The Twelve Tribes of Israel - Introduction

J. R. Charlesworth, Barnstaple

Part 1 of 13 of the series The Twelve Tribes of Israel

Reference to the State of Israel, in its history, as "The Twelve Tribes", Gen. 49. 28, has become common parlance. In point of fact there are thirteen tribes. Eleven of Jacob's sons headed one family each, while the remaining son, Joseph, became the progenitor of two tribes more through his offspring, Manasseh and Ephraim. As can be seen from the list below, only two of the score of Biblical lists contain all thirteen tribes.

Genesis 29-35

Genesis 46 > The twelve actual patriarchs are mentioned.

Genesis 49

Exodus 1.1-4   - Joseph, already in Egypt, is omitted.

Numbers 1.1-15

Numbers 1.20-43

Numbers 2.7-10     > Levi is left out.
Numbers 13.4-15
Numbers 26

Numbers 34.18-29  - Levi, and the Eastern tribes, Reuben and Gad, are omitted.

Deuteronomy 27.12-13  - The twelve actual sons occur.
Deuteronomy 33 - Simeon is missing.

Joshua 13-19   - Levi is again left out.

Judges 5.14-18 - Judah and Simeon are omitted, Gad is referred to as Gilead.

1 Chron. 2.1-2  - The twelve actual sons occur.

1 Chron. 2.3 to 7. 40     - There is no mention of Dan and Zebulun.

1 Chron. 12.24-37   - All thirteen tribes appear.

1 Chron. 27.16-22   - Asher  and  Gad receive no attention.

Ezekiel48.1-29 - All thirteen tribes appear,

Ezekiel48. 30-34    - Gates named after the twelve actual sons.
Revelation 7.4-8 - Dan is omitted, Ephraim is entitled "Joseph".

Most of the variations in order and the different omissions may be explained by the circumstances prompting the records. For our purpose we shall follow the order of birth (as borne upon the shoulders of the high priest). We shall also bear in mind the order of encampment around the tabernacle, which was, in all probability, the order of the gems on the high priest's breastplate.

In spite of the variations in the listed names, the inspired record of the Old Testament makes it clear that God intended to connect the number "twelve" with the nation of Israel. Upon tracing this number through the Bible (e.g. Gen. 14. 4; Lev. 24. 5; 1 Kings 4. 7; Matt. 10. 1; 19. 28; Rev. 12. 1; 21. 12), it becomes apparent that "twelve" is associated with divine governmental administration; (Cf. the twelve princes of Ishmael, Gen. 25. 13-16; the Edomites, Gen. 36. 10-19, and the Horites, Gen. 36. 20-26). Jehovah has always been closely concerned with the fortunes of Israel. He approached the people, when they emerged from Egypt's bondage, as their Ruler, Exod. 19. 6; 1 Sam. 8. 7, and, in a future day, He will reign over them in the person of the Messiah.

The closeness of this people to the Lord's heart is reflected by the whole stream of Biblical history. With the exception of the early chapters of Genesis, the Old Testament is a record of the vicissitudes of Israel. Their successes are reported factually, their failures are laid bare very plainly. Without doubt this was, and is, God's specially chosen nation on earth, though for a season they are "Lo-ammi: for ye are not my people", Hos. 1. 9. Through the sacred records He would speak to all men. "These things were our examples", 1 Cor. 10. 6, and "are written for our admonition", v. 11; Rom. 15.4. Gentile governments are to be judged on their attitudes towards this people; secular history bespeaks the truth that despotic regimes, who have persecuted the Jews, have them­selves suffered just retribution.

