The Twelve Tribes

The traditional division of Israel into 12 tribes: Reuben, Simeon (Levi), Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, and Manasseh. Biblical tradition holds that the 12 tribes of Israel are descended from the sons and grandsons of Jacob (GENESIS 29; 30; 35:16-18; 48:5-6). The tribes are collectively called Israel because of their origin in the patriarch Jacob-Israel. Jacob and his family went into Egypt as "seventy souls" (EXODUS 1:1-5). In Egypt, "...the children of Israel were fruitful, and in­creased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty..." (EXODUS 1:7), and there they became the "Israelite people" (EXODUS 1:9). A pharaoh, "which knew not Joseph" (EXODUS 1:8), oppressed them by burdensome labour. However, God "remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob" (EXODUS 2:24), and made Himself known to Moses (EXODUS 3), and rescued the Israelites from Egypt. By this time the nation numbered "...six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children", which apparently means women as well as children (EXODUS 12:37). At Sinai, the nation received its laws and regulations, covenanting itself to God (EXODUS 19:24). After wandering for 40 years in the desert under the leadership of Moses, the 12 Israelite tribes penetrated the land of Canaan with Joshua in command. The united force of the 12 tribes was sufficient to conquer the land, which was then distributed among them. During this period of settlement, and the subsequent period of the Judges, there was no predetermined pattern of leadership among the tribes, except for deliverer-judges sent to them by God in time of need (see also the book of Judges). Such crises forced the tribes into co-operative action against enemies under the leadership of the "deliverer". Shiloh served as a sacral centre for all the tribes, housing the Ark of the Covenant under the priestly family of Eli (1 SAMUEL 1:3; 4:4). Under the impact of military pressures, the Israelites felt compelled to turn to Samuel with the re­questthat he establish a monarchy, and Saul was crowned to rule over all the tribes of Israel (1 SAMUEL 11:15). Upon his death, Ish-bosheth, Saul's son, was accepted by all the tribes save Judah and Simeon who preferred David. David's struggle with the house of Saul ended in victory for him, and all the elders turned to David for royal leadership. He ruled from Jerusalem over all the tribes of Israel (2 SAMUEL 5:3), and was succeeded by his son. After the death of Solomon, the tribes once again split along territorial and political lines, with Judah and Benjamin in the south loyal to the Davidic house, and the rest of the tribes in the north ruled by a succession of dynasties.

Modern scholarship does not generally accept the biblical notion that the 12 tribes are simply divisions of a larger unit which developed naturally from patriarchal roots. This simplistic scheme, it is felt, actually stems from later genealogical speculations which attempted to explain the history of the tribes in terms of familial relationships. The alliance of the 12 tribes is believed to have grown from the organisation of independent tribes, or groups of tribes, forced together for historical reasons. Scholars differ as to when this union of 12 took place, and when the tribes of Israel became one nation. One school of thought holds that the confederation took place inside the country toward the end of the period of the Judges and the beginnings of the Monarchy. All of the traditions which see the 12 tribes as one nation as early as the enslavement in Egypt or the wanderings in the desert are regarded as having no basis in fact. This school recognises in the names of some of the tribes, the names of ancient sites in Canaan, such as the mountains of Naphtali, Ephraim, and Judah, the desert of Judah, and Gilead. With the passage of time, those who dwelt in these areas assumed the names of the localities. M. Noth feels that the Leah tribes: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, and Issachar, existed at an earlier stage as a confederation of six tribes whose boundaries in Canaan were contiguous. Only at a later stage did other tribes penetrate the area, eventually expanding the confederation to 12. A second school grants that the union of 12 existed during the period of wanderings in the desert, but that Canaan was not conquered by an alliance of these at any one time. Rather, there were individual incursions into the land at widely separated periods. However, the covenant among the 12 tribes and their awareness of national unity flowing from ethnic kinship and common history, faith, and sacral practices had their source in the period prior to the conquest of the land.

