Old Testament: Twelve Tribes
The purpose of this page is to quickly provide the minimum amount of information necessary to be comfortable with references to individual tribes of Israel. This page should remain short enough to read in about fifteen minutes.
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For the purpose of understanding the Old Testament, the twelve tribes of Israel can be thought of in four groups. Remember that counting both of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh as full tribes means that there are really thirteen tribes, not twelve.
- 1. Three key tribes: Judah, Ephraim, Levi
- 2. Two more southern tribes: Benjamin, Simeon
- 3. Three transjordan tribes: Reuben, Gad, Manasseh
- 4. Five northernmost tribes: Issachar, Zebulon, Naphtali, Asher, Dan
The three tribes whose individual identities matter to understanding the Old Testament are Judah, Ephraim, and Levi. In terms of understanding the Old Testament, it rarely matters which of the other tribes is involved in a particular story. The three tribes that it would next be most useful to keep track of are Benjamin, Manasseh, and Dan. After that it would be simply knowing that the three tribes east of the Jordan Rifer are Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh.
Three key tribes: Judah, Ephraim, Levi
Judah was the tribe of kings David and Solomon. David’s descendants continued to rule the Southern Kingdom of Judah after the northern tribes broke away to form the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Judah's inheritance was in the far south, nearest to Egypt and furthest from invading northern powers. Judah was later the tribe of Christ. Judah is the tribe that has managed to preserve its Israelite identity in substantial numbers into modern times.
Ephraim led the rebellion of northern tribes following the reign of King Solomon. The Northern Kingdom was known as Israel or Ephraim, and the kings of the Northern Kingdom were all from Ephraim. During Israel's later history while it was ruled by kings, the two leading tribes were clearly Judah and Ephraim. Ephraim was one of the two tribes descended from Joseph.
Levi was the priestly tribe. Levi was not allotted any territory, but was instead allotted cities scattered throughout the other tribes' territories. Levi had three sons through which the three Levite clans descended. The descendants of Aaron, despite belonging to one of these three clans, came to be treated as a favored fourth clan and enjoyed a monopoly on the priestly office. The phrase "priests and Levites" thus refers separately to Levites who are descended from Aaron ("priests") and the rest of the Levites who are not ("Levites").
Two more southern tribes: Benjamin, Simeon
These two southern tribes were generally associated with Judah. All the other tribes were generally associated instead with Ephraim.
Benjamin received an inheritance located between the two dominant tribes of Judah to its south and Ephraim to its North. Benjamin is important to understanding Israelite history only at the end of Judges and beginning of Samuel when Benjamin was nearly wiped out by the other tribes (Judg 19-21) and then supplied Saul as the first king of Israel. When the kingdom divided following the reign of Solomon, Benjamin was initially associated with the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but over time it became associated instead with the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
Simeon was allotted cities but no territory, and those cities were all surrounded by territory allotted to Judah. Simeon’s inheritance was also located in the far south of Israel, thus separating it from all other tribes except Judah. Over time Simeon was largely absorbed into Judah and ceased to have much significance as a separate tribe.
Three transjordan tribes: Reuben, Gad, Manasseh
Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh were allowed to settle on land that Israel conquered under Moses before Joshua led it across the Jordan River into Canaan. These three tribes nevertheless participated in the initial conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Over time the Jordan River tended to isolate these tribes from the rest of Israel. Reuben had difficulty occupying its inheritance and soon ceased to matter much as a tribe. Gad was known as being particularly warlike.
Manasseh received the other half of its inheritance on adjacent land west of the Jordan River and just north of Ephraim. Like Ephraim, Manasseh was descended from Joseph. And like Ephraim and Judah, Manasseh was a large tribe and often took a leading role in Israelite affairs.
Five northernmost tribes: Issachar, Zebulon, Naphtali, Asher, Dan
Like Benjamin, Dan was alloted an inheritance sandwiched between the two dominant tribes of Judah to the south and Ephraim to the north. But Dan was also bordered on the west by the Philistines and was unable to conquer and settle on its inheritance. So during the time of the Judges, the entire tribe abandoned its land of inheritance in the south and migrated to the far north of Israel. (Judg 17-18). Dan thus appears twice on LDS Bible Map 3, once in the south and once in the far north.
The five tribes that lived north of Ephraim and Manasseh were, from South to North, Issachar, Zebulon, Naphtali, and Asher – and then Dan furthest north after abandoning its inheritance in the south.
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