It’s interesting to note that there are in fact 13 tribes that compose the nation of Israel. Here’s a little Biblical history on this subject.
The Hebrews whom the Lord rescued from Egypt during the Exodus, consisted of the descendants of Jacob, who was renamed Israel after their wrestling match. Ge 32.28 Hence they’re regularly called the “children of Israel.” Ex 1.1
Since Israel had 12 sons (through four different women), and all the “children of Israel” are descended from the sons, they’re also known as “the 12 tribes of Israel,” each tribe named for each son. The sons are:
- Sons of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun. Ge 35.23
- Sons of Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin. Ge 35.24
- Sons of Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali. Ge 35.25
- Sons of Zilpah: Gad, Asher. Ge 35.26
They’re listed in various orders, but Reuben tends to come first, because he was the firstborn. However, Israel reassigned the birthright, the patriarchal obligations of the eldest son, to his favorite son, Joseph.
Consequently Joseph received twice the inheritance of his brothers—and became represented by two tribes, named for Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. (Manasseh is sometimes referred to as a “half tribe,” Js 13.29 but not because Manasseh was half of Joseph; it’s because half of Manasseh’s land lies east of the Jordan river, and half west.) And since Jacob put the younger son, Ephraim, first, Ge 48.17-20 precedence passed to that tribe. The Prophets regularly refer to northern Israel as “Ephraim” for that reason. Is 7.9, 11.13, Jr 31.20, Ho 5.3, 7.8, Zc 9.13
So… this actually produces 13 tribes (which I’ll list alphabetically): Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun. Not 12. Why aren’t they called 13 tribes? Let’s take a look.
The LORD turned the entire tribe of Levi into a special priestly caste. He gave them “no inheritance”—that is, no land apart from 48 cities. Js 21 Instead of land, Moses explained, the LORD was their inheritance, Js 13.33 meaning whenever people brought food and animals to the LORD, the Levites, in their capacity as the LORD’s priests, got to eat the produce of the land and the meat from the animal sacrifices Dt 18.1 and therefore didn’t really need any land for farming and ranching.
But geographically, there are only 12 tribes: Twelve tracts of land, designated for 12 families descended from Israel. The Levite cities were scattered all over these tribes, and really anybody could live in the cities, not just Levites. (Particularly the larger cities, like Hebron, Shechem, or Ramoth-Gilead.)
You will note in the book of Joshua, right about where the conquered land gets divided up between the tribes, that three tribes already had land by this point: Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh, had claimed land east of the Jordan. Nu 32, Js 13.15-32 Judah pretty much got everything south of Jerusalem, Js 15 and Ephraim and Manasseh took the land north of that. Js 16-17 The other, smaller tribes were sorted out by lot, Js 14.2
- Asher’s boundaries. Js 19.24-31
- Benjamin’s boundaries. Js 18.11-20
- Dan’s boundaries. Js 19.40-48
- Issachar’s boundaries. Js 19.17-23
- Naphtali’s boundaries. Js 19.2-39
- Simeon’s boundaries. Js 19.1-9
- Zebulun’s boundaries. Js 19.10-16
The problem being, these tribes were supposed to finish driving out the other inhabitants from these lands so they could take the rest of the land allocated to them. This, they failed to do. Jg 1 Dan, in spite of their famous tribesman Samson, never was able to drive out the Philistines who occupied their territory, and in frustration they scouted the northern part of Naphtali’s territory, drove out the Sidonians who lived there, and took that territory over. Jg 18.27-31 Ephraim then moved into Dan’s former tribal area.