The number 12 is neither fictitious nor the result of an actual genealogical development in patriarchal history. It is an institutionalised and conventionalised figure which is found among other tribes as well, such as the sons of Ishmael (GENESIS 25:13-16), the sons of Nahor (GENESIS 22:20-24), of Joktan (GENESIS 10:26-30), and Esau (GENESIS 36:10-13). Similar organisational patterns built about groups of 12, or even six, tribes, are known from Asia Minor to Greece and Italy. In Greece such groupings were called amphictyony , meaning "to dwell about", that is, about a central sanctuary. Each tribe was assigned a prearranged turn in the provision and maintenance of the shrine. The amphictyonic members would make pilgrimages to the common religious centre on festive occasions. The exact measure of correspondence between the amphictyony of the Hellenic world and the duodecimal structure of the tribes of Israel may be the subject of scholarly controversy, but there can be little doubt that this pattern of 12 attributed to the Hebrew tribes is very real and historically rooted. Thus, if one tribe were to withdraw from the union or to be absorbed into another, the number 12 would be preserved, either by splitting one of the remaining tribes into two or by accepting a new tribe into the union. When, for example, the tribe of Levi is considered among the 12 tribes, the Joseph tribes are counted as one (See GENESIS 35:22-26; 46:8-25; 49:1-27). However, when Levi is not mentioned, the Joseph tribes are counted separately as Ephraim and Manasseh, even after (NUMBERS 26:4-51). For the same duodecimal considerations, Simeon is counted as a tribe even after having beenabsorbed into Judah (JOSHUA 19:1), and Manasseh, even after having split in two, is considered as one. Among the six Leah tribes, Gad, although the son of Zilpah, is counted as one of them when Levi is missing (NUMBERS 1:19-44; 26:4-51).

The confederation of the 12 tribes was primarily religious, based upon belief in the one "God of Israel" with whom the tribes had made a covenant and whom they worshipped at a common sacral centre as the "people of the LORD" (JUDGES 5:11; 20:2). The Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant were the most sacred cultic objects of the tribal union. Biblical tradition shows that many places served as religious centres in various periods. During the desert wanderings, "the mountain of God", that is, Sinai, known as Horeb, served as such a place(EXODUS 3:1; 18:5; cf. DEUTERONOMY 5:1-3), as did the great oasis at Kadesh-Barnea where the tribes remained for some time (DEUTERONOMY 1:46). From there the Israelite tribes attempted a conquest of the land (NUMBERS 13:3,26). Many sites in Canaan are mentioned as having sacred associations or as being centres of pilgrimage. Some of these, such as Penuel, where Jacob, the nominal progenitor of the tribes, received the name Israel (GENESIS 32:24-32), Beth-el (GENESIS 28:10-22; 35:1-15), where the Ark of the Lord rested (JUDGES 20:26-28), and Beer-sheba (GENESIS 21:33; 46:1-4; AMOS 5:5; 8:14) go back to patriarchal times. Jacob built an altar at Shechem (GENESIS 33:18-20) and the tribes gathered there "before the LORD" and made a covenant with Him in Joshua's time (JOSHUA 24).Shiloh enjoyed special importance as a central cultic site for the tribes. There they gathered under Joshua to divide up the land by lot, and it was there that they placed the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant (JOSHUA 18:1-8). Eli's family, which traced its descent from Aaron, the high priest, served at Shiloh (1 SAMUEL 2:27), and it was to Shiloh that the Israelites turned for festivals and sacrifices (JUDGES 21:19; 1 SAMUEL 1:3; cf. JEREMIAH 7:14; 26:9). The multiplicity of cultic places raises the question of whether all 12 tribes were, indeed, centred about one amphictyonic site. It may be that as a tribe's connections with the amphictyony were weakened for various reasons, the tribe began to worship at one or another of the sites. Possibly, different sites served the several sub­groups among the tribes. Beer-sheba and Hebron, for example, served the southern groups of tribes (GENESIS 13:18; JOSHUA 21:10-11; 2 SAMUEL 2:1-4; 5:1-3; 15:7-10). Shechem, Shiloh, and Gilgal (JOSHUA 5:9-10; 1 SAMUEL 11:14-15; 13:4-15; AMOS 5:5) were revered by the tribes in the centre of the country, and the shrine at Dan served the northern tribes (JUDGES 18:30-31). The likelihood of a multiplicity of shrines is strengthened by the fact that clusters of Canaanite settlements separated the southern and central tribes (of the mountains of Ephraim), and divided the central tribes from those in Galilee. It is possible that various shrines served different tribes simultaneously, while the sanctuary which held the Ark of the Lord was revered as central to all 12.

