The 12 Tribes of Israel

The 12 Tribes of Israel

In the early chapters of Genesis God deals with mankind through individuals. He created Adam. The story of Cain and Abel shows God personally mentoring each brother.  He walked with Enoch, then took him up. He saved Noah. He called Abraham.

In the case of Abraham, God took one man and uprooted him from home and family, and moved him hundreds of miles away to a foreign and dangerous land. In that endeavor, God moved His people from the land of Eden to the land of promise. Abraham would established himself in Canaan and pave the way for the formation of the 12 Tribes of Israel. 

The death of Abraham in Genesis 25:8 signaled a change. The Bible next turns to Abraham's son, Isaac. From Isaac comes Jacob. Jacob produces twelve sons, and these twelve sons become the 12 tribes of Israel. God moves in stages over the course of time, weaving in and out of generations. The formation of these tribes took place over the course of hundreds of years, starting with the birth of each son of Jacob.

The 12 Tribes of Israel

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

Jacob & The 12 Tribes of Israel : The triumphs and tragedies of Jacob and his sons in Canaan would lay the foundation for the development of the tribes of Israel. All but one of Jacob's sons were born in Haran. In Canaan, they were foreigners in a foreign land.

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. Under the leadership of Moses, the wandering Jews were shaped by the hand of God into a formidable nation. 

The Tribe of Manasseh: The Tribe of Manasseh was the only tribe of Israel to inherit land on both sides of the Jordan River. This was a result of the double-portion inheritance given to Manasseh, the eldest son of Joseph. The oldest son receiving the double portion was a cultural element in many cultures of the Ancient Near East.

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 as His priests. The Levites would end up living among all of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

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. Judah was the royal tribe of Israel.

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 mighty Judge, Samson, was from the tribe of Dan.

The Tribe of Naphtali : Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob, and the second son of 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. Gadites were 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 into Canaan. 

The Tribe of Asher : The tribe of Asher proved to be a tribe of contradictions. 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 and well respected. Scripture calls them princes. However, the infamous King Baasha of Israel and his son were descended from this tribe.

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

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. Ephraim was the royal tribe of the Northern Kingdom, just as Judah was the royal tribe of the Southern Kingdom.

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 tribe was nearly annihilated in a Civil War - one of the Old Testament's most dubious accounts.

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. She rose to become Queen of the Persian Empire in a divine twist of fate. The Tribe of Benjamin, thus, produced not only a king, but also a queen.


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 developing naturally, over an extended period of time, from the patriarchal origins and pages of early Genesis.

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. One such possible need can be seen in the massive waves of refugee migration sweeping through Europe. These displaced individuals join together to form social elements and groups.

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 invasions, rather than one large conquering campaign and resettlement.

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 origin of the 12 tribes of Israel at their earliest stages.

The Torah (Five Books of Moses), on the other hand, provides a detailed account of the origins of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

The root origin of the 12 tribes of Israel can be traced in the genealogical records found throughout 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. The detailed accounts in the Old Testament have proven time and time again to accurately portray places and peoples from the ancient past. Archaelogy uses the Bible as a guide book when digging for answers. Why, then, would the Old Testament not accurately portray the development of the 12 Tribes of Israel? The answer, of course, is it does!

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The Tribe

The fundamental social and family 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 levels. The tribe was the social, religious, political, and military backbone of society.

Abraham, however, strayed from this tribal pattern popular amongst the Canaanite nations. 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 found upon pure blood relation. It would maintain its own autonomy and individuality. It would maintain its code of living and conduct, its own customs and traditions. It would maintain its One True God. The Hebrew Tribe remained a part of Canaanite society - yet distinct from many of its practices. This distinguished Abraham from his Canaanite neighbors.

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. In this aspect, the tribe, or household of Abraham was composed of many different elements as well. Interestingly enough, during the desert wandering under Moses, the Hebrews were a mixed group of peoples, too.

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. Joseph received two tribes as a result of his favored position with YHWH and Joseph's father, Jacob. In this respect, it was Joseph, actually the second to youngest born son of Jacob, that received the blessing of the double portion typically reserved for the oldest-born son. This will account for much of the inconsistency when dealing with the Biblical lists of the twelve tribes of Israel.

The Levites were a unique and particular tribe, set aside for God. They did not receive any allotment of land in Canaan, only cities throughout the whole of Canaan. 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 in Scripture that 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, and ultimately responsible for the division into two separate countries: Israel and Judah.

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 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

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

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The 12 Tribes of Israel Discussion Forum

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Richard kean  Not rated yet
In regards to you article on Ephraim,I found it to be quite informative. Thank you. What's interesting is, the name given to Joseph's second son has …

Jean Not rated yet
Does the article not list 13 tribes instead of 12?

Gad i am; differing thoughts & pictures on 'breastplate of high priest' positions of ? Not rated yet
positions of ? top down, left right renderings, which is original? Gwen Shaw's teachings of 12 Tribes is one of interesting studies. wish to compare more …

Tina Not rated yet
Is there any type of get together or something the man I am dating claims to be the descendant of 9 different people from 9 of these tribes and claims …

O Yisrael Not rated yet
O Yisrael how I yearn for you When you’re hurt My heart feels the pain I am coming back For I am yours O beautiful Yisrael When the dawn breaks …

The Twelve Tribe's of Israel Identity & Origin Not rated yet
I have always thought that the 12 tribes are just that, 12 separate groups. Due to changes in social events, whether it be captivity or other reasons, …

The Lost House of Israel Not rated yet
Have you ever wandered what it is to be a Jew? We were hated and persecuted by every race. I was one of that person until, one day the scales lifted …

The Kerala Nasaranis - Jews Lost in Time Not rated yet
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ROBBIN- JUDA Not rated yet


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The Tribe of Ephraim Not rated yet
I do believe that Ephraim was taken into Assyria, only to come to Kerala in India. Bene Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh is in close proximity to that of the …

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