When the tribes split into northern Israel (“Ephraim”) and southern Israel (“Judah”) round the year 930BC, the split was basically three tribes in the south—Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon—versus the other tribes. Now a lot of people figure that northern Israel consisted of 10 tribes, because the prophet Ahijah told northern Israel’s King Jeroboam that he was getting 10 tribes. 1Ki 11.31 The thing is, only the tribe of Judah fully followed southern Israel’s King Rehoboam. 1Ki 12.20 Benjamin appears to have also followed, 1Ki 12.21-24 but it’s debatable how solid their loyalty was. Simeon, which was wholly surrounded by Judah, but never even gets a mention. Only once were they described as siding with Judah—but then again, at the time, so was Ephraim and Manasseh. 2Ch 15.9
Every once in a while you’ll hear people refer to the “lost tribes of Israel.” When the Assyrians conquered northern Israel in 722BC, they deported much of their population and scattered them around their empire, never to return. Much later, when the tribes of southern Israel were permitted by the Persians in 520BC to return from their own deportation by the neo-Babylonians in 587, we only read in Ezra of people from three tribes—Judah, Benjamin, and Levi—returning to southern Israel. Ez 1.5 So… what happened to the other 10 tribes? The Bible doesn’t actually say, so most people figure that the other tribes were just gone. Absorbed into the general populace and basically lost to history.
And this is where you will find hundreds of different theories that then come into play. And in addition to these theories, there are all the Christian myths about where they went. In England and the United States, for example, there’s a really popular belief that the Saxons are descended from the “lost tribes.” Supposedly “Isaacson” got shortened to “Saxon.”
But it’s not wholly accurate to say the “lost tribes” are actually lost, because they weren’t, not entirely. The Assyrians deported most of the people of northern Israel. In Sargon of Assyria’s Annals, he recorded he exiled only 27,290 of the inhabitants of Samaria. Everybody else?—all the inhabitants of all the other cities? Still there. Living under Assyrian rule until the neo-Babylonians conquered Assyria. The neo-Babylonians didn’t deport everyone either. 2Ki 25.12 Just the people they considered as important… or a problem.
And this is why we still find members of the “missing tribes” mentioned later on in the bible:
- Ephraim was still around after the exiles returned from Babylon. Zc 7.1, 9.9, 10.7
- One of the prophets whom Jesus’s parents met in temple was Anna, from the “missing” tribe of Asher. Lk 2.36
- Jesus lived in the area of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Mt 4.13
- Revelation includes a vision of 144,000 people from 11 tribes: Asher, Benjamin, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun. Rv 7.5-8 (“Joseph” gets included in verse 8, which likely includes people from Ephraim; Dan isn’t mentioned at all but that doesn’t necessarily mean Dan is totally extinct though.)
Putting the reality of the thirteen tribes aside, the tribes of Israel were consistently referred to as 12, and when you look throughout the Bible you are going to find the number 12 prevalent throughout it’s pages.
- Moses set up 12 pillars. Ex 24.4
- Twelve jewels in the head priest’s ephod, Ex 28.21 deliberately set for the sake of each tribe.
- Twelve loaves of showbread. Lv 24.5
- Twelve spies sent to scope out Canaan before the invasion, Nu 13 one from every tribe but Levi.
- Twelve stones set up in memory of crossing the Jordan. Js 4.9
- Solomon had 12 officers, 1Ki 4.7 likely from each tribe but Levi.
- Solomon’s “bronze sea” was designed with 12 bronze oxen holding it up. 1Ki 7.25
- Solomon’s throne had 12 lions on the steps to it. 1Ki 10.20
- Elijah’s altar consisted of 12 stones. 1Ki 18.31
- And lastly Jesus had 12 apostles, whom he expected to seat on 12 thrones to rule the 12 tribes. Mt 19.28 Even though the apostles obviously didn’t come from every tribe, what with Peter and Andrew, and James and John, being siblings; plus three of them were Jesus’s cousins.
And of course the number 12 is found throughout Revelation.
- 12,000 apiece from the 12 tribes are sealed. Rv 7.5-8
- The woman clothed with the sun has a crown of 12 stars. Rv 12.1
- New Jerusalem has 12 pearly gates, Rv 21.2, 21 12 foundations, Rv 21.14 and is 1,400 miles (12,000 stradia) high, wide, and deep. Rv 21.16
- The tree of life produces 12 kinds of fruit. Rv 22.2
To my way of thinking, which basically means that this is solely my opinion, which in and of it’s self has no authoritative standing, it is important to know and understand that there are actually 13 tribes within the nation of Israel and why that is, from a historical, priestly and geographical perspective but it is also equally important, if not more important to understand that the designated twelve tribes of Israel plays a much more significant and noteworthy importance.
Worthy is the Lamb! Blessings!