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Notebook: The Twelve Tribes of Israel

J Grant

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The birth of twelve sons to Jacob brought about the development that the promises given to Abraham, regarding the nation which would be descended from him, and that had been confirmed since those days, would be broadened out to embrace more than one son in the family. Isaac was the son of Abraham, but not his only son. Jacob was the son of Isaac, but again not his only son. It was though Isaac and Jacob that the promises came. All the sons of Jacob, on the other hand, were included in the promise. Indeed the nation that came from their posterity would bear the name given by the Lord to their father. It will be noticed, however, that the chart lists thirteen tribes and this calls for an explanation regarding Joseph.


Joseph was the son who ultimately became the saviour of his brethren as he provided food for them from Egypt and then gave them a home in Goshen. The chart shows that two tribes are linked with him. He married an Egyptian, Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On (Gen 41.45). To them were born two sons, Manasseh the elder, and Ephraim. When the aged Jacob was ill (Gen 48.1-22) he called Joseph and his two sons in order to bless the young men. He adopted them into his family as his sons stating that "thy two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, which were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine" (v.5). Essentially, he treated them as if they had been the sons of Rachel. As a result there were now thirteen who were to be regarded as the sons of Jacob.

The tribe of Levi

Levi was the tribe of Moses and Aaron. After the Exodus the tribe of Levi was taken "from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn" (Num 3.12). At the time of the Exodus the firstborn of Israel were spared the judgment that fell on every household where the blood was not on the side posts and the upper door posts of the houses, and they were, as the Lord said, "hallowed unto me" (Num 3.13). Now, as the Levites took the place of the firstborn, they were set aside to be the tribe responsible for the carrying and maintenance of the Tabernacle.

The Levites were not given a part of the Canaan as an inheritance, but they were appointed forty-eight cities in Israel for their possession (Josh 21.1-42). Levi was, therefore, set aside from the other tribes to be dedicated to the service of the Lord and the Tabernacle.

The numbers in each tribe

There were two numberings of the tribes in the book of Numbers. The first took place on the first day of the second month of the second year after their deliverance from Egypt. This was one month after the Tabernacle had been set up (Ex 40.2). The second took place at the end of the wilderness journey when the people were "in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho" (Num 26.3). In both cases those who were numbered were aged twenty years and over. In both cases the Levites were not numbered.

But among those numbered in Numbers 26 "there was not a man of them whom Moses and the priest numbered, when they numbered the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai (v.64). The judgment of God that had been declared when they refused to enter the land thirty-eight years earlier (Num 14.28-29) had been carried out. We are accustomed to thinking that everyone lived beyond the age of 100 at that time, but this was not so regarding those who fell under divine judgment during those years. Those who were the youngest, twenty years of age, at the first numbering, would have died before they were sixty. The Levites were not included in this judgment as it was confined to the tribes that had previously been numbered. The total at the first numbering was 603,550 (Num 1.46) and at the second 601,730 (Num 26.51).

Significant points in the numbers

The greatest fall in numbers was in Simeon, declining from 59,300 to 22,200. The censure of Jacob on their conduct (Gen 49.5-7) prophesied such a declension. Simeon was not given a specific lot in Canaan, but occupied areas in Judah’s lot. There is no mention of Simeon in the blessing given by Moses (Deut 33).

The greatest increase in any tribe was Manasseh (20,500). Taking into account Ephraim, the increase in the two tribes which were descended from Joseph was 12,500. Asher’s increase lies very closely behind that of Manasseh and Ephraim combined.

The tribe of Reuben

Reuben was the oldest son of Jacob, being the first son born to Leah (Gen 29.32). He would anticipate being recognised as the first born of Jacob. There were a number of areas in which the first born of any family enjoyed benefits. He came into, amongst other things, a double blessing of the inheritance (Deut 21.17) and the chieftenship of the family (Gen 27.29). It was this blessing which was despised by Esau and desired by Jacob (Gen 25.29-34).

When Jacob blessed his sons (Gen 49) he revealed that he knew of an incident that had taken place some time before. Reuben was guilty of gross immorality. There is no account in the Scriptures of Jacob admitting, in the years since it took place, that he knew of the incident. That he was aware of it is clear, for Scripture declares that "Israel heard (of) it" (see Gen 35.21-22). By his behaviour Reuben had shown that he was "Unstable as water" (Gen 49.4). Due to this the blessing of the firstborn was not given to him, but to Joseph. (1 Chr 5.1).

It should also be noted that the kingly title would go to the tribe of Judah. The behaviour of Judah in saving the life of Joseph with the words, "What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?" (Gen 37.26), and his willingness to stand as surety for Benjamin to guarantee his safety when the brothers journeyed the second time to Egypt, were factors in this. He kept that promise to Jacob when he interceded for Benjamin with the Egyptian governor whom he did not know was his brother Joseph (Gen 44.18-34).

No doubt the loss of the birthright was in the minds of Dathan, Abiram and On, who were of the tribe of Reuben, when they rose up with Korah against Moses (Num 16.1).

The tribe of Benjamin

When the kingdom of Israel divided, the tribe of Benjamin was loyal to King Rehoboam (2 Chr 11.1) and remained so until that kingdom was brought to an end. It should be noted that before his salvation Saul of Tarsus numbered membership of the tribe of Benjamin amongst the features in which he found great pride and satisfaction (Phil 3.5). He would exult in the fact that he belonged to the tribe from which the first king of Israel, Saul, had come and which had been faithful to the house of David. This was, therefore, one of the things that he had regarded as "gain" but at salvation "counted loss for Christ" (Phil 2.7).

The tribe of Dan

Dan faced a sad future. The land where they settled became a home for idolatry. There was a man called Micah (Judg 17.1-18.31) whose idols were stolen by men of the tribe of Dan, who then up a centre of idolatrous worship. Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the "son of Moses" (Judg 18.30, JND) became the first priest at this centre of idolatry and it remained "all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh".

After the division of the nation into two kingdoms, Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, set up "two calves of gold, and said…behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one up in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan" (1 Kings 12.28-29).

The future of the tribes

The tribes of Israel still have a glorious future. During the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus the allocation of the land will be different from that which was put into place after the conquest of Canaan (Ezek 48.1-35). All the tribes will occupy land on the west bank of the Jordan. The territory of each will stretch across the breadth of the land. There is an area in the centre that is set apart for the Sanctuary and for the "prince". During that day Israel, made up of its tribes, will enjoy to the full the promises that were first made to Abraham.


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