The changes which occurred in the structure of the 12 tribes and in their relative strengths, find expression in the biblical genealogies. The tribes are descended from four matriarchs, eight of them from the wives Leah and Rachel, and four from the handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah (GENESIS 29-30). It is a widely held view that attribution to the two wives is indicative of an early stage of tribal organisation, the "tribes of Leah" and the "tribes of Rachel". The attribution of four tribes to handmaids may indicate either a lowered status or late entry into the confederation. In the list of the 12 tribes, Reuben is prominent as the firstborn (GENESIS 46:8), followed by Simeon, Levi, and Judah, the sons of Leah, who occupy primary positions. Reuben stood at the head of a tribal league and had a position of central importance among his confederates prior to the Conquest of the land (GENESIS 30:14; 35:22; 37:21; 42:22,37; NUMBERS 16:1 ff.). On the other hand, the same tribe is inactive during the period of Judges. It did not provide any of the judges, and during Deborah's war against Sisera, Reuben "sat among the sheepfolds" and did not render any aid (JUDGES 5:16).Possibly, because this tribe dwelt on the fringes of the land (1 CHRONICLES 5:9-10), its links with the others were weakened, and its continued existence as one of the tribes of Israel was in jeopardy (cf. DEUTERONOMY 33:6). Simeon was absorbed by Judah. Levi spread throughout Israel as a result of its sacral duties. Judah was cut off from the rest of the tribes by a Canaanite land strip that separated the mountains of Judah and Ephraim. Reuben's place as head of the 12 tribes was taken by the house of Joseph which played a decisive and historic role during the periods of the settlement and the Judges. Joshua came from the tribe of Ephraim (NUMBERS 13:8); Shechem and Shiloh were within the borders of the house of Joseph (cf. PSALM 78:60; PSALM 60:6-7); Samuel came from the hill country of Ephraim (1 SAMUEL 1:1). Ephraim led the tribes in the war against Benjamin over the incident of the concubine in Gibeah (JUDGES 19-21). At the beginning of the Monarchy, the leadership passed to Judah (cf. GENESIS 49:8 ff). The passage in 1 CHRONICLES 5:1-2 illustrates well how the dominant position among the tribes passed from Reuben to Ephraim and from Ephraim to Judah.

Each of the 12 tribes enjoyed a good deal of autonomy, ordering its own affairs after the patriarchal-tribal pattern. No doubt there were administrative institutions common to all the tribes, situated beside the central shrines, though information about them is exceedingly scanty. During the desert wanderings, leadership of the people was vested in the princes of each of the tribes and the elders who assisted Moses. They met and legislated for the entire people (EXODUS 19:7; 24:1,9; NUMBERS 1-2; 11:16-24; 32:2; 34:16-29; DEUTERONOMY 27:1; 31:28). There are references to meetings of tribal leaders and elders during the periods of the settlement and the Judges: "...the princes of the congregation and heads of the thousands of Israel..." along with Phinehas the priest, conducted negotiations with the Transjordanian tribes, in the name of the entire nation (JOSHUA 22:30). Joshua summoned "...the elders of Israel, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers of Israel..." to make a covenant in Shechem (JOSHUA 24). The elders of Israel, speaking for the entire nation, requested Samuel to appoint a king (1 SAMUEL 8:4). The incidents of the concubine in Gibeah (JUDGES 19-21) and Saul's battle with Nahash the Ammonite (1 SAMUEL 11) are classic examples of joint action taken by the league of 12 tribes acting "...as one man, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, with the land of Gilead..." (JUDGES 20:1; 1 SAMUEL 11:7). In the one case, unified action was taken by the tribes against one of their members, Benjamin; for a breach of the terms of the covenant (JUDGES 20:7). The war against Nahash the Ammonite proves that the tribes were required to come to the aid of any one of the league who found itself in difficulty. Because of the sacral nature of the league, the wars of the tribes were considered "wars of the LORD" (EXODUS 17:16; NUMBERS 21:14). Nevertheless, the narratives in the Book of Judges regarding the battles which Israel waged against its enemies make it clear that the league must have been rather weak in those days. The consciousness of national and religious unity had not yet led to a solid politico-military confederation. The Song of Deborah gives a clear expression to the lack of solidarity among the tribes, for some of them did not even come to the aid of the Galilean tribes. It is impossible to designate even one war against external enemies during the period of the Judges in which all the tribes acted in concert. Indeed, there are indications of inter-tribal quarrels and disputes (JUDGES 7-8; JUDGES 12). In this connection, there are scholars who hold that the judge-deliverers were not pan-tribal, national leaders, but headed only individual tribes, or groups of them (see Judges). It was only toward the end of the period of the Judges when the Philistine pressure on the Israelite tribes increased in the west and that of the Transjordanian peoples in the east, that the religio-national tribal confederation assumed political and military dimensions. The Israelite tribes then consolidated as a crystallised national-territorial entity within the framework of a monarchical regime. David, Solomon, and afterward the kings of Israel and Judah tended to weaken tribal consciousness in favour of the territorial and monarchical organisation. It is apparent, however, from Ezekiel's eschatological vision (EZEKIEL 47-48), that the awareness of Israel as a people composed of 12 tribes had not, even then, become effaced. See also 'Ten Lost Tribes'. [B.O.]


