Twelve Tribes

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Jacob

In the Bible, Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, and the traditional ancestor of all Israel. Jacob obtained his prominence in the line of Abraham by tricking his elder twin brother Esau out of both his birthright and his paternal blessing (Gen. 25:29-34; 27:1-41). As he fled from the enraged Esau, Jacob had a dream at Bethel of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven (Gen. 28:10-22). He married his cousins Rachel and Leah and worked 20 years for their father, Laban, in Haran. He later wrestled with an angel, who gave him the name Israel (Gen. 32:22-32), and was reconciled with Esau. Jacob's 12 sons were the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel; Jacob's favorite was Joseph.

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Bibliography:
Hendel, R.S., The Epic of the Patriarch (1988); Wiesel, Elie, Messengers of God (1976; repr. 1985).


(NOTE: In Genesis 32:28; 35:10, God told Jacob that his name was no longer Jacob, but Israel. Therefore, his twelve children and their descendents are described as the Twelve Tribes of Israel.)

Originally, the twelve tribes were identified by the names of the twelve sons of Jacob: Joseph, Judah, Issachar, Benjamin, Levi, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Simeon, Dan, Zebulun, Reuben. Later, Jacob told Joseph that he would treat Joseph's two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, as his own. At that time, those two tribes replaced Joseph and Levi among the Twelve:

Much of the Old Testament records an assortment of political intrigues among the leaders of the twelve tribes.


From: Home Bible Study Commentary by James M. Gray

Numbers Chapter 1-4

Number and Order of the Tribes

The Tribes Arranged
c. 2 What was the rallying point for each family in the camp (2)? We do not know the colors or forms of these ensigns, but possibly they were copied after Egypt minus their idolatrous symbols, and were of a fan-like form made of feathers, shawls, etc., and lifted on long poles. Some think they were symbols borrowed from Jacob's blessing on the tribes, and that Judah's ensign was a lion, Benjamin's a wolf, and so on. Perhaps the color was determined by the precious stone representing the tribe in the high priest's breastplate. Were the tribes, other than the Levites, allowed to pitch their tents near the tabernacle (2)? Which tribes took the lead on the march (3-9)? What seems to have formed the central company (17)?

The Remaining Tribes

(1 Chronicles Chapter 1-9)

cc. 7-8 These tribes include Issachar (7:1-5); Benjamin (vv. 6-12); Naphtali (v. 13); Manasseh (vv. 14-19); Ephraim (vv. 20-29); Asher (vv. 30-40); the chief men of Benjamin (8:1-32); the house of Saul (vv. 33-40) [?]. Two tribes are omitted, Dan and Zebulon, but why, no one can determine. In the case of Dan, perhaps, it is judicial punishment because of their early and almost total fall into idolatry. They are omitted again in the list of Revelation 8. Zebulon's omission is more difficult to explain. It was a small tribe, especially just before and whose territory included Nazareth where Jesus dwelt.


Tribe

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Tribe of Zebulun

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The Tribe of Zebulun numbered at Sinai (Num. 1:31) and before entering Canaan (26:27). It was one of the tribes which did not drive out the Canaanites, but only made them tributary (Judg. 1:30). It took little interest in public affairs. It responded, however, readily to the summons of Gideon (6:35), and afterwards assisted in enthroning David at Hebron (1 Chr. 12:33, 40). Along with the other northern tribes, Zebulun was carried away into the land of Assyria by Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 15:29). In Deborah's song the words, "Out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer" (Judg. 5:14) has been rendered in the R.V., "They that handle the marshal's staff." This is a questionable rendering. "The word sopher ('scribe' or 'writer') defines the word shebhet ('rod' or 'pen') with which it is conjoined. The 'rod of the scribe' on the Assyrian monuments was the stylus of wood or metal, with the help of which the clay tablet was engraved, or the papyrus inscribed with characters. The scribe who wielded it was the associate and assistant of the 'lawgivers.'" (Sayce).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Tribe of Reuben