Six of Jacob's twelve sons were born, not to his firstlove Rachel, but to her elder sister Leah whose wifehood was the fruit of deception. Four of these six, Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah, were the oldest of the family. Then Dan and Naphtali were born to Rachel's maid Bilhah. This was followed by Leah copying her sister, the outcome of which was the birth of Gad and Asher to Zilpah, Leah's maid. Leah then had her last sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and a daughter, Dinah. Joseph and Benjamin, the youngest boys, were sons of Rachel, Gen. 29. 31 to 30. 24; 35. 16-18,22-26. This is the confused background out of which God built up the powerful Israeli nation. What an excellent illustration of Jehovah's over­ruling grace! Out of disgrace He brings design; through man's perplexity He fulfils His purpose. A century ago the world's political scene yielded not even the faintest prospect of the prophesied re-establishment of Israel to its land of promise. How rapidly the situation changed. Out of the ashes of human endeavour, God is arranging the tangle of international affairs preparatory to the final fulfilment of His Word through the prophets. Behind the manoeuvres of continental power blocks and the material advancement of Jewry, God is at work. The words of old will come to pass. Despite the machinations of the devil, Jehovah will carry out His promises. "I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob ... I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all nations ... I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old . .. And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel . . . And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them", Amos 9. 8-15.

In studying the tribes of Israel one must collate what is recorded about each. For our present purpose we shall consider the lines of thought introduced by Jacob in the patriarchal blessing. Gen. 49, and set against them the statements Moses made of each family, Deut. 32. We shall also glance, as the Lord enables, at what we know of the standards each tribe carried, and mention tentatively, the stones identified with the tribes on the high priest's breastplate. Num. 2; Exod. 28.17-21.

There seems to be some connection between the standards used by the Israelites and the original signs of the Zodiac. It is possible that the latter formed part of the Lord's primeval revelation to antidiluvian man. Genesis 1. 14 informs us that the stars were designed to be "for signs" (Heb. oihoih; cf. Jer. 10. 2), and "for seasons" (Heb. moed, i.e. "appointed time"; cf. Gen. 17.21; 18.14; 21.2). It would seem, therefore, that they held a message for man.

When pitched in the wilderness, Issachar, Judah and Zebulun camped on the eastern side of the tabernacle. To the north, past the tents of Levi, were Dan, Asher and Naphtali; while to the south were Reuben, Simeon and Gad. Finally, away to the west, Rachel's descendants were grouped. When on the march, three tribes gathered to Judah's Lion, three looked to Reuben's standard, three moved through the wilder­ness behind the standard of the Ox, and lastly three joined together to Dan's ensign. Many have associated the four faces of the cherubim with these standards. The Scriptures epito­mize various attributes of the Lord within the figures of the Lion (Matthew), of the Ox (Mark), of the Man (Luke), and of the Eagle (John). John, in the Apocalypse, presents the Saviour as the Lion of the tribe of Judah and as the Man who holds the water of life. May every reader pause to check that he has availed himself of the offer of Revelation 22. 17: "whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely". Only thus can we escape the lionlike wrath of the Lamb, Rev. 6. 16.

As Jacob blessed his sons, he reflected upon bygone events in the turbulent history of his family. Encouraged by the constant guidance he had received from the Angel that redeemed him, the Man of Peniel, the God of Bethel, he proclaimed the divine providence that was to protect his descendants throughout their destiny. "The eyes of Israel were dim for age, so that he could not see", Gen. 48. 10. Even so, his reminiscences caused him to speak with confidence about the future. From his deathbed, in Egypt, his eye of faith scanned the land promised by God to him and his seed, 28. 13-14.

After a hundred and twenty years of pilgrimage, it was said of Moses that "his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated", Deut. 34. 7. Like Jacob, however, he used the eyes of his understanding when he rehearsed his blessing of the tribes that he led.

"And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days", Gen. 49. 1. Rabbis have always assumed the phrase "the last days" (acharith hayyamin) to refer to the Messianic age. Nachmanades, a famous commentator, wrote: "The last days are the days of the Messiah, for to Him Jacob points when he says, 'Until Shiloh come, and unto Him shall be the obedi­ence of the peoples'." The expression is to be equated with "end time" (eth kets), Dan. 12. 4-9, and with the "en eskatais hemerais" of the New Testament, though each phrase has its own significance. The prophets spoke of this same period, e.g. Isa. 2. 2-4; Ezek. 38. 8-9; Hos. 3. 5, The messenger who enlightened Daniel spoke in terms reminiscent of Jacob's dying blessing: "I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days", Dan. 10. 14. Let us emulate Daniel's concern and seek to discover God's intentions for that earthly people upon whom He has been pleased to set His Name.