Exiled Israel In the Cities of the Medes

By Jory Steven Brooks

A visit to the location of the lost tribes in the land of Media

With the fall of the House of Israel and its capital, Samaria, in 721 B.C., we read of their fate in 2 Kings 17:6, "In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes." It is a tantalizing mystery that we are not given here, nor in the parallel passage in 2 Kings 18:11, the names of the specific cities of Media in which the Assyrians placed the exiled Israelites. What seems clear is that they were exiled to some number of Median "cities," rather than open land, and more than one city is indicated, perhaps several. Historian George Psalmanazar in Universal History lists eight main cities in Media of that day; many more cities were founded by the Greeks after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. These earlier Median cities include: Rages (now Reyy), Ecbatana (now Hamadan), Bagistana (now Behistun), Gaza (or Gazae), Artaxata, Sanina, Fazina and Cyropolis. Some, or all, of these cities became the temporary home of exiled Israel after the Assyrian conquest. Let's take a closer look for evidence concerning the lost tribes in Media.

Rages (Modern Reyy)

The Apocryphal Book of Tobit (some Bibles use the Greek form, Tobias) tells the story of one of the exiles of the House of Israel who lived in the land of Media after the Assyrian conquest. It tells us, "Tobit of the tribe and city of Nephtali...was made captive in the days of Enemesser King of the Assyrians... he was come to Rages, a city of the Medes... amongst a great multitude of his kindred..." (Tobit 1:1, 2, 16, 17) This city Rages (also spelled Rhages) is today known as Reyy (or Rei), and is an archaeological site about 30 miles SE of the modern city of Tehran, Iran. Located at the southern end of the Caspian Sea, it is famous in history as the first capital of the Parthian Empire and early seat of the Parthian emperors. The Parthian connection to Israel's lost tribes is an important one. The fascinating story of the Davidic line of descent in the Parthian royal family, and of the true story of the Parthian Magi, the "wise men" who came to visit the Christ child, is told in the wonderful recent book, Parthia: The Forgotten Ancient Superpower and Its Role In Biblical History, by Steven M. Collins.

Some commentaries cast doubt on the Book of Tobit, calling it a second or third century Greek creation. They point out that it contains Greek mysticism in the form of Asmodeus, the evil spirit (Tobit 3:8; 8:2-3; 12:8-13). The book also purports to take place during the time of "Enemesser, King of Assyria," and there was no known Assyrian king with that name. (Tobit 1:2, translated "Salmanaser" in some older Bible translations) However, according to Professor Allen H. Godbey of Duke University, translations of Assyrian clay tablets have shown that Shalmaneser's son, Sargon, actually bore the Assyrian designation of "En-Nam-Ashur," an Assyrian royal title. A spurious Greek author would not have known of this, centuries after Assyria's capital cities had disappeared under the desert sands. It is now believed that the core of the Book of Tobit and its historical details were indeed written in the 8th century, B.C. (and probably originally in Assyrian cuneiform on clay tablets) and rendered into Greek centuries later, combined with mystic religious ideas added by the translator. This translator also would have "Grecianized" the name of "En-NamAshur" into "Enemesser," in the same way that proper names such as Tobit changed to Tobias, and "Sacae" (the Persian name for Israel) was turned into the Greek form, "Scythian." History informs us that these people known by the Greek name, "Scythians," first appeared in the area of the Israelite exile about 721 B.C., and later migrated into Europe as the ancestors of European peoples.

A 19th century visitor, Isabella Lucy Bird, describes the site of Rages in her book, Journeys In Persia and Kurdistan. She writes, "Curving to the southwest of Tehran, the mountains end in a bare ridge, around the base of which, according to many archaeologists, lie vestiges of the city of Rhages, known in later days as Rei. A tomb of brick with angular surfaces, sacred to the memory of an ancient and romantic attachment, remains of fortifications, and the Parsee cemetery on a ledge overlooking the remains, break the monotony of the waste in that direction. This cemetery, a tower of silence, a white splash on the brown hillside, is visible from afar. The truncated cones which in many places mark seats of the ancient Zoroastrian worship have been mentioned here and there, but it is only in Teheran and Yezd [the latter an ancient city located today in central Iran] that the descendants of the fire worshippers are found in such numbers as to be able to give prominence to their ancient rites." (pp. 194-5) The founder of this religion of fire worship was Zoroaster, who lived his life in the city of Rages in Media. He was born about 630 B.C., so it is possible that some of the exiled Israelites were still in the area when these "fire temples" were erected.

History books often tell us that the Anglo-Saxon peoples originated somewhere in Central Asia, although they have no proof or evidence to support that belief. However, historian James Cowles Pritchard, in his 1844 book, Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, gives evidence of a different origin. He quotes a language expert named Von Hammer and states, "...there were two distinct dialects in Persia from remote times, the eastern or Deri, and the Western or Pelvi. The Deri was spoken beyond the Oxus [in Central Asia]...The Pelvi was in use in Media proper, in the towns of Rei [Rages], Hamadan or Ecbatana, Isfahan, Nehawend, and at Tabriz, the capital of Aderbeijan [area northeast of Habor where Israelites were also exiled]." (i:15) Pritchard then indicates that the modern Anglo-Saxon languages of Europe show affinity to the Pelvi language used in areas of Media where the exiled Israelites dwelled; Pelvi "having acquired all the characteristics of modern languages." (i:34)

Ecbatana and Bagistana (Behistun)

In his list of Median cities whose Pelvi language was the forerunner of Anglo-Saxon, Dr. Pritchard listed Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatana. It was located at the foot of Mount Elwend, twelve miles long and 10,000 feet in height, "whence it derives a copious water supply, and in a plain thickly besprinkled with vineyards, orchards, and gardens, but whose elevation is 6,000 feet above the sea; it enjoys one of the finest situations in Persia." (Curzon, Persia, i.566) Ecbatana was on the road midway between Nineveh and Rages.

In the same region a few miles away on the other side of Mount Elwend in the valley of the Choaspes was the town of Bagistana, now known as Behistun, where Darius I commissioned a large engraved scene on a steep 1,700-foot cliff depicting his conquest of nine rebels. According to the Cambridge History of Iran, the artwork shows evidence of a Greek designer. (ii:829) Since many Hebrews -- especially those of the tribe of Dan -- colonized Greece, it is intriguing to wonder if exiled Israelites living in the area worked on this monument. Bagistana is a Persian word meaning "the place of God," so it corresponded in meaning to the Hebrew term, "Beth-El."

The Book of Tobit mentions Israelite exiles living in the area of Ecbatana (5:8), as does the Book of Ezra (which uses the name Achmetha for Ecbatana in chapter 6, verse 2). The evidence therefore indicates that Anglo-Saxon peoples arrived in Europe from locations in Media -- including the area of Rages and Ecbatana, as well as the region of Habor in Mesopotamia -- not from Central Asia. It is instead likely that some Israelite exiles migrated from Media east into Central Asia while others traveled northwest through the Caucasus into Europe.

Of historical note, Alexander the Great paused in Rages with his army for five days in 331 B.C. while pursuing Persian king Darius Codomanus after the final defeat of the Persian army at Gaugamela. Rages was destroyed several times, first by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, later during the Persian-Parthian war, then by the Tartars, and once by a severe earthquake. The site of the city has long been abandoned and its people scattered east and west from there.


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