05 May 2023

The 13 tribes of Israel. (Yes, 13. I didn’t miscount.)

The Old Testament tends to focus on the history of Israel, by which it means the descendants of Jacob ben Isaac, whom a man—probably an angel—renamed Israel after their wrestling match. Ge 32.28 Jacob’s descendants are regularly called בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל/benéi Yišraél, “children of Israel” (KJV “sons of Israel”). Ex 1.1

Jacob had 12 sons through four different women, and all the “children of Israel” are descended from these sons. These sons are 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. Ge 35.23
  • Sons of Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin. Ge 35.24
  • Sons of Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali. Ge 35.25
  • Sons of Zilpah: Gad, Asher. Ge 35.26

They’re listed in various orders, but Reuben, the firstborn, tends to come first. However, Israel reassigned the birthright—the patriarchal obligations of the eldest son to care for the family after his father died, represented by a double portion of inheritance—to his favorite son, Rachel’s eldest son, Joseph.

Because of Joseph’s double portion, he’s represented by two tribes, named for Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. They’re the tribes of Joseph. And you’ll notice Joseph is seldom called a tribe… unless you count that one time in Revelation, Rv 7.8 in which “Joseph” probably stands in for Ephraim, ’cause Manasseh got listed two verses before. Rv 7.6 Anyway. Manasseh is sometimes called a “half tribe,” Js 13.29 not because Manasseh is half of Joseph, but because half of Manasseh’s land was east of the Jordan river, and half west. And since Israel put Joseph’s younger son Ephraim first, Ge 48.17-20 precedence passed to that tribe. The Prophets regularly refer to northern Israel as “Ephraim” for this reason. Is 7.9, 11.13, Jr 31.20, Ho 5.3, 7.8, Zc 9.13

Twelve sons, but one of them is represented by two tribes, actually produces 13 tribes. Which I’ll list alphabetically:

  1. Asher.
  2. Benjamin.
  3. Dan.
  4. Ephraim.
  5. Gad.
  6. Issachar.
  7. Judah.
  8. Levi.
  9. Manasseh.
  10. Naphtali.
  11. Reuben.
  12. Simeon.
  13. Zebulun.

So 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 12 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 middle easterners liked 12 way better than 13 or 11.

Plus the LORD turned the entire tribe of Levi into a special priestly caste. He gave them “no inheritance”—that is, no land apart from 48 cities. Js 21 Instead of land, Moses explained, the LORD was their inheritance, Js 13.33 meaning whenever people brought food and animals to the LORD as offerings and ritual sacrifices, the Levites, in their capacity as the LORD’s priests, got to eat ’em. Dt 18.1 So they shouldn’t actually need any land for farming and ranching.

So geographically, there are only 12 tribes. Thirteen tracts of land (remember, Manasseh had land on either side of the river—yep, there’s a 13 again), designated for the 12 people-groups descended from Israel. The Levite cities were scattered all over these tribes, and really anybody could live in the cities, not just Levites. Particularly in the larger cities, like Hebron, Shechem, or Ramoth-Gilead.

Geographic tribes.

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

In the book of Joshua the conquered land gets divvied up between the tribes. And people tend to get really bored at this point in the book: “Waitaminnit, is this a land surveying lesson?” Understandably they skim this part, so I’ll summarize.

Three tribes already had land by this point in the book: Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh. All had claimed land east of the Jordan before they crossed it. Nu 32, Js 13.15-32 Judah pretty much got everything south of Jerusalem, Js 15 and Ephraim and Manasseh took the land north of that. Js 16-17 The other, smaller tribes were sorted out by lot, Js 14.2 and if you wanna read the passages on that, go right ahead. I included a map though.

  • Asher’s boundaries. Js 19.24-31
  • Benjamin’s boundaries. Js 18.11-20
  • Dan’s boundaries. Js 19.40-48
  • Issachar’s boundaries. Js 19.17-23
  • Naphtali’s boundaries. Js 19.2-39
  • Simeon’s boundaries. Js 19.1-9
  • Zebulun’s boundaries. Js 19.10-16

Problem is, these were their boundaries if the tribes successfully drove the other inhabitants out. They didn’t. Jg 1 Dan, despite their famous tribesman, the ridiculously strong Samson ben Manoah, never was able to drive out the Philistines who occupied their territory. Years after Samson died, in frustration, the Danites scouted the northern part of Naphtali’s territory, drove out the Sidonians who lived there, and took that territory. Jg 18.27-31 Ephraim moved into Dan’s former tribal area.

