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Home > Dictionaries > Holman Bible Dictionary > TRIBES OF ISRAEL, THE

Holman Bible Dictionary

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» Tribes of Israel, The

Social and political groups in Israel claiming descent from one of the twelve sons of Jacob.

The Tribal Unit The tribal unit played an important role in the history of the formation of the nation Israel. In ancient times a nation was referred to as “a people,” an ‘am; in Israel's case it was the “people of Israel.” The nation in turn was made up of “tribes.” The “tribe,” a shebet or matteh, was the major social unit that comprised the makeup of the nation. The tribe was comprised of “clans.” The “clan,” a mishpachah, was a family of families or a cluster of households that had a common ancestry. The clan was comprised then of the individual households or families referred to as the “father's house” the beth ab. Actually, the family in ancient times might be made up of several families living together and forming one household (Numbers 3:24). See Family.

Tribal Origins The ancestral background of “the tribes of Israel” went back to the patriarch Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. The nation Israel was identified as “the children of Israel, or more literally “the sons of Israel.” According to the biblical account, the family of Jacob, from which the tribes came, originated in north Syria during Jacob's stay at Haran with Laban his uncle. Eleven of the twelve sons were born at Haran, while the twelfth, Benjamin was born after Jacob returned to Canaan. The birth of the sons came through Jacob's wives Leah and Rachel and their maids Zilpah and Bilhah. The sons of Leah included Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah (Genesis 29:31-35), Issachar and Zebulun, as well as one daughter named Dinah (Genesis 30:19-21). Rachel's sons were Joseph (Genesis 30:22-24), who became the father of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 41:50-52), and Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-18). Jacob's sons through Zilpah, Leah's maid, were Gad and Asher (Genesis 30:9-13), while Bilhah, the maid of Rachel, bore Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 30:1-8).

This family of families or family of tribes occupied the focal point in the history of the development of Israel as a nation. While there are details of that history that we do not clearly understand and other groups simply referred to as “a mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that were perhaps incorporated into the nation, the central focus is always on the “tribes of Israel,” the descendants of Jacob. For that reason lists of the twelve sons of Jacob or of the tribes appear in several places in the Old Testament, though the lists vary somewhat. Some of the major lists include that of Jacob's blessing of the twelve (Genesis 49:1), the review of the households as the period of oppression in Egypt is introduced (Exodus 1:1-10), Moses' blessing of the tribes (Deuteronomy 33:1), and the song of Deborah (Judges 5:1).

The Tribes of Israel Each tribe had its own history in its allotment of land. We know few details about the individual tribes.

1. Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob by his wife Leah, was in line to assume a leadership role in the family, but he forfeited that right because of an illicit affair he had with his father's concubine Bilhah (Genesis 35:22). The impact of this reflected in Jacob's blessing where Reuben is addressed as “unstable as water, you shall no longer excel because you went up on to your father's bed” (Genesis 49:4 NRSV). At the time of the migration of Jacob's family to Egypt, Reuben had four sons (Genesis 46:8-9).

In some of the lists of the tribes of Israel, Reuben is mentioned first (Exodus 1:1-4; Numbers 1:5), while in other lists Reuben appears further down (Numbers 2:1-11). During the journey through the wilderness, the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad formed the second unit of the procession with the tribe of Reuben in the lead position (Numbers 10:17-20). This cluster of tribes headed by the tribe of Reuben was next in line after the tabernacle (Numbers 10:17). As the tribes approached the land of Canaan and allotments were made to each tribe, the tribe of Reuben along with Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh occupied the Transjordan, that is the highland plateau region east of the Jordan River (Joshua 13:8-31); compare Numbers 32:1: 1-5,33-42). The tribe of Reuben occupied the southern region extending roughly from the Arnon river to the site of Heshbon (Joshua 13:15-23). Formerly, this territory was the homeland of the kingdom of Sihon. While we know little about the tribe of Reuben during the period of the settlement, the song of Deborah suggests that the tribe was criticized by some of the other tribes for not taking a more active role in the conquest (Judges 5:15-16). See Transjordan.

