As part of our recent Bible overview sermon series, we have recently been considering the division of the kingdom in the time of Rehoboam from 1 Kings 12. In short, God took 10 of the tribes out of the hand of Rehoboam and they set themselves up as a new kingdom (called Israel). The remaining two tribes were called Judah.
1 Kings 12 puts it like this:
16 And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.” So Israel went to their tents. 17 But Rehoboam reigned over the people of Israel who lived in the cities of Judah. (1 Ki. 12:16-17 ESV)
Later on it becomes clear that Benjamin as well as Judah were in the southern kingdom (in v21).
This raises a question for us: what about the Levites? After all, they were scattered through the land, so would have started in both kingdoms. And as Jeroboam set up his own religion in the northern kingdom, what became of the Levites who lived there? We find the answer in a parallel passage in 2 Chronicles:
13 And the priests and the Levites who were in all Israel presented themselves to him from all places where they lived. 14 For the Levites left their common lands and their holdings and came to Judah and Jerusalem, because Jeroboam and his sons cast them out from serving as priests of the LORD, 15 and he appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat idols and for the calves that he had made. 16 And those who had set their hearts to seek the LORD God of Israel came after them from all the tribes of Israel to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the LORD, the God of their fathers. 17 They strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and for three years they made Rehoboam the son of Solomon secure, for they walked for three years in the way of David and Solomon. (2 Chr. 11:13-17 ESV)
We see two important things in this passage. One is that the Levites migrated to Judah, so the southern kingdom really contained 3 tribes in total. The second thing is that godly people who could not stand the new religion in the north also migrated south. There was a remnant of the 10 tribes who were living in Judah, away from their ancestral lands.
It seems that migration to avoid religious persecution is not a modern thing!
In the time of Elijah, in the northern kingdom, he was feeling despondent thinking he was the only one who followed the true God. God told him this wasn’t true; there were 7000 faithful people left in the kingdom. We do not know what became of them in the end. But it is clear that God did have a remnant of his people even in the godless north, many generations later on.
When Jesus was presented at the temple in Luke 2, he met an elderly woman named Anna, who is described as being from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36). So there were descendants of the 10 tribes existing around 900 years after Jeroboam; they were not completely eliminated.
God is often far more gracious in preserving his people than we expect.