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The Tribe of Reuben, at the Exodus numbered 46,500 male adults, from twenty years old and upwards (Num. 1:20, 21), and at the close of the wilderness wanderings they numbered only 43,730 (26:7). This tribe united with that of Gad in asking permission to settle in the "land of Gilead," "on the other side of Jordan" (32:1-5). The lot assigned to Reuben was the smallest of the lots given to the trans-Jordanic tribes. It extended from the Arnon, in the south along the coast of the Dead Sea to its northern end, where the Jordan flows into it (Josh. 13:15-21, 23). It thus embraced the original kingdom of Sihon. Reuben is "to the eastern tribes what Simeon is to the western. 'Unstable as water,' he vanishes away into a mere Arabian tribe. 'His men are few;' it is all he can do 'to live and not die.' We hear of nothing beyond the multiplication of their cattle in the land of Gilead, their spoils of 'camels fifty thousand, and of asses two thousand' (1 Chr. 5:9, 10, 20, 21). In the great struggles of the nation he never took part. The complaint against him in the song of Deborah is the summary of his whole history. 'By the streams of Reuben,' i.e., by the fresh streams which descend from the eastern hills into the Jordan and the Dead Sea, on whose banks the Bedouin chiefs met then as now to debate, in the 'streams' of Reuben great were the 'desires'", i.e., resolutions which were never carried out, the people idly resting among their flocks as if it were a time of peace (Judg. 5:15, 16). Stanley's Sinai and Palestine. All the three tribes on the east of Jordan at length fell into complete apostasy, and the time of retribution came. God "stirred up the spirit of Pul, king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria," to carry them away, the first of the tribes, into captivity (1 Chr. 5:25, 26).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Tribe of Simeon

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The Tribe of Simeon was "divided and scattered" according to the prediction in Gen. 49:5-7. They gradually dwindled in number, and sank into a position of insignificance among the other tribes. They decreased in the wilderness by about two-thirds (comp. Num. 1:23; 26:14). Moses pronounces no blessing on this tribe. It is passed by in silence (Deut. 33). This tribe received as their portion a part of the territory already allotted to Judah (Josh. 19:1-9). It lay in the south-west of the land, with Judah on the east and Dan on the north; but whether it was a compact territory or not cannot be determined. The subsequent notices of this tribe are but few (1 Chr. 4:24-43). Like Reuben on the east of Jordan, this tribe had little influence on the history of Israel.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Tribe of Ephraim

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The Tribe of Ephraim took precedence over that of Manasseh by virtue of Jacob's blessing (Gen. 41:52; 48:1). The descendants of Joseph formed two of the tribes of Israel, whereas each of the other sons of Jacob was the founder of only one tribe. Thus there were in reality thirteen tribes; but the number twelve was preserved by excluding that of Levi when Ephraim and Manasseh are mentioned separately (Num. 1:32-34; Josh. 17:14, 17; 1 Chr. 7:20).

At the time of the first census in the wilderness this tribe numbered 40,500 (Num. 1:32, 33); forty years later, when about to take possession of the Promised Land, it numbered only 32,500. During the march Ephraim's place was on the west side of the tabernacle (Num. 2:18-24). When the spies were sent out to spy the land, "Oshea the son of Nun" of this tribe signalized himself. The boundaries of the portion of the land assigned to Ephraim are given in Josh. 16:1-10. It included most of what was afterwards called Samaria as distinguished from Judea and Galilee. It thus lay in the centre of all traffic, from north to south, and from Jordan to the sea, and was about 55 miles long and 30 broad. The tabernacle and the ark were deposited within its limits at Shiloh, where it remained for four hundred years.

During the time of the judges and the first stage of the monarchy this tribe manifested a domineering and haughty and discontented spirit. "For more than five hundred years, a period equal to that which elapsed between the Norman Conquest and the War of the Roses, Ephraim, with its two dependent tribes of Manasseh and Benjamin, exercised undisputed pre-eminence. Joshua the first conqueror, Gideon the greatest of the judges, and Saul the first king, belonged to one or other of the three tribes. It was not till the close of the first period of Jewish history that God 'refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim, but chose the tribe of Judah, the Mount Zion which he loved' (Ps. 78: 67, 68).

When the ark was removed from Shiloh to Zion the power of Ephraim was humbled." Among the causes which operated to bring about the disruption of Israel was Ephraim's jealousy of the growing power of Judah. From the settlement of Canaan till the time of David and Solomon, Ephraim had held the place of honour among the tribes. It occupied the central and fairest portions of the land, and had Shiloh and Shechem within its borders. But now when Jerusalem became the capital of the kingdom, and the centre of power and worship for the whole nation of Israel, Ephraim declined in influence. The discontent came to a crisis by Rehoboam's refusal to grant certain redresses that were demanded (1 Kings 12). (Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Tribe of Judah

