The 12 Tribes of Israel

The 12 Tribes of Israel

Throughout the early chapters of Genesis, God deals with mankind through individuals. He created Adam, He walked with Enoch , He saved Noah, and He called Abraham.

In the case of Abraham, God had taken one man, uprooted him from home and family, moved him hundreds of miles away into a foreign and dangerous land, and established him in the land of Canaan.

The death of Abraham in Genesis 25:8 signaled a change in the course of direction God would take with His people.

The Bible next turns to Abraham's son, Isaac. From Isaac comes Jacob. Jacob produces twelve sons, and the 12 tribes of Israel begin to emerge and take shape. God was moving in stages, and one must keep in mind the formation of these tribes took place over the course of hundreds of years.

The 12 Tribes of Israel

Jacob and Esau : The story of Jacob and Esau has fascinated and puzzled scholars for centuries. The struggle between Jacob and Esau would later manifest itself in the struggle between their respective countries; Israel and Edom.

Jacob & The Tribes of Israel : The triumphs and tragedies of Jacob and his son's in Canaan would lay the foundation for the development of the tribes of Israel. The land of Canaan was new to them, as all but one of Jacob's sons were born in Haran.

Organization of the Twelve Tribes of Israel : The twelve tribes of Israel fled Egypt in haste. They possessed no means of settling disputes, maintaining law and order, or set chain of command. God, however, would use the time in the wilderness to establish an organized and efficient government.

The Tribe of Manasseh: The Tribe of Manasseh was the only of the 12 Tribes of Israel to inherit land on both sides of the Jordan River. This was a manifestation of the double-portion still being given to Manasseh, the eldest of Joseph.

The Tribe of Reuben : The tribe of Reuben descended from the firstborn son of Jacob and Leah, Reuben. As the firstborn son, Reuben played a prominent role in the early accounts. However, his role as a tribe would diminish significantly as a consequence of transgressions.

The Tribe of Simeon : The tribe of Simeon was descended from the second born son of Jacob and Leah, Simeon. This tribe dwelt in relative obscurity, and had very little impact on the history of Israel.

The Tribe of Levi : The tribe of Levi was descended from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. Through an act of faithfulness in the wilderness, this tribe would become set apart by God.

The Tribe of Judah : The tribe of Judah became one of the most prominent tribes in all of Israel. The Davidic Dynasty emerged from this tribe, a lineage which culminated in Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

The Tribe of Dan : The tribe of Dan is perhaps the most enigmatic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Danites failed to drive out their Philistine and Canaanite neighbors. As a result, they migrated to another land, in the northernmost limits of Canaan.

The Tribe of Naphtali : Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob, and the second produced by Bilhah. Naphtali was blessed by Jacob on his deathbed. The tribe of Naphtali was a tribe of great warriors, and took part in some of the Old Testament's most important battles.

The Tribe of Gad : Gad was the seventh son of Jacob and Zilpah, Leah's maiden. Gad became the Marines of the 12 tribes of Israel. They were fierce, athletic, and skillful on the battle field. They played lead roles in the conquest of Sihon and Og, then led the Israelites across the Jordan to Jericho and beyond.

The Tribe of Asher : The tribe of Asher proved to be a tribe of contradictions and vagaries. Influenced by the pagan religion of Phoenicia and chastised by Deborah, the tribe also came to the aid of Gideon, and supplied king David with one-third of his army in Hebron.

The Tribe of Issachar : The tribe of Issachar earned a reputation as a tribe of students of the law. They were wise men, well respected. Scripture calls them princes. However, the infamous King Baasha and son were descended from this tribe.

The Tribe of Zebulun : The tenth son of Jacob, Zebulun would prove one faithful throughout much of the Old Testament. The tribe fought bravely with Deborah and Barak. They were mentioned in conjunction with Gideon. The tribe took part in a prophecy of Isaiah's which Christ fulfilled.

The Tribe of Ephraim (part 1) : Perhaps no tribe symbolizes man's struggle with God more than the tribe of Ephraim. At once rebuked, then praised, Ephraim was always under the watchful eye of God. The name would come to represent the entire northern kingdom of Israel.

The Ephraimites (part 2) : The Ephraimites participated in many of Israel's engagements throughout the period of the Judges. They played a significant role in both the United and Divided Monarchies.

The Tribe of Benjamin: Of the 12 tribes of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin is one of only two to appear throughout the entire Bible. They are the only tribe to have belonged to both the north and the south.

The Benjamites (part 2): The tribe of Benjamin played integral roles in a number of events from the Judges through Ezra. Benjamites such as king Saul and the great prophet Samuel significantly shaped the history of Israel.

Queen Esther of the Bible: Esther was a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin. The Tribe of Benjamin, thus, produced not only a king, but also a queen. Esther would rise to become Queen of Persia.


Map of the Tribal Allotments of the 12 Tribes

Modern day scholarship dismisses the notion that the 12 tribes of Israel are divisions of a larger group, the nation of Israel. They also deny the Biblical account of these tribes all developing naturally, over an extended period of time, from the patriarchal origins.

Many scholars feel the 12 tribes of Israel were joined together out of a joint historical need, whether the threat of invasion, famine, or some other happening.

The Habiru formed just out of such circumstances.

Some claim the tribes were formed once they were inside of Canaan, toward the end of the Judges, and the beginning of Saul's reign. Still others claim the 12 tribes of Israel "may", in fact, have been formed in some sort of desert wandering. However, Canaan was certainly not conquered simultaneously by these twelve tribes. This school believes the conquest of Canaan took place over the course of multiple, smaller infiltrations, rather than one large invasion.