2. Simeon was Jacob's second son by Leah and played a key role in the encounter Dinah had with Shechem. Because Simeon and Levi were full brothers of Dinah, they sought to avenge her (Genesis 34:25-26) for Shechem's actions (Genesis 34:1-4). The radical response of the two brothers, in which they “took their swords and came against the city unawares, and killed all the males” (Genesis 34:25), is reflected in Jacob's blessing of the two: “Weapons of violence are their swords… cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7 NRSV). During the years of famine as the sons of Jacob traveled back and forth between Egypt and Canaan, Simeon was held hostage by Joseph at one point (Genesis 42:24).

In the lists of the tribes, Simeon is listed in second place, that is, next after Reuben (Exodus 1:2; Exodus 6:15; Numbers 1:6,Numbers 1:22-23; Numbers 13:5; Numbers 26:12-14). Generally, the tribe of Simeon seems to be characterized by weakness. Its status is best reflected in the final statement of Jacob's blessing of Simeon and Levi: “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:7). Perhaps because of its weak status, the tribe of Simeon apparently was not given a separate inheritance in the land (Joshua 19:1-9). Rather, “its inheritance lay within the inheritance of the tribe of Judah” (Joshua 19:1), in the southern Negeb.

3. Levi was the third son of Jacob and Leah. See Simeon above. During the journey from Egypt to Canaan, the sons of Levi slaughtered 3,000 rebellious Hebrew males (Exodus 32:25-29). They became the landless priestly tribe. See Levites; Levitical Cities; Priests.

4. Judah, the fourth son of Jacob by his wife Leah (Genesis 29:35), appears as a leader and a spokesman among his brothers (Genesis 37:26; Genesis 43:3; Genesis 44:16; compare Genesis 46:28). Judah was promised preeminence over the other tribes in Jacob's blessing (Genesis 49:8-12).

In the journey from Egypt to Canaan, Judah has the lead position (Numbers 2:9). As the tribes entered the land, it was Achan of the tribe of Judah who was guilty of taking some of the forbidden booty or loot from Jericho (Joshua 7:1). The tribe of Judah occupied the southern part of Palestine, basically the territory between the Dead Sea on the east to the Mediterranean on the west (Joshua 15:1). The northern boundary of Judah was marked by the territories of Benjamin and Dan. The territory of Jerusalem may have formed something of a barrier between Judah and the tribes of the north because it was not finally secured until the time of David (2 Samuel 5:6-10). The capture of Jerusalem by David paved the way for the tribes to have a kind of unity they had not previously experienced. The territory of the tirbe of Judah constituted the major portion of the Southern Kingdom, thus forming the kingdom of Judah with its capital Jerusalem.

5. Issachar was the ninth son born to Jacob, but the first of a second family he had by Leah (Genesis 30:18). Beyond his birth, little else is known about his life or that of the tribe. During the journey from Mount Sinai to Canaan the tribe of Issachar followed the tribe of Judah, that is, it was a part of the first cluster of tribes located on the east side of the tabernacle (Numbers 2:5). The territory occupied by the tribe of Issachar is difficult to outline precisely (Joshua 19:17-23). They were located west of the Jordan in the region just south of the Sea of Galilee stretching on down to the Valley of Jezreel. Because the blessing of Moses says that Zebulun and Issachar “call peoples to the mountain;/there they offer the right sacrifices” (Deuteronomy 33:19 NRSV), some have speculated that the two tribes perhaps had a center of worship on Mount Tabor, a mountain located on the border between the two tribes. Because the blessing of Jacob speaks of Issachar as a beast of burden and as “a slave at forced labor” (Genesis 49:14-15 NRSV), the tribe of Issachar may have faced a variety of hardships. For instance there may have been a time during the tribal period when the people of Issachar served as slaves in the forced labor projects of their neighbors, the Canaanites.

