Evidence #291 | December 27, 2021

Descendants of Joseph

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Archaeological evidence indicates that migrants from the northern kingdom of Israel (which included the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh) found refuge in Jerusalem in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. This picture is consistent with the Book of Mormon’s claims that Lehi and Laban were descendants of Joseph who was sold into Egypt.

Josephite Ancestry of Lehi and Laban

The Book of Mormon teaches that Lehi was a descendant of Joseph the son of Jacob (1 Nephi 5:14) and that he was of the tribe of Manasseh (Alma 10:3). It also indicates that Laban, a powerful official in the city of Jerusalem from whom they obtained the plates of brass, was also a descendant of Joseph, “wherefore he and his fathers had kept the records” (1 Nephi 5:16).1 The descendants of Lehi’s family repeatedly referred to themselves as a “remnant of the seed of Joseph” (Alma 46:23; 3 Nephi 5:23; 10:17; Ether 13:7, 10), or a “remnant of the house of Joseph” (3 Nephi 15:12; Ether 13:8).

Some readers of the Book of Mormon have wondered how Book of Mormon peoples could have been a remnant of Joseph since the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were a part of the northern kingdom of Israel which was destroyed by the Assyrians and whose inhabitants were carried away into captivity by 721 BC.2 Research and new discoveries by biblical scholars provides evidence that while the vast majority of the inhabitants of the northern kingdom were destroyed or carried into captivity, remnants, including some of the tribe of Joseph, found refuge in Judah and Jerusalem.

The two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, about 930–722 BC. Image and caption via historyinthebible.com.

Literate Refugees from the North

Following the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians, the kingdom of Judah incorporated refugees from the north. According to historian Paul Johnson, “when Samaria fell, some literate refugees escaped the deportations and came south, where they were received and resettled in Jerusalem.”3 With the fall of the northern kingdom, notes Luke Grollenberg, “faithful worshippers of Yahweh fled to Judah and there cultivated a number of their own traditions.”4

Evidence indicates that at least some of these refugees were literate. King Hezekiah is reported to have overseen the construction of a tunnel to bring water from the Gihon spring into the city of Jerusalem (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:3–4, 30; Isaiah 22:11). A Hebrew inscription known as the “Siloam inscription” was discovered in this tunnel in 1880. It describes the exciting moment when two working crews from either side of the tunnel met and broke through the rock.

Siloam inscription. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

In an important article on the inscription, Gary Rendsburg and William Schniedewind observe that “only those who worked on the tunnel and engraved the inscription would have known of its existence.” The wall on which the inscription was made “was carefully prepared and the letters are elegantly carved in a cursive style into the hard limestone” which suggests that the author of the inscription was not only functionally literate but well trained.5 Notably, the inscription was not made for royal display, but appears to have been made by one of the workers who wanted to celebrate and record their accomplishment.6

Based upon an analysis of the language of the inscription, these scholars conclude that the writer of the inscription was not a Judahite but used a dialect of Israelian Hebrew that can be traced to “southern Samaria, or more specifically, southern Ephraim—to wit, the region around Bethel.”7 They further conclude that the author of the inscription was “a recent refugee from somewhere along the Ephraim-Benjamin border.”8

Administrative Officials

Schniedewind argues that “a disproportionate number of the refugees would have been the social and cultural elites: nobles, government officials, scribes, craftsmen, temple priests.”9 These skilled and literate individuals could also “be put to work in the burgeoning government bureaucracy.”10 Support for this view may be found in several inscribed bullae and a stamp seals recovered from excavations at Jerusalem.11 Anat Mendel-Geberovich, Ortal Chalaf, and Joe Uziel argue that several of these objects point to the Israelite origins of some of their owners. One notable bullae carries the name ʾAhiʾ av (a variant of Ahab) son of Menahem. Both Ahab and Menahem were Israelite kings (1 Kings 16:30; 2 Kings 15:14). “The use of two names known to be associated with the Northern Kingdom may be a hint toward the origin of a certain individual, whose family had arrived from the kingdom of Israel and eventually found themselves working within the Jerusalem administration.”12

Stamp seal bearing the name Ahiʾ av son of Menahem. Image via jpost.com.

They note that the bulla is well preserved. “The script of the bulla is excellent, neat, and consistent” and “is a skillful engraved writing befitting the peak of the making of Judahite personal seals.”13 They observe that “customers who could afford commissioning their personal seals from these engravers must have been wealthy residents of Jerusalem in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.”14 They take this as an “indication of Israelite elites integrated within the Judahite administration.”15

Itzhaq Shai agrees that the discovery indicates that “refugees from the northern kingdom were active in the late 8th century B.C.E. in Jerusalem, and it may be that some were even part of the high officials of Hezekiah’s administration.”16 He believes that Hezekiah may have “promoted refugees from the northern kingdom, and some were integrated in the southern administration.” In his view the evidence suggests that these skilled individuals “had a role in the administration of Judah in the days of Hezekiah and his son Manasseh.”17 This may explain how Laban’s Ephraimite ancestors became established as an important and influential family among the Jerusalem elite by the time of Zedekiah.

