Hope you’re not triskaidekaphobic. In case you are, the bible usually says 12.
The Hebrews whom the L
Since Israel had 12 sons (through four different women), and all the “children of Israel” are descended from the sons, they’re also known as “the 12 tribes of Israel,” each tribe named for each son. In English, the sons are
- Sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun.
- Sons of Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin.
- Sons of Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali.
- Sons of Zilpah: Gad, Asher.
They’re listed in various orders, but Reuben tends to come first, ’cause he was firstborn. However, Israel reassigned the
Hence Joseph received twice the inheritance of his brothers—and became represented by two tribes, named for Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. (Manasseh is sometimes referred to as a “half tribe,”
So… this actually produces 13 tribes (which I’ll list alphabetically): Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun. Not 12. Why aren’t they called 13 tribes? Two reasons.
First and foremost: The writers of the bible, and probably God too, really like the number 12. The ancient Sumerians divided the year into 12 months, marked ’em with the zodiac (whatever constellation is highest in the sky at night), and throughout middle eastern culture this became the number of completeness, fulfillment, unity, and perfection. Thirteen? Not so much. Not that it’s unlucky; that superstition came from the Romans. But they liked 12 way better.
And the L
So geographically, there are only 12 tribes: Twelve tracts of land, designated for 12 families descended from Israel. The Levite cities were scattered all over these tribes, and really anybody could live in the cities, not just Levites. (Particularly the larger cities, like Hebron, Shechem, or Ramoth-Gilead.)
Where the 12 tribes were meant to be situated, according to Joshua. Historically, they didn’t ultimately end up there. Dan, fr’instance, gave up trying to fight the Philistines and moved to the north part of Naphtali. The Bible Study Site
People start to get really bored with the book of Joshua right about where the conquered land gets divvied up between the tribes. Three tribes already had land by this point: Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh, had claimed land east of the Jordan.
- Asher’s boundaries.
- Benjamin’s boundaries.
- Dan’s boundaries.
- Issachar’s boundaries.
- Naphtali’s boundaries.
- Simeon’s boundaries.
- Zebulun’s boundaries.
Problem is, these tribes were supposed to finish driving out the other inhabitants so they could take the rest of the land allocated to them. This, they failed to do.
When the tribes split into northern Israel (“Ephraim”) and southern Israel (“Judah”) round the year 930
Every so often you’ll hear people refer to the “lost tribes of Israel.” When the Assyrians conquered northern Israel in 722
Not that there aren’t hundreds of theories. Every once in a while, anthropologists discover a clan of people whose religion and traditions sound remarkably like that of ancient Israel, so people leap to the conclusion these folks must be one of the “lost tribes,” miraculously still intact (more or less; mostly less) after 25 centuries.
And of course there are all the Christian myths about where they went. In England and the United States, there’s a really popular belief that the Saxons are descended from the “lost tribes.” (Supposedly “Isaacson” got shortened to “Saxon.” Linguistically impossible, but when people are stupid enough, they’ll believe anything.) So if you wanna claim the English, or their Anglo descendants in the Americas, are secretly God’s chosen people, there ya go. Why the people who believe this, still have various prejudices about Jews, is beyond me, but whatever.
But it’s not wholly accurate to say the “lost tribes” are actually lost. ’Cause they weren’t. Not entirely. The Assyrians deported most of the people of northern Israel. In Sargon of Assyria’s Annals, he recorded he exiled only 27,290 of the inhabitants of Samaria. Everybody else?—all the inhabitants of all the other cities? Still there. Living under Assyrian rule till the neo-Babylonians conquered Assyria. The neo-Babylonians didn’t deport everyone either.
It’s why we find members of the “missing tribes” in the bible:
- Ephraim was still around after the exiles returned from Babylon.
Zc 7.1, 9.9, 10.7
- The apocryphal book of Tobit is about people from the tribe of Naphtali.
Tb 1.1 NRSV
- One of the prophets whom Jesus’s parents met in temple was Anna, from the “missing” tribe of Asher.
- Jesus lived in the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali.
- Revelation includes a vision of 144,000 people from 11 tribes: Asher, Benjamin, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun.
Rv 7.5-8(“Joseph” gets included in verse 8, which likely includes people from Ephraim; Dan isn’t mentioned at all. Doesn’t necessarily mean Dan is extinct though.)
A numerologist’s dream.
Thirteen tribes aside, the tribes of Israel were consistently referred to as 12, and if you like the number 12, you’re gonna love the bible. There are 12s all over it. Just about everything in ancient Israel was centered on twelveness.
- Moses set up 12 pillars.
- Twelve jewels in the head priest’s ephod,
Ex 28.21deliberately for the sake of each tribe.
- Twelve loaves of showbread.
- Twelve spies sent to scope out Canaan before the invasion,
Nu 13one from every tribe but Levi.
- Twelve stones set up in memory of crossing the Jordan.
- Solomon had 12 officers,
1Ki 4.7likely from each tribe but Levi.
- Solomon’s “bronze sea” was designed with 12 bronze oxen holding it up.
- Solomon’s throne had 12 lions on the steps to it.
- Elijah’s altar consisted of 12 stones.
Lastly Jesus had 12 apostles, whom he expected to seat on 12 thrones to rule the 12 tribes.
And of course 12 is all over Revelation.
- 12,000 apiece from the 12 tribes are sealed.
- The woman clothed with the sun has a crown of 12 stars.
- New Jerusalem has 12 pearly gates,
Rv 21.2, 2112 foundations, Rv 21.14and is 12,000 stadia high, wide, and deep. Rv 21.16
- The tree of life produces 12 kinds of fruit.
What can I tell you? Hebrews and Christians—and apparently God too—really like the number. So it’s all over the bible, and in order to conform to it, the 13 tribes of Israel have been rejiggered into 12.