6. Zebulun was the tenth son of Jacob and the sixth and final son by his wife Leah (Genesis 30:19-20). Little else is known about Zebulun's life. The territory allotted to the tribe of Zebulun was in the north in the region of southern Galilee bounded by Issachar on the south southeast, Naphtali on the east, and Asher on the west (Joshua 19:10-16). The blessing of Jacob speaks of Zebulun's territory including “the shore of the sea,” presumably the Mediterranean Sea, and “his border shall be at Sidon,” (Genesis 49:13 NRSV) a city on the coast north of Mount Carmel. While this territory was traditionally occupied by the tribe of Asher, it is quite possible that at some point Zebulun occupied a part of this region and, therefore, would have had access to the sea. The blessing of Moses further states that Zebulum along with Issachar would benefit from “the affluence of the seas and the hidden treasures of the sand” (Deuteronomy 33:19 NRSV). During the period that the tribes were settling in the land of Canaan, Zebulun apparently went beyond the call of duty in providing support. It is the only tribe in the Song of Deborah to be mentioned twice (Judges 5:14,Judges 5:18).

7. Joseph was the first son born to Jacob by Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife (Genesis 30:22-24). Two of the tribes of Israel came from Joseph, namely, Ephraim and Manasseh.

The story of Joseph is the most eventful of the sons of Jacob. See Joseph. Joseph had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 41:50-52), who were born in Egypt. Ephraim and Manasseh were adopted by Jacob and therefore each became the father of a tribe in Israel (Genesis 48:8-20). While Manasseh was the older of the two, Jacob gave preference to Ephraim (Genesis 48:14; compare Deuteronomy 33:17). The Blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:22-26) mentions only Joseph; the Blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33:13-17) begins with Joseph and notes Ephriam and Manasseh, the song of Deborah (Judges 5:14) speaks of Ephraim and Machir. See Machir.

a. Ephraim occupied a major portion of the central hill country with Manasseh during the tribal period. Ephraim's territory consisted of the region just north of Dan and Benjamin and ran from the Jordan River on the east to the Mediterranean Sea on the west. That Ephraim played a major leadership role among the tribes is reflected in the tribal history. Joshua, one of the twelve spies and a member of the tribe of Ephraim, became the successor of Moses (Numbers 13:8,Numbers 13:16; Joshua 1:1-11). Ephraim demanded leadership in the period of the judges (Judges 3:27; Judges 4:5; Judges 7:24; Judges 8:1; Judges 10:1; Judges 12:1-6; Judges 17:1; Judges 18:2,Judges 18:13; Judges 19:1). Shiloh, located in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim, became the major center of worship during the tribal period (Joshua 18:1; 1 Samuel 1:1-18). Samuel, the leader of the tribes (1 Samuel 7:15-17) near the end of the period of the Judges and just prior to the beginning of the kinship, came from Ephraim (1 Samuel 1:1-20).

Ephraim's influence is seen not only during the tribal period, but in Israel's later history as well. For instance, as the nation Israel divided into two kingdoms following the death of Solomon in 922 B.C., it was an Ephraimite named Jeroboam who led the northern tribes in their plea for leniency (1 Kings 12:1-5). When Rehoboam rejected their plea, the northern tribes broke their ties with the south, formed a separate kingdom (1 Kings 12:16-19), and selected Jeroboam as their king (1 Kings 12:20). Ephraim's influence is seen also during the time of the prophets. For instance, Hosea refers to Israel some three dozen times using the name Ephraim as being synonymous with Israel.

b. Manasseh was the oldest son of Joseph and Asenath. The tribe of Manasseh occupied terrihytory both east and west of the Jordan River. Manasseh's terrotory east of the Jordan included the regions of Gilead and Bashan and most likely extended from the Jabbok River to near Mount Hermon. Manasseh's territory west of the Jordan was located north of Ephraim. Apparently, the tribe of Manasseh played an important role in the conquest. For instance the sons of Machir, Manasseh's son took the land of Gilead and drove out the Amorites who occupied it (Numbers 32:39; compare Judges 5:14); while other descendants of Manasseh engaged in the activities of the conquest elsewhere (Numbers 32:41-42). Perhaps Gideon is the most familiar of the descendants of Manasseh (Judges 6:12-15). Gideon defeated the Midianites with a small band of men (Judges 6-7).

