A fascinating prophecy concerning the Ten Tribes of the House of Israel is found in Hosea 4, verses 15 and 16: “Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend; and come not ye unto Gilgal, neither go ye up to Bethaven, nor swear, The LORD liveth. For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the LORD will feed them as a lamb in a large place.” (Hosea 4:15-16)
Historians tell us that Gilgal was known as a place of false worship. The Biblical Background Commentary says, “The exact location of this site near Jericho has yet to be determined (see Josh. 4:19). Among the most likely suggestions, based on Iron Age deposits uncovered in survey work, are sites near Khirbet el-Mefjir, a little over a mile northeast of Jericho. Its name, meaning ‘ring of stones,’ suggests its importance as a cultic center. Both Amos (Amos 4:4; Amos 5:5) and Hosea (Hos. 9:15; Hos. 12:11) condemn Gilgal for the religious transgressions and inappropriate sacrifices made there. The nature of these religious activities is not spelled out, but it may be presumed that they involved the worship of gods other than Yahweh.”
Similarly, Beth-Aven, “house of wickedness,” was a pun on the name of the city of Bethel, “house of God.” This was the prophet’s way of denouncing the false worship found there and identifying it as an illegitimate place of worship. The prophets Hosea and Amos were the two Old Testament prophets whose ministry focused specifically on Ephraim, the ten northern tribes. Hosea refers to them as “a backsliding heifer,” meaning that they were a stubborn and rebellious people. God therefore issued his judgment upon them, saying through Hosea, “now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place.”
This prophecy has fascinated and bewildered Bible students. What is the “large place” to which God would lead them? The Jameson, Faucett, and Brown Commentary says, “It shall be no longer in the narrow territory of Israel, but ‘in a large place,’ namely, they shall be scattered in exile over the wide realm of Assyria.” Bishop Horsley had a similar interpretation: “Sheep love to feed at large. The sheep of Ephraim shall presently have room enough. They shall be scattered over the whole surface of the vast Assyrian empire, where they will be at liberty to turn very heathen. It is remarkable, however, that it is said that even in this state, Jehovah will feed them. They are still, in their utmost humiliation, an object of his care.”
Barnes Commentary, however, specifies a different location for Israel in exile: “To Israel, this ‘wide place’ was the wide realms of the Medes, where they were withdrawn from God’s worship and deprived of His protection.” Media was a different land to the east of Assyria. Actually, the Bible tells us that the ten tribes were exiled to both countries: “Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.” (2 Kings 17:6)
Did these Israel tribes remain permanently in Assyria and Media? A Commentary on the Holy Bible (J.R. Dummelow, ed.) tells us, “A large place always in Scripture is used as a symbol of safety (Psa. 18:19; Psa. 118:5).” The territory ruled by the ruthless Assyrians and Medes could not be considered a place of safety for God’s people! They would therefore have left for safer pastures as soon as events would allow their escape. Some Bible expositors insist the exiled Israel tribes are still remaining in that exact same location even today, but the Geneva Bible translation notes tell us, “God will so disperse them that they will not remain in any certain place.”
Other expositors also realize that these cast-off Israel tribes have wandered far from their original home and far from their original place of exile. The interpretation of the English Bible Commentary speaks of, “…the final casting out of the people by God so that they should become wanderers among the nations.” Similarly, the Companion Bible describes Israel’s exile location as “an unenclosed space: i.e. the lands of the heathen.” Where was this unenclosed space to which they were later to be found?
The People’s Bible, a commentary by the famous 19th century Rev. Joseph Parker, tells us: “Israel said, ‘I want liberty, I do not want this moral bondage any longer; I do not want to be surrounded by commandments, I do not want to live in a cage of ten bars called the ten commandments of God; I want liberty; let me follow my reason, my instincts; let me obey myself.’ The Lord said, ‘So be it. Thou shalt have liberty enough, but it shall be the liberty of a wilderness.’”
The MacArthur Bible Commentary also places them in an immense wilderness land: “Because Israel was like a stubborn calf, God no longer attempted to corral her, abandoning her as a lamb in a vast wilderness.”
A wilderness indicates a wild, largely unpopulated region. The Popular Commentary explains, “Now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place, by removing them to a distant and large country, where they would be far removed from those with whom they were associated in their idolatry.” This was, in fact, the moral purpose in God removing the House of Israel, the ten tribes, from the land of Canaan where pagan nations surrounded them and induced them into false worship and idolatry. The prophet Hosea, writing to these lost and dispersed tribes reveals God’s ultimate purpose in the exile: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him.” (Hosea 14:4)
Bible readers are generally unaware that in the Scriptures, as Lang’s Commentary informs us, “The phrase, ‘to feed in a large place,’ is elsewhere used in a good sense (Isa. 30:23; Psa. 18:19; 118:5).” God would employ the seemingly disastrous conquest and exile of His people for their own ultimate good.
God therefore took them away to a wilderness region that was nearly vacant where He could restore them for His purposes. The Apocrypha tells us exactly the same thing. In 2 Esdras 13:40-45, we read: “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.”
Famous theologian, Dean Prideaux, said of these exiled ten tribes, “They…thenceforth utterly lost their name, their language, their memorial, and were never any more spoken of” as Israel. They would lose their identity as God’s Israel and be known by other names. Where was their land of exile? The only unpopulated large region located a suitable remoteness from the idolatries of old Canaan was in Europe. In the early pre-Christian era it was indeed “an immense wilderness,” an “unenclosed space” where Jehovah God could “heal their backsliding” and make them “an object of His care.” It was not by accident that the New Testament apostles, being told by Christ to “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Matt. 10:5-6) proceeded directly to Europe. God used the apostles and their followers to restore them through the Gospel and keep His promise to remember them in their exile and affliction.