly class, and were not awarded land to till. Instead, Levites dwelt in cities. Simeon's territory was in the southern desert area of Beer-sheba, which territory was surrounded by Judah. Thus, Simeon was gradually incorporated into Judah. (See [John A. Tvedtnes, “The ‘Other Tribes’: Which Are They?,” Ensign, Jan 1982, 31].)Judah became the largest and most powerful tribe. The greatest rulers of ancient Israel were of the House of Judah (including David and Solomon). Ephraim was also highly favored.
When Israel divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom being Israel (or Samaria), and the southern kingdom being Judah, the southern kingdom of Judah was comprised of Judah, most of Levi, Benjamin (the smallest tribe), and those absorbed from Simeon. The northern kingdom was comprised mostly of Ephraim, with Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Ashur, and two "half-tribes" of Manasseh. There was a mixing of the tribes, with intermarriage not only from tribe to tribe, but with gentiles in the area. Even the Davidic line is not pure, with David being a descendant of Boaz, a Judahite, and Ruth, a Moabitess.
The tribe of Ephraim dominated the kingdom of Israel, just as Judah dominated the kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and many of the tribes living there were decimated. Those who remained alive were carried off by the Assyrians. Most assimilated into Assyrian society or dispersed. These peoples migrated over the ensuing years all over Europe and Asia, and to the Americas. A segment of those who were carried away by the Assyrians repented of the sins that brought on the captivity and were led to a place never settled by man. Their whereabouts are still unknown today. Thus, there are two definitions for the "Ten Lost Tribes." They are lost, because they have assimilated into many countries and societies, and lost because they have been led away as a tight group to a secret place, someday to make a miraculous return.
The southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians around 586 B.C. The noble and great people of the kingdom were carried off to Babylon. When Babylon was conquered by Persia, Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, but not all went. Babylon became a great center of Jewish scholarship even after the return, and certainly, citizens of Judah migrated elsewhere, also. The city of Alexandria in Egypt developed a thriving Jewish population. Another dispersal of the Jewish population took place in 70 A.D., when Titus conquered Judea. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews went into exile, migrating to many locations in small groups. They began to regather to the Holy Land in the 1800's and especially after World War II and the Holocaust.
The final dispensation of time is for gathering Israel. This is both a physical gathering (such as the literal gathering of the Jews to the nation of Israel) and a spiritual gathering (such as the conversion of descendants of Jacob to the restored church. Mormons receive Patriarchal Blessings to reveal unto them their lineage among the tribes of Israel. All the tribes have been represented in the lineages revealed in patriarchal blessings, but most Mormons are descended from the tribe of Ephraim.