The History Channel has a show called “Digging for the Truth.” In season 1, they did an episode called “The Lost Tribe of Israel”, which highlighted the Lemba Tribe in South Africa, which claims to be a Hebrew people who were displaced around 700 BC, about 100 years before Lehi left Jerusalem. I couldn’t help but notice many similarities between their story, and the story of Lehi.
Let me give a brief background on Israel, and the Lost Tribes of Israel. We all remember that the Kingdom of Israel was a united kingdom under David and Solomon. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into a northern kingdom called the Kingdom of Israel, containing the 10 tribes, and a southern kingdom called the Kingdom of Judah, containing Jerusalem and the tribes of Benjamin, Judah, and part of Joseph. The tribe of Levi (also referred to as Kohanim) was the priestly tribe, and did not receive a land of inheritance, and was sprinkled throughout the northern and southern kingdoms to take care of religious matters. Around 700 BC, the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom. Isaiah prophesied that if the southern Kingdom turned to God, they would be protected. 100 years later, during the life of Lehi and Jeremiah, the Babylonians took over the Assyrian territory, and took control over the Southern Kingdom as well.
The video has some really interesting claims about the lost tribes, and the Lemba, a black African tribe claiming to be Jewish. Scholars seem to be split as to whether the lost tribes will ever be found. Here are two different schools of thought. The first comes from a scholar who believes the lost tribes could still exist. The DVD refers to the term “diaspora.” When the tribes were scattered (or dispersed), they had to learn to live their religion without a temple, so this scattering is called the diaspora. Note this traditional Jewish dress they wear.
I also want to mention that the show’s host is Josh Bernstein. He has some Jewish ancestry, studied archaeology in New York, and has a home in the four corners region of Utah. He is quite an outdoorsman, and loves to do crazy stunts in his own life, and in the show. He is both the narrator, and interviewer. I even got a kick out of it when he uncovered a scorpion, and said, “that’s much bigger than they are in Utah.”
The DVD discusses various lost tribe claims. Quoting from the video,
People have claimed to have found lost tribes all over the world, from Siberia to Australia. Some of the first Europeans who landed in the Americas, assumed the natives were lost tribes, and even tried to communicate with them in Hebrew. Historian Hillel Halkin has written a book [Across the Sabbath River] about the lost tribes, and thinks that they could still exist today.
Bernstein, “Why are you so passionate about the lost tribes of Israel?”
Halkin, “The lost tribe myth really is through Jewish eyes among other things, a story of tough Jews. Living still like the Jews biblical ancestors: independent, warrior-like, fearless, all the things that Jews in the diaspora, over the ages generally were not.
Bernstein, “Was this the first Jewish diaspora?”
Halkin, “Yes, We have some archaeological evidence, besides Assyrian inscriptions, to show that these Israelites were deported to various parts o the Assyrian Empire. But after that, they disappear from history.”
Bernstein, “What’s the big deal with being a lost tribe? What is the attraction for these people to claim ‘I was one of the lost tribes of Israel’?”
Halkin, “Well the big deal you have to understand is not so much that people are claiming to be lost tribes, but the fact that the Christian and the Jewish world have been looking for hundreds or even thousands of years, for the lost tribes. It’s the search for the lost tribes that is the historically fascinating phenomenon.”
Contrasted by this view is another scholar.
Israel Finkelstein [Archaeologist, Te l Aviv University] believes that when they Assyrians conquered this land, they wiped out all the leadership of the tribes of Israel. The populations was either killed or assimilated into other parts of the Assyrian Empire. He doesn’t believe they could be found today.
…Bernstein, “What happens then to the rulers of the northern kingdom when the Assyrians come in and take over?”
Finkelstein, “The rulers were deported. We don’t know whether all of them, part of them, most of them, many of them, we don’t have this kind of information, neither from the Bible nor from the Assyrians texts, nor from archeology. Archaeology cannot speak about a person. But most of this population probably assimilated in Mesopotamia.”
Bernstein, “So the people who are on a quest to find the lost tribes and recover them and bring them back to Israel, they would only have to travel as far as Mesopotamia?”
Finkelstein, “I don’t think that you can travel anywhere, and look for the lost tribes. I mean I make a distinction between what we know from archeology, history, and so on, and all sorts of popular ideas of going this way or that way, and finding a lost tribe. There’s no need whatsoever to go around the world, in my opinion, and look for lost tribes.”
So, let’s talk about the Lemba, who claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, just as Lehi and his descendants claim. What I found so interesting was the fact that the first part of the journey follows the same route that Mormons believe Lehi followed, along the frankincense trail in Saudi Arabia. The difference is that once they got to Yemen, Lehi and his group turned east, while the Lemba seem to have stayed in Yemen for a time, before heading south across the Red Sea through Africa. Here is a map of the Lemba’s proposed route.
The Lemba’s story goes like this: Thousands of years ago, they were forced out of Israel, and settled in a
place called Sena, which is believed to be the present day Yemen. There they lived as traders and craftsmen, until war, or natural disaster pushed them across the Red Sea and into Africa. Then began a slow migration south. Along the way, according to the Lemba, they built great stone cities. It’s a claim that has fascinated archaeologists. Why? Because the ruins of ancient stone cities still exist in southern Africa today.”…
To help me make sense of it, I’ve asked historian Dr. Magdel Le Roux [University of South Africa, Pretoria] to come with me to the site. She’s been studying the Lemba for years and has just published a book on the similarities between their social customs, and those of the Old Testament Israelites.
