The Twelve Tribes of Israel – Ephraim and Manasseh

In the introduction to this series we explained how it was that Ephraim and Manasseh came to feature in the twelve tribes of Israel. Revisiting that introduction at this point is recommended, Precious Seed, Vol. 73 No. 2.

Perfect start

One imagines that home life for Manasseh and Ephraim was very different to the dysfunctional one their uncles grew up in. Theirs was a happy, stable home, surrounded by the comforts afforded them by Joseph’s elite position in government. They also enjoyed an exclusive, joint blessing from their grandfather, Gen. 48. 20. And if that was not enough, Ephraim, meaning ‘fruitful’, received Jacob’s double portion, 48. 19.

Of all the tribes of Israel we might think that these two were guaranteed to go far. They will blaze a trail for God, refuse to compromise and, surely, will never forget the incredible circumstances of their birth.?

Ephraim and Manasseh’s story will be the story of so many readers. We have enjoyed the comforts of a godly home, sheltered from all the world’s dysfunction. We know the grace of God that saved our parents and perhaps our grandparents too1 and, wonderfully, we have come to know it for ourselves through faith. God’s blessings have been extended to us despite being Gentiles in the flesh, Eph. 2. 11. Would to God that such circumstances would guarantee our spiritual success. Alas, it was not so with Ephraim and Manasseh, and nor is it necessarily so with us.

Promising growth

At first, things look fairly good for the two tribes. Ephraim leads one of the camps in their wilderness sojourn. They manage to avoid any specific mention of stirring trouble, though Manasseh was implicated in the spies’ bad report. But at least Ephraim was upheld by their faithful leader, Joshua, who stood with Caleb from Judah, Num. 13. 8; 14. 6. And at least Manasseh was later upheld by the daughters of Zelophehad, who were zealous for the land God had promised, 27. 1-11. The Pentateuch closes with Moses’ blessing upon the two tribes, positively overflowing with high expectations.

Pitiful compromise

How disappointing to read of their compromise in Judges chapter 1 verses 27 to 29. Intimidated by the Canaanites, they spared them and their cities in return for labour.2 Yet, if a shepherd boy with a sling can topple Goliath, then a sandal-wearing troop, empowered by the Lord of hosts, could have toppled the Canaanite strongholds like Megiddo, 1. 27-33. Carnal means of compromise will not do. ‘We do not war after the flesh … the weapons of our warfare are … mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds’ and we must be ruthless in laying hold on God’s power to this end, 2 Cor. 10. 3-5. Despite this evident compromise, apparently Manasseh did not think it hypocritical to complain to Joshua that they had insufficient space. How often we do this – we are presented with a problem, for which we are actually partly to blame, yet we place the onus of remedy on a third party. Joshua’s leadership is brave. To use modern parlance, he insists that Manasseh ‘own it’, and go after the land, Josh. 17. 14-18.

Prominence forfeited

Infighting was a feature before and after the split of the kingdoms and Ephraim was often the culprit. One wonders whether his double portion went to his head, cp. Isa. 28. 1. When the nation became divided, God chose Jeroboam from Ephraim to rule the northern tribes. God graciously promised him blessing if he walked in the ways of David, 1 Kgs. 11. 37, 38. Alas, he walked in the way that seemed right in his own eyes, bringing outright idolatry into the north. Thus, ‘Ephraim’ became a way of referring collectively to idolatrous Israel, and her demise is graphically portrayed in the book of Hosea. Readers are encouraged to read Psalm 78 where Ephraim (Israel) is juxtaposed with Judah, led by a man after God’s own heart. It is a deeply sobering tale for those who hold potential for God.

Purpose secured

This is not to say that our fidelity to God down here has any ultimate bearing on His final purposes. God can, and will, take Judah and Ephraim and make them one again, Ezek. 37. 19; cp. Hos. 1. 11. He can, and will, apportion both Ephraim and Manasseh land along with their peers, Ezek. 48. 4-6. At the end of the day, God’s purposes will stand. But, since we have a case study in Ephraim and Manasseh of how it is possible to finish poorly even having had a comfortable start, may we learn from their mistakes, possess our possessions without compromise, and walk ‘worthy of the vocation wherewith … [we] are called’, Eph. 4. 1.



Cp. Gen. 50. 23.


Whilst the law made provision for the employment of foreigners, Lev. 25. 44-46, this was to be held in careful balance with taking possession of the land, Deut. 20. 10-18.


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