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Judah and his three surviving sons went down with Jacob into Egypt (Gen. 46:12; Ex. 1:2). At the time of the Exodus, when we meet with the family of Judah again, they have increased to the number of 74,000 males (Num. 1:26, 27). Its number increased in the wilderness (26:22). Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, represented the tribe as one of the spies (13:6; 34:19). This tribe marched at the van on the east of the tabernacle (Num. 2:3-9; 10:14), its standard, as is supposed, being a lion's whelp. Under Caleb, during the wars of conquest, they conquered that portion of the country which was afterwards assigned to them as their inheritance. This was the only case in which any tribe had its inheritance thus determined (Josh. 14:6-15; 15:13-19). The inheritance of the tribe of Judah was at first fully one-third of the whole country west of Jordan, in all about 2,300 square miles (Josh. 15). But there was a second distribution, when Simeon received an allotment, about 1,000 square miles, out of the portion of Judah (Josh. 19:9). That which remained to Judah was still very large in proportion to the inheritance of the other tribes.

The boundaries of the territory are described in Josh. 15:20-63. This territory given to Judah was divided into four sections. (1.) The south (Heb. negeb), the undulating pasture-ground between the hills and the desert to the south (Josh. 15:21.) This extent of pasture-land became famous as the favourite camping-ground of the old patriarchs. (2.) The "valley" (15:33) or lowland (Heb. shephelah), a broad strip lying between the central highlands and the Mediterranean. This tract was the garden as well as the granary of the tribe. (3.) The "hill-country," or the mountains of Judah, an elevated plateau stretching from below Hebron northward to Jerusalem. "The towns and villages were generally perched on the tops of hills or on rocky slopes. The resources of the soil were great. The country was rich in corn, wine, oil, and fruit; and the daring shepherds were able to lead their flocks far out over the neighbouring plains and through the mountains." The number of towns in this district was thirty-eight (Josh. 15:48-60). (4.) The "wilderness," the sunken district next the Dead Sea (Josh. 15:61), "averaging 10 miles in breadth, a wild, barren, uninhabitable region, fit only to afford scanty pasturage for sheep and goats, and a secure home for leopards, bears, wild goats, and outlaws" (1 Sam. 17:34; 22:1; Mark 1:13). It was divided into the "wilderness of En-gedi" (1 Sam. 24:1), the "wilderness of Judah" (Judg. 1:16; Matt. 3:1), between the Hebron mountain range and the Dead Sea, the "wilderness of Maon" (1 Sam. 23:24). It contained only six cities. Nine of the cities of Judah were assigned to the priests (Josh. 21:9-19).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Tribe of Naphtali

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On this tribe Jacob pronounced the patriarchal blessing, "Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words" (Gen. 49:21). It was intended thus to set forth under poetic imagery the future character and history of the tribe. At the time of the Exodus this tribe numbered 53,400 adult males (Num. 1:43), but at the close of the wanderings they numbered only 45,400 (26:48-50). Along with Dan and Asher they formed "the camp of Dan," under a common standard (2:25-31), occupying a place during the march on the north side of the tabernacle. The possession assigned to this tribe is set forth in Josh. 19:32-39. It lay in the north-eastern corner of the land, bounded on the east by the Jordan and the lakes of Merom and Galilee, and on the north it extended far into Coele-Syria, the valley between the two Lebanon ranges.

It comprehended a greater variety of rich and beautiful scenery and of soil and climate than fell to the lot of any other tribe. The territory of Naphtali extended to about 800 square miles, being the double of that of Issachar. The region around Kedesh, one of its towns, was originally called Galil, a name afterwards given to the whole northern division of Canaan. A large number of foreigners settled here among the mountains, and hence it was called "Galilee of the Gentiles" (q.v.), Matt. 4:15, 16. The southern portion of Naphtali has been called the "Garden of Palestine." It was of unrivalled fertility. It was the principal scene of our Lord's public ministry. Here most of his parables were spoken and his miracles wrought. This tribe was the first to suffer from the invasion of Benhadad, king of Syria, in the reigns of Baasha, king of Israel, and Asa, king of Judah (1 Kings 15:20; 2 Chr. 16:4). In the reign of Pekah, king of Israel, the Assyrians under Tiglath-pileser swept over the whole north of Israel, and carried the people into captivity (2 Kings 15:29). Thus the kingdom of Israel came to an end (B.C. 722). Naphtali is now almost wholly a desert, the towns of Tiberias, on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, and Safed being the only places in it of any importance.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)



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