Josh Bernstein, “There are specific parallels between the religious practices of Lemba today and the religious practices of ancient Israel?”
Le Roux, “Definitely. They’ve got remnants of an ancient type of Israelite religious practices, so in a way they concert this very special ancient type of…
Bernstein, “an old school religion”
Le Roux, “yes”
Bernstein, “But how do they maintain their religious identity? How’d they keep it intact for so many years in this long journey from Israel down to South Africa?”
Le Roux, “That’s a good question. I think it’s by means of oral tradition. By keeping themselves seperate from other groups. They lived with other peoples, moving with them, migrating down with them. That’s one of the characteristics that they keep their culture. They just live it.”
The Lemba claim to have built many stone cities along the way, especially in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The show quotes a few scholars who believe they have found some of these cities, and show archaeological links between Yeme, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. While there is no archaeological evidence tying the Lemba directly to Israel, they exhibit some amazing social, musical, and religious practices that seem quite related to ancient Judaism. The most interesting part of the show was the discussion of DNA tests which seem to indicate a Middle Eastern origin.
I guess what is interesting about the Lemba is that they have a similar story to the people of Lehi, but 100 years prior. The DNA issue in the americas has led many Mormon scholars to take the position that the Nephites were an insignificant population genetically, and that DNA cannot be traced because of their minority status. However, the case of the Lemba shows that semitic origins can be traced among a small minority population. Even though they look strikingly similar to the Venda and Bantu tribes, they have a different DNA makeup than these other indigenous African tribes.
If the Lemba’s claim is true, the proof should be in their blood. It’s now possible to trace the Lemba’s ancestry through their DNA, and that’s just what scientists in South Africa have done. I’m going back to the Lemba’s current homeland to find out the truth behind this fascinating mystery.
That’s why I’ve come to Johannesburg. The scientists here at the National Health Laboratory Services have screened in the genetic profiles of the Lemba, and their neighboring tribes, the Venda, and the Bantu. They’ve come up with some revealing conclusions.
Dr Trefor Jenkins [lead geneticist in the study of the Lemba for the last 20 years from University of Witwatersrand], “I heard of the Lemba many years ago….I didn’t really have much interest in pursuing their actual identity until a friend, who had been studying the Lemba, had detected some Jewish influences in the music of the Lemba.”
Bernstein, “So their music actually differs from the people around them, and that brought you in to study the genetics.”
Bernstein, “So the genetic data doesn’t say that the Lemba are Jewish, as much as it says they have Semitic origins.”
Jenkins, “Yes, that’s how we put it. What we were saying was that there is a non-African contribution to the gene pool of the Lemba, which is not evident in the peoples amongst whom they live in that part of the world.”
Bernstein, “You mentioned non-African influences. If someone didn’t have genetic data, or the testing available, how could you determine if one group is Jewish, or not?”
Jenkins, “I distrust relying on morphological features to categorize populations.”
Bernstein, “So if someone couldn’t say, ‘he looks Jewish, she looks Jewish, he’s not Jewish, she’s not Jewish’, that wouldn’t have any bearing on the issue of Semitic origins.”
Jenkins, “I don’t think so….”
Dr Jenkins believes that DNA always trumps appearances, and the Lemba’s claim to Jewish ancestry may indeed have some genetic support. Not only is their DNA very different from their neighbors, but according to his colleague, Dr Himla Soodyall [Geneticist, University of Witwatersrand], it may have a non-African, even Jewish connection.
Soodyall , “this is the very interesting thing-that the South African Lemba have a particular y-chromosome pattern or lineage that’s common in people who identify as the Kohanim, or the Jewish priests.”
In the Jewish tradition, the Kohanim are part of the priestly caste. Amazingly, scientists have isolated a strand of DNA that is strongly associated with the Kohanim. It’s called the Cohen Modal Haplotype, and it’s almost exclusive to Jews who claim the priestly heritage-almost exclusive. The Cohen Modal Haplotype has been found among the priestly caste of the Lemba.
Soodyall , “The observation that the Cohen pattern was commonest in that one particular group is something that begs exploration.”
This link supports the Lemba’s oral history and the archaeological clues we’ve seen, in the places they say they’ve lived. But Himla is quick to point out the limitations of genetic science.
Soodyall, “Now in terms of whether the Lemba are Jewish-of course they have the Cohen Modal Haplotype-or not, is something that science cannot address. Because cultural identity is a social construct. No genetic data is going to tell you that are Jewish, or that are Hindu, or that you are Christian, or any religious denomination.”
Himla tells me that the presence of the Cohen Modal Haplotype can’t tell us anything about the Lemba religion. But just as remarkably, it can tell us where their ancestors came from, and it’s not in Africa.
Soodyall, “There is this interesting genetic information showing us that some of the original founders did come from other parts of the world, other than Africa. From our data, I would put my money on saying that it’s the Middle East.”
Himla is convinced that the ancestors did indeed come from the Middle East.
I remember that there is a theory claiming that the BoM took place in Africa. Now I know that FARMS considered it laughable, but as I look at the map above, there do seem to be some significantly sized lakes and seas along the Lemba route. The BoM also talks about the Lamanites were a “dark and loathsome people.” Now, if the Lamanites had intermarried with an indigenous population like the Lemba did, then the “dark” part becomes a very interesting description for this people (though the “loathsome” part is obviously racially charged.)
Now I’m not claiming the Lemba are the Lamanites, but don’t you think that this opens up some possibilities for the Book of Mormon? Perhaps we really need to consider some really radical settings for the BoM. What do you think?