Round the year 930BC, when the tribes split into northern Israel (“Ephraim”) and southern Israel (“Judah”), the split was basically three tribes in the south—Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon—versus the other tribes. Now yeah, most folks figure northern Israel consists of 10 tribes, ’cause the prophet Ahijah told northern Israel’s king Jeroboam ben Nevat he’d rule 10 tribes. 1Ki 11.31 Thing is, only the tribe of Judah fully followed their kinsman, southern Israel’s king Rehoboam ben Solomon. 1Ki 12.20 Benjamin sorta did too, 1Ki 12.21-24 but it’s debatable how solid their loyalty was. Simeon, which was wholly surrounded by Judah, never even got a mention in the story. Only once were they described as siding with Judah—but then again, at the time, so did Ephraim and Manasseh. 2Ch 15.9

The “lost tribes.” (Found ’em!)

Every so often you’ll hear people talk about the “lost tribes of Israel.” They’re not lost. But plenty of people think they’re lost, and there are hundreds of historical conspiracy theories about where they went. They get pretty stupid sometimes. (Especially the white supremacist theories… but the less said about them the better.) 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.

How’d they get “lost”? When Assyria conquered Ephraim in 722BC, the Assyrians deported the people of Samaria. In Sargon of Assyria’s Annals, he states he exiled 27,290 Samarians, scattering ’em round his empire, never to return.

But what about all the inhabitants of the other northern Israelite cities? What about the inhabitants of the land? Everybody else?

Um… still there.

And when the neo-Babylonians came to conquer southern Israel, they didn’t deport everyone either. 2Ki 25.12 Just the folks they considered important… or a problem.

It’s why we regularly 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 supposedly “missing” tribe of Asher. Lk 2.36
  • Jesus lived in the Galilee—the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Mt 4.13
  • 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 (Like I said, “Joseph” likely means Ephraim; Dan isn’t mentioned at all. Doesn’t necessarily mean Dan is extinct though.)

But when the tribes of southern Israel were permitted by the Persians in 520BC to return from their own deportation by the neo-Babylonians in 587, we only read in Ezra of people from three tribes—Judah, Benjamin, and Levi—returning to southern Israel. Ez 1.5 And that’s where people get the idea the other tribes were lost to history. They’re not. Many became Samaritans. The rest moved to the province of Judea, and became “Jews.” All 13 tribes are still around.

A numerologist’s dream.

Thirteen tribes aside, the tribes of Israel are consistently referred to as 12 throughout the bible. And if you like the number 12, you’re gonna love bible. There are 12s all over it. Just about everything in ancient Israel was centered on twelveness.

  • Moses set up 12 pillars. Ex 24.4
  • Twelve jewels in the head priest’s ephod, Ex 28.21 deliberately for the sake of each tribe.
  • Twelve loaves of showbread. Lv 24.5
  • Twelve spies sent to scope out Canaan before the invasion, Nu 13 one from every tribe but Levi.
  • Twelve stones set up in memory of crossing the Jordan. Js 4.9
  • Solomon had 12 officers, 1Ki 4.7 likely from each tribe but Levi.
  • Solomon’s “bronze sea” was designed with 12 bronze oxen holding it up. 1Ki 7.25
  • Solomon’s throne had 12 lions on the steps to it. 1Ki 10.20
  • Elijah’s altar consisted of 12 stones. 1Ki 18.31

Lastly Jesus chose 12 apostles, whom he expected to seat on 12 thrones to rule the 12 tribes. Mt 19.28 Even though the apostles obviously didn’t come from every tribe, what with Peter and Andrew, and James and John, being siblings; plus three of ’em were Jesus’s cousins.

And of course 12 is all over Revelation.

  • 12,000 apiece from the 12 tribes are sealed. Rv 7.5-8
  • The woman clothed with the sun has a crown of 12 stars. Rv 12.1
  • New Jerusalem has 12 pearly gates, Rv 21.2, 21 12 foundations, Rv 21.14 and is 12,000 stadia high, wide, and deep. Rv 21.16
  • The tree of life produces 12 kinds of fruit. Rv 22.2

What can I tell you? Hebrews and Christians—and apparently God too—really like the number. Hence the 13 tribes of Israel have been rejiggered into 12. But yeah, there are really 13.