Nephi and his brothers bargain with Laban for the brass plates. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 


The Siloam inscription and Hebrew bullae from Jerusalem provide evidence that some Israelites escaped the destruction of the northern kingdom and found refuge in Jerusalem. The evidence also indicates that some of these refugees were literate, skilled, and able to become established in the Jerusalem bureaucracy. These discoveries, made long after the publication of the Book of Mormon, are consistent with Nephi’s description of Laban, a descendant of Joseph who was in a position of power and influence in Jerusalem during the reign of Judah’s last king. They also help explain how Lehi’s Israelite ancestors could have become established as metallurgists in Judah, where such skills would have provided many advantages.18

Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of His Inheritance,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 81–130.

John A. Tvedtnes, “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City, UT: Cornerstone, 1999), 76–98.

John L. Sorenson, “The Brass Plates and Biblical Scholarship,” in Nephite Culture and Society: Collected Papers (Salt Lake City, UT: New Sage Books, 1997), 25–39.

Bible1 Kings 16:302 Kings 15:142 Kings 20:202 Chronicles 32:3–42 Chronicles 32:30Isaiah 22:11Book of Mormon1 Nephi 5:141 Nephi 5:16 Alma 10:3Alma 46:233 Nephi 5:233 Nephi 10:173 Nephi 15:12Ether 13:7Ether 13:8Ether 13:10


1 Kings 16:30

2 Kings 15:14

2 Kings 20:20

2 Chronicles 32:3–4

2 Chronicles 32:30

Isaiah 22:11

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 5:14

1 Nephi 5:16

Alma 10:3

Alma 46:23

3 Nephi 5:23

3 Nephi 10:17

3 Nephi 15:12

Ether 13:7

Ether 13:8

Ether 13:10

  • 1 Although not found in the extant translation of the Book of Mormon, historical evidence indicates that Ishmael, his children, Laban, and his servant Zoram were Ephraimites. This comes from reports of what Joseph Smith said was recorded on the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon. See Don Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), 157–160.
  • 2 “This ‘Lehi,’ it seems, was of the tribe of Joseph, and dwelt at Jerusalem. The tribe of Joseph at Jerusalem! Go, study scripture-geography, ye ignorant fellows, before you send out another imposition, and make no more such foolish blunders.” Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (New York, NY: 1838), 11.
  • 3 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1987), 71.
  • 4 Luke H. Grollenberg, A New Look at An Old Book (Paramus, NJ: Newman Press, 1969), 33. The Book of Chronicles indicates that some who dwelt at Jerusalem after the exile included descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh (1 Chronicles 9:3).
  • 5 Gary A. Rendsburg and William M. Schniedewind, “The Siloam Tunnel Inscription: Historical and Linguistic Perspectives,” Israel Exploration Journal 60 (2010): 191.
  • 6 Rendsburg and Schniedewind, “The Siloam Tunnel Inscription,” 191.
  • 7 Rendsburg and Schniedewind, “The Siloam Tunnel Inscription,” 198.
  • 8 Rendsburg and Schniedewind, “The Siloam Tunnel Inscription,” 199.
  • 9 William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 95.
  • 10 Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book, 95.
  • 11 Anat Mendel-Geberovich, Ortal Chalaf, and Joe Uziel, “The People Behind the Stamps: A Newly Found Group of Bullae and a Seal from the City of David, Jerusalem,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 384 (2020): 159–182.
  • 12 Mendel-Geberovich, Chalaf, and Uziel, “The People Behind the Stamps,” 175.
  • 13 Mendel-Geberovich, Chalaf, and Uziel, “The People Behind the Stamps,” 170.
  • 14 Mendel-Geberovich, Chalaf, and Uziel, “The People Behind the Stamps,” 174.
  • 15 Mendel-Geberovich, Chalaf, and Uziel, “The People Behind the Stamps,” 175.
  • 16 Itzaq Shai, “A Note on the Importance of the Name Manasseh as King of Judah,” in To Explore the Land of Canaan: Studies in Honor of Jeffrey R. Chadwick, ed. Aren M. Maeir and George A. Pierce (Berlin and Boston, MA: Walter de Gruyter, 2022), 291.
  • 17 Itzaq Shai, “A Note on the Importance of the Name Manasseh as King of Judah,” 293.
  • 18 See Neal Rappleye, “Lehi the Smelter: New Light on Lehi’s Profession,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 14 (2015): 223–225; Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of his Inheritance,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 113–117; John A. Tvedtnes, “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City, UT: Cornerstone, 1999), 76–98.
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