In the Aggadah. In Aggadic literature, the word shevatim ("tribes", sing. shevet) applies to both the 12 sons of Jacob and to the 12 tribes descended from them. When Jacob left home and had his dream, he took 12 stones as a headrest and declared: "God has decreed that there are to be twelve tribes; yet they did not issue from Abraham or Isaac; if these 12 stones will join into one I will know that I am destined to beget them" (GENESIS 68:11), and in fact the 12 stones coalesced into one (See GENESIS 28:11 being contrasted with verse 18). Whereas, Abraham and Isaac both begot wicked sons (Ishmael and Esau), all of Jacob's 12 sons were loyal to God (Shab. 146a; cf. EXODUS 1:1). They were all named in reference to Israel's redemption (Tanh. Shemot 5), and God declared, "Their names are more precious to me than the anointing oil with which priests and kings were anointed" (ECCLESIASTES R. 7:1,2).

All the tribal ancestors were born outside the Land of Israel, save Benjamin, and all, with the exception of Benjamin, participated in the sale of Joseph. Therefore the tribe of Benjamin was privileged to have the Shekhinah, i.e. the Temple in its portion (Sif. DEUTERONOMY 3:5, 352). None of the tribes maintained its family purity in Egypt, and all except for Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, engaged in idolatry there (NUMBERS R. 13:8). Just as the heavens cannot endure without the twelve constellations (EXODUS R. 15:6), so the world cannot endure without the 12 tribes, for the world was created only by their merit (PROVERBS 3:10). The names of the tribes are not always enumerated in the same order, so that it should not be said that those descended from the mistresses
(Rachel and Leah) took priority over the descendants of their handmaids (Bilhah and Zilpah; EXODUS R. 1:6).

The tribe of Zebulun engaged in trade and supported the tribe of Issachar, to enable it to devote itself to the study of the Torah; therefore in his blessings, Moses gave priority to the tribe of Zebulun (Yal. GEN 129). All the tribes produced judges and kings, except Simeon, on account of the sin perpetrated by Zimri (Mid. Tadshe 8; see NUMBERS 25:1-2,14). Every tribe produced prophets; Judah and Benjamin produced kings by prophetic direction (Suk. 27b).

Whereas the tribes of Benjamin and Judah were exiled to Babylon, the Ten Tribes were exiled beyond the river Sambatyon (GEN R. 73:6). The Ten Tribes shall neither be resurrected nor judged; R. Simeon b. Yohai said, "They shall never return from exile," but R. Akiva maintained that they would return (A RN 36:4). But see Ten Lost Tribes. The Davidic Messiah will be descended from two tribes, his father from Judah and his mother from Dan (Yal. GEN 160). [H.FR.]

Bibliography: B. Luther, in: ZAW, 21 (1901), p.37ff.; E. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstaemme (1906), p.498ff.; W.F. Albright, in: JPOS, 5 (1925), p.2-54; A. Alt, Die Landnahme der Israeliten in Palaestina (1925); idem, in: PJB, 21 (1925), 100ff., idem, in: E. Sellin Festschrift (1927), p.13-24; Alt, Kl Schr, 2 (1953), p.1-65; M. Noth, Das System der Zwoelf Staemme Israels (1930), p.85-108; W. Duffy, The Tribal History Theory on the Origin of the Hebrews (1944); Albright, Arch Rel. p.102-9; C. V. Wolf, in: JBL, 65 (1946), p.45-49; idem, in: JQR, 36 (1945/46), p.287-95; Noth, Hist. Isr., p.53-137; Bright, Hist, p.142-60; R. Smend, Yahweh's War and Confederation (1970), IN THE AGGADAH: Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1938), p.481 (index): s.v. Tribes, the Twelve.

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