History in the Bible Podcast

The 12 Tribes of Israel and Judah

Podcast Episodes: 1.25 Joshua Conquers Canaan and on.

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The Israelites divided themselves into twelve tribes, based on their supposed common descent from the patriarch Israel (Jacob), son of ISaac and grandson of Abraham. The Bible has numerous lists of the tribes, which diverge at many points. .

Notes

The Tribe of Levi

Sometimes the tribe of Levi is listed as three sub-clans: Gershon, Merari, and Kohath. Levi was never allocated land, so in some lists it is not mentioned at all.

The Joseph Tribes

Some lists count Joseph as a tribe, others divide it into two: Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh.

Manasseh is often refered to as two half-tribes to distinguish the half that lived in the Promised land (west of the Jordan), from the half that stayed east of the river Jordan.

The Tribe of Simeon

Simeon is an interesting case. Joshua 19:1 lists the few towns allocated to the tribe of Simeon. But Joshua 15:20 lists all of these towns as allocated to Judah. By the time that the book of Joshua was written, the tribe of Simeon had disappeared from history, and was recorded only as a fiction to make up the sacred number of twelve.

The Tribe of Reuben

The lists also justify why Jacob's eldest son, Reuben, never led the Israelites, and was overtaken by Judah. In Genesis 49 Jacob pulls no punches:

49

3 Reuben, you are my first-born
My might and first fruit of my vigour
Exceeding in rank
And in exceeding honor.

4 Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer
For when you mounted your father's bed,
You brought disgrace— my couch he mounted!

A few generations later, in Deuteronomy 33:6 Moses whacks Reuben over the head big-time in a curt two lines:

33

6 May Reuben live and not die
Though few be his numbers.

Lists of the 12 Tribes

Key:

  • ✡ Listed as a tribe
  • – Not listed
Mother Tribe Seniority Gen 35:23, Gen 46:8, Exod 1:1, Chr 2:1 Gen 49:1 (Blessing of Jacob) Num 1:5, Num 1:20, Num 13:4, Num 34:13 Num 2:3, Num 26:5
Aaron
Leah Reuben 1 Cursed
Simeon 2 Cursed
Levi 3 Cursed
Judah 4 Blessed
Issachar 9 Neutral
Zebulun 10 Blessed
Leah's slave, Zilpah Gad 7 Blessed
Asher 8 Blessed
Rachel Joseph 11 Neutral
Benjamin 12 Blessed
Rachel, through her son Joseph Ephraim N/A
Manasseh N/A
Rachel's slave, Bilhah Dan 5 Neutral
Naphtali 6 Blessed
Jacob's Wife Tribe Seniority Num 7:1 Num 10:11 Deut 27:12 (Blessing of Moses 1) Deut 33:1 (Blessing of Moses 2)
Aaron N/A;
Leah Reuben 1 Cursed Barely mentioned
Simeon 2 Blessed
Levi 3 Levi (with clans of Gershon, Merari, and Kohath) No mention of Levi. Clans of Gershon, Merari, and Kohath Blessed Fulsomely praised
Judah 4 Blessed Fulsomely praised
Issachar 9 Blessed Praised
Zebulun 10 Cursed Praised
Leah's slave, Zilpah Gad 7 Cursed Praised
Asher 8 Cursed Praised
Rachel Joseph 11 Blessed Fulsomely praised
Benjamin 12 Blessed Barely mentioned
Rachel, through her son Joseph Ephraim N/A
Manasseh N/A
Rachel's slave, Bilhah Dan 5 Cursed Barely mentioned
Naphtali 6 Cursed Barely mentioned
Mother Tribe Seniority Judg 5:12 (Song of Deborah) 1 Chr 2:3 1 Chr 27:16 1 Chr 12:24, Ezek 48:1, Josh 13:8, Josh 21:4
–– Aaron N/A
Leah Reuben 1 Censured
Simeon 2
Levi 3
Judah 4
Issachar 9 Praised
Zebulun 10 Praised
Leah's slave, Zilpah Gad 7 Censured
Asher 8 Censured
Rachel Joseph 11
Benjamin 12 Praised
Rachel, through her son Joseph Ephraim Praised
Manasseh Praised
Rachel's slave, Bilhah Dan 5 Censured
Naphtali 6 Praised

Map of the 12 Tribes

Allocations of the 12 tribes of Israel.

1200 BC? 950 BC? 650 BC? The distribution of the Hebrew tribes, according to the Book of Joshua. Most scholars argue it reflects the time of Solomon (950 BC) or the time of King Josiah of Judah(650 BC). While Joshua gives detailed descriptions of the allocated cities, the borders of the tribes are ambiguous, contradictory or uncertain. During the period of the Judges, the tribe of Dan later migrated to north of the tribe of Napthtali.

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