These differing schools of thought, however, cannot agree on when these tribes formed, or, when these tribes united. They are unable to provide an explanation which accounts for the formation of the 12 tribes of Israel at their earliest stages. The Torah, on the other hand, provides just that.

The root origin of the 12 tribes of Israel rests in the emphasis placed on genealogical records throughout all of the Old Testament. Scholars simply dismiss the notion of detailed family records being kept in ancient Israel when assessing the validity of Scripture. The ancient Hebrews /Israelites maintained family records with excruciating detail. It is within these genealogies the birth of the 12 tribes of Israel may be found.

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The Tribe

The fundamental social and familial unit of the ancient world was the tribe. Tribes of the ancient world were composed of a number of different elements.

Tribes consisted of families, typically extended families, and individuals not of blood relation. Oftentimes tribes would intermarry, and thus larger tribes, over years, may absorb lesser tribes.

Tribes were more defined by geographical regions, and territories, than by social position, or blood. Tribes served to unite diverse families and members of society from all stratas. The tribe was the social, religious, political, and military backbone of Canaanite society.

Abraham, however, strayed from this tribal pattern. He refused to intermarry and intermingle. He obtained a wife for Isaac from their own people, maintaining the integrity and purity God demanded.

The Hebrew tribe, thus, was founded upon pure blood relation. It would maintain its own autonomy and individuality. This distinguished Abraham from his Canaanite neighbors.

The 12 Tribes of Israel Encamped Around the Ark.

However, Abraham also possessed a number of servants, perhaps slaves, and fighting men in his household. It is more than likely all of these were not of Hebrew descent, and probably some were even non-Semitic. Thus, in this aspect, the tribe, or household of Abraham was composed of many different elements as well.

Isaac produces two twin boys; Esau, the oldest, and Jacob, the youngest. It is through the youngest son, Jacob, and his twelve sons, that the Bible begins to deal with twelve distinct tribes.

The birth of the 12 tribes of Israel begins with the birth of the twelve sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

From Joseph would come two tribes, each descended from one of his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. This will account for much of the inconsistency when dealing with the Biblical lists of the 12 tribes.

The Levites were a particular tribe, set aside for God, thus did not receive any allotment of land, only cities throughout the whole of the land. In lists of the 12 tribes of Israel which omit Levi, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are mentioned to keep the number twelve intact.

It quickly becomes evident throughout the Old Testament the 12 tribes of Israel were seldom unified throughout much of the history of Israel. Though unified under Saul and then David, factions existed within certain tribes which always fought against common opinion. Intense and deep rivalries existed between tribes, in some cases leading to civil war.

The situation is much the same today, within the country of Israel. Many divisions exist within the Jewish people of Israel, indeed throughout much of the Jewish population worldwide. Though these divisions are real, in times of need, much like the tribes of the Old Testament, the Jewish people rally and unite, fighting off threat and war.

However, the prophet Ezekiel foresaw a time when such divisions would never exist within God's people. He spoke of such a time in Ezekiel 37.

"And when the sons of your people speak to you saying, 'Will you not declare to us what you mean by these?' say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God: " Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will put them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand."

Bible Study Resources

Rev. Dr. Derrick A. Hill takes on this unique study of the tribes of Israel and the characteristics of each tribe as depicted in Jesus Christ. Through an analysis of the Old Testament, and comparing it with the New Testament, Hill illuminates the person of Jesus Christ in a unique and powerful way. Click on the link below to visit and The Study of the Twelve Tribes of Israel!

The Study of The Twelve Tribes of Israel

Zvi Ben-Dor Benite explores the 10 northern tribes of ancient Israel, exiled by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E., in the context of global history. This intellectual, but readable, book fully explores the loss, and hope, God's people have endured over the centuries! Click on the link below to visit and check out The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History!

The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History

The 12 Tribes of Israel Discussion Forum

Do you have insight into the 12 Tribes of Israel? Do you belong to one of the twelve tribes? Share your thoughts, comments, and questions about the 12 Tribes of Israel here!

What Other Visitors Have Said

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The only tribe I want to talk about at this point is Simeon. In Gen. 49 , we read that Simeon would be scattered in Israel. In Joshua 19:1 we see …

Is mankind descended from the 12 tribes of Israel? 
We Gentiles are not biological descendants of Israel. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve. But speaking in today's terms of being, biologically related, …

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"1 ΒΆ Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. 2 And the Roman soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they …

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WHO CRUCIFIED CHRIST ? Was it really the Romans, as our preachers would like us to believe ? John 19:15-16 - "But they cried out, Away with him, …

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After God destroyed mankind with the flood, Noah's sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth and their wives replenish the earth. Therefore, we the people, are from …

Lost in Time 
I believe I am one of the lost tribes that settled in the Southern state of Kerala. We call ourselves Nasaranis followers of Christ. We used to have many …

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1 Kings 6:1 states the Exodus occurred some 480 yrs. before king Solomon's 4th year. King Solomon reigns 36 more years = 516 years after the Exodus. …

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A Jewish friend of mine stated that all of mankind was descended from the twelve tribes of Israel? I don't understand how that could be true. If we all …

The Modern Jews 
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There Were Not Really 12 Tribes of Israel 9. Hebrew History (1071.6) 97:9.1 There never were twelve tribes of …

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