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

Hope you’re not triskaidekaphobic. In case you are, the bible usually says 12.

The Hebrews whom the LORD rescued from Egypt during the Exodus, consisted of the descendants of Jacob ben Isaac—whom a man, probably an angel, renamed Israel after their wrestling match. Ge 32.28 Hence they’re regularly called benéi Yišraél/“children of Israel.” Ex 1.1

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. 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 tends to come first, ’cause he was firstborn. However, Israel reassigned the birthright, the patriarchal obligations of the eldest son, to his favorite son, Joseph.

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,” Js 13.29 but not because Manasseh was half of Joseph; it’s because half of Manasseh’s land lies east of the Jordan river, and half west.) And since Jacob put the younger son, Ephraim, first, Ge 48.17-20 precedence passed to that tribe. The Prophets regularly refer to northern Israel as “Ephraim” for that reason. Is 7.9, 11.13, Jr 31.20, Ho 5.3, 7.8, Zc 9.13

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 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, the Levites, in their capacity as the LORD’s priests, got to eat ’em Dt 18.1 and therefore didn’t really need any land for farming and ranching.

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

Geographic tribes.

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. 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 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. Jg 1 Dan, despite their famous tribesman Samson, never was able to drive out the Philistines who occupied their territory, and in frustration they scouted the northern part of Naphtali’s territory, drove out the Sidonians who loved there, and took that territory over. Jg 18.27-31 Ephraim moved into Dan’s former tribal area.

When the tribes split into northern Israel (“Ephraim”) and southern Israel (“Judah”) round the year 930BC, 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 was getting 10 tribes. 1Ki 11.31 Thing is, only the tribe of Judah fully followed southern Israel’s king Rehoboam ben Solomon. 1Ki 12.20 Benjamin sorta did, 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. Only once were they described as siding with Judah—but then again, at the time, so was Ephraim and Manasseh. 2Ch 15.9

Every so often you’ll hear people refer to the “lost tribes of Israel.” When the Assyrians conquered northern Israel in 722BC, they deported much of their population and scattered them round their empire, never to return. Much later, 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 So… what happened to the other 10 tribes? Bible doesn’t say, so people figure the other tribes were just gone. Lost to history.

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. 2Ki 25.12 Just the folks they considered a important… or a problem.

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. Lk 2.36
  • Jesus lived in 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 (“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. 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 had 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. So it’s all over the bible, and in order to conform to it, the 13 tribes of Israel have been rejiggered into 12.