Twelve Tribes of Israel

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


Recently, I heard of a discrepancy between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve sons of Jacob. Is this true? And which tribes are thought to be among the "ten lost tribes" of Israel?


It is true that Jacob had twelve sons. Let's recap. He had four in a row by his first wife, Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Because Rachel was barren, she offered Jacob her handmaiden, Bilhah, who immediately had two sons: Dan and Naphtali. Not to be outdone, Leah then offered her handmaiden (Zilpah); Asher and Gad were born. Later, Leah had two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun (as well as a daughter). Finally Rachel had Joseph and Benjamin. This makes twelve sons in all. Descendants of each one of the twelve have traditionally been divided along these family lines. The Hebrew word for this is shevet or mateh, which literally means "staff," or "rod." It is our English translations that say "tribe."

As you know, there was much disharmony among these twelve sons, and eventually Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery. He ended up in Egypt – as Pharaoh's right hand man. At that point, he married an Egyptian woman, Aseneth. They had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. After Joseph's family came to Egypt during the famine, Joseph brought his two sons to Jacob for a blessing, which scholars think was more like an adoption ceremony. Thereafter, the two sons stayed with Jacob. Jacob put Joseph's sons on par with his two eldest sons, Reuben and Simeon, yet they were not included in Jacob's deathbed blessing of his sons. This deathbed scene is the first time we hear the term, "the twelve tribes of Israel."

By the time the children of Israel were ready to enter the Promised Land, however, the Levites had been set aside for temple work and were not given any specific territory. Plus, Joseph's descendants were known by his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. So, the original number "twelve" is now minus Levi and Joseph. Yet the addition of Manasseh and Ephraim keeps it at twelve.

This designation continued throughout the apportionment of land in Canaan. Some tribes were given land by Moses' decree; others by the drawing of lots. Simeon, for example, was only given a few cities within territory that had already been allotted to Judah. Not surprisingly, within a short time, they were totally subsumed by the tribe of Judah (a southern tribe). Still, they were a nation of twelve tribes.

All this changed, however, when Solomon's son, Rehoboam, ascended to the throne after Solomon's death. There was a civil war between the tribes, at which point nine of the tribes split off. These would have been all the northern tribes, leaving only Judah and Benjamin to the south that remained loyal to Rehoboam. There is no mention of the tribe of Simeon at this time, because scholars believe Simeon had already been subsumed by Judah.

In the north, these "nine" tribes set up a separate kingdom under Jeroboam, who was not in the line of David. These northern tribes became known as "Israel." Judah was the larger of the two remaining southern tribes and had the largest land allotment. They had Jerusalem as their capital and soon both southern tribes were known as "Judah." For the better part of two centuries the Israelites were divided into these two kingdoms. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians, led by Shalmaneser I and Sargon II, destroyed the northern kingdom, scattering the Israelites who would ultimately disappear from history. These are oftentimes referred to as "the ten lost tribes," though this is a misnomer since the tribe of Simeon had been long gone. Some scholars get around this by referring to the tribe of Manasseh twice – as East and West Manasseh since the tribe split in two, one on each side of the Jordan. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem taking many people from Judah into a captivity that would last 70 years. Then the Persians came on the scene and decreed that Jews could return to Jerusalem. The Jews who did return were no longer thinking of themselves as tribes. They were the nation of Judah.

All in all, the Bible contains more than two dozen references to the "twelve tribes." The lists are not always the same, both in the order of names as well as the actual names used. Some passages have more than twelve names. The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin are typically thought to be the ancestors of most Jews. Legends abound as to the nature of the "ten (nine) lost tribes," but in reality most of those who were faithful probably found their way south and became part of Judah.

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