8. Benjamin was Jacob's youngest son, born to him by Rachel, and the only son born after returning to Palestine from Haran (Genesis 35:16-20). He was the only full-blooded brother of Joseph. Therefore, the tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh formed a special group. Benjamin's tribal territory was a small area west of the Jordan, sandwiched between Ephraim to the north and Judah to the south (Joshua 18:11-28). The Benjaminites had a reputation as men of war. The blessing of Jacob refers to them as a “ravenous wolf” (Genesis 49:27 NRSV). The Book of Judges notes their activities as warriors during the tribal period (Judges 5:14; Judges 20:12-16). They were referred to as those “who were left-handed” and experts with the sling (Judges 20:16 NRSV). The story of the Levite and his concubine reflects the inhumane acts for which the Benjaminites were responsible (Judges 19:1). The second judge, Ehud (Judges 3:12-30), and the first king, Saul (1 Samuel 9:15-17; 1 Samuel 10:1), came from the tribe of Benjamin.

9. Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and the first of two sons by Bilhah, Rachel's maid (Genesis 30:5-8). Therefore, Dan and Naphtali were full-blooded brothers and are often mentioned together (Genesis 46:23-24; Exodus 1:4). The tribe of Dan originally occupied the territory just west of Benjamin with Ephraim on the north and Judah and the Philistines on the south (Joshua 19:40-48). Shortly after settling in this area, the Amorites and the Philistines apparently attempted to drive them out of the region (Judges 1:34-36). The pressure and harassment the people of Dan experienced from the Philistines is reflected in the stories of Samson, the Danite, and his encounters with them (Judges 13-16). The Philistine pressure resulted in the migration of the tribe to an area north of Lake Hula, to the city of Laish and its territory (Judges 18:14-27). The people of Dan captured the city and renamed it Dan (Judges 18:29). See Dan.

10. Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob and younger full-blooded brother of Dan (Genesis 30:6-8). The name, Naphtali, which conveys the idea of “wrestling” was selected because of the personal struggles between Rachel and Leah (Genesis 30:7-8). The Bible provides little information concerning Naphtali the person or tribe. During the tribal period the tribe of Naphtali occupied the broad strip of land west of the Jordan in the area of Lake Hula and the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee). This band of land ran from Issachar and Zebulun in the south to near Dan in the north (Joshua 19:32-39). Apparently, the tribe of Naphtali provided forces during the conquest of the land (Judges 5:18) and during the Midianite threat (Judges 6:35; Judges 7:23).

11. Gad was the seventh son of Jacob and the first of two sons by Zilpah, the maid of Leah (Genesis 30:9-11). Because Leah saw this birth as a sign of “good fortune,” especially in the light of the fact that she had ceased having children, she named him “Gad” which means “fortune” (Genesis 30:11 NRSV). We know very little about Gad the patriarch beyond the brief details about his birth. The tribe's territory was the east side of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, including a part of the region called Gilead (Numbers 32:34-36; Joshua 13:24-28), extending from the region of the Jabbok River in the north to the region of the Arnon River in the south. According to the blessing of Jacob the tribe of Gad perhaps experienced numerous raids (Genesis 49:19) especially from groups like the Ammonites as reflected in the story of Jephthah (Judges 11:1). Perhaps such raids were prompted by the fact that Gad occupied some of the best land in the Transjordan (Deuteronomy 33:20-21). Apparently the men of Gad achieved great expertise as warriors (1 Chronicles 12:8).

12. Asher was the eighth son of Jacob, the second son by Zilpah and the younger full-blooded brother of Gad (Genesis 30:9-13). Like Gad, little information is shared about the patriarch Asher. The tribe of Asher occupied the region west of Zebulun and Naphtali, that is, the northern coastal region of Palestine. The territory extended from near Mount Carmel in the south to near Tyre in the north (Joshua 19:24-31). Asher is the only tribe not recognized as providing a judge during the tribal period. While Asher occupied choice territory (Genesis 49:20), it apparently was reproached and perhaps failed to gain the respect of some of the other tribes (Judges 5:17).

Conclusion While discussion and research will continue concerning the history of the tribes and the territory they occupied, the tribal period will always be recognized as an important though enigmatic period in the development of the history of Israel. With the development of the monarchy the tribal period came to an end; however, tribal ties and traditions may have continued to be quite strong. Many scholars suggest that tribal jealousies and traditions played a major role in bringing about the division of the kingdom and the formation of two kingdoms, the Northern Kindgom and the Southern Kingdom in 922 B.C.

LaMoine DeVries

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'TRIBES OF ISRAEL, THE'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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