The Twelve Tribes of Israel

The greater portion of our Old Testament, and a significant portion of events yet future, hinge on matters that have to do with the twelve tribes of Israel. Spanning a period over two millennia means that these matters are not insignificant, and we stand to learn a good deal about who God is and what He is like, as well as the history of the tribes themselves.

As with everything in God’s purposes, we find the foundations for our study in the book of beginnings, the book of Genesis. Jacob’s closing address to his sons in Genesis chapter 49 is not a simple case of a man’s last words. It is a staggering prophecy to which the history of the twelve tribes of Israel conforms. The significance of the words would certainly not have been lost on the brothers. For example, they would have quickly noticed that their father was not rigidly following birth order. Leah’s sons all come first, so that Zebulun, and Issachar, displace Dan’s fifth place in the birth order.
As seminal as Genesis chapter 49 is, we would be left hanging a little if it wasn’t for chapter 48. After all, two of the tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, are not even mentioned in chapter 49. As an introduction to this series of short surveys of each tribe, a consideration of chapter 48, will be important before exploring chapter 49 in more detail.

Two questions will help us get started, ‘Why Israel’ and ‘Why twelve tribes'?

Why Israel?

We might well ask why they became known as the twelve tribes of ‘Israel’, rather than of ‘Jacob’, Gen. 49. 28. Is this significant? Jacob means, ‘he cheats, supplants’. Israel means, ‘God prevails’, though the context of its original mention allows for Jacob’s prevailing over men with God’s help too. On purely these grounds the name ‘Israel’ is preferable. However, its designation to Jacob at Jabbok is important, Gen. 32. 22, 28. Jabbok was a watershed moment for Jacob. He was in the middle of a self-made crisis, at a loss to secure adequate means of his own to appease his brother Esau – classic Jacob. As a result, God met him and wrestled with him. Physically, he was overcome and sustained a permanent injury. Spiritually, by faith, he prevailed, receiving God’s covenant blessing in the process, and the new name ‘Israel’. The impression we are left with is that, notwithstanding Jacob’s flawed nature, he was serious about having dealings with God, and God was serious about having dealings with him. Above all, come what may, Jacob – and more to the point – God, would prevail.

This provides our first lesson. We might wonder today, what has become of the twelve tribes? Are they not flawed beyond hope? Far be the thought. We are talking about Israel. Whatever has happened; wherever they are; whichever state they may be in; we can surely say that God has not finished with them. His purposes will be fulfilled, He will prevail.

Why Twelve Tribes?

To answer this question we should consider the fact that in Genesis chapter 48, Joseph’s sons – Ephraim and Manasseh – were both formally adopted into Jacob’s family. Joseph would keep successive sons to himself, but Ephraim and Manasseh became Jacob’s – sons of Israel – giving a total of fourteen sons of Israel. Why then are ‘twelve’ tribes referred to?

It is to be noted that ‘Joseph’ can be used interchangeably with ‘Ephraim and Manasseh’, so that they are one and the same, Deut. 27. 12. Then again, perhaps we can also discount Levi? He is omitted in the census in Numbers chapter 1, and excluded from having inheritance in the land, Deut. 10. 9. If only it was that simple. Levi appears in many of the other later listings depriving us of such a simplistic explanation.

Trying to solve the number conundrum is partly missing the point. The specific tribes enumerated throughout scripture vary, and not without significance. However, ‘twelve tribes’ it is – that is how God would have it. So, in lieu of resolving the puzzle, we can at least observe the significance of God’s design. It is, after all, not the only group of twelve in His purposes. There were twelve apostles, who are to sit on twelve thrones. Twelve ‘gates’ in Revelation chapter 21. These all give a sense of ‘governance’ to the number. We learn this, then, that through the designation of twelve tribes God is stamping His elective purposes on the thing, as a vehicle through which His rule will be administered.

The Birthright

Before we leave Genesis chapter 48 we should note that Jacob’s private meeting with Joseph was not just about Ephraim and Manasseh’s adoption. It was about birthright. Normally held by the firstborn, birthright conferred special privilege and responsibility, along with a double portion of blessing. In this case, however, the birthright would not sit with Jacob’s firstborn. 1 Chronicles chapter 5 verse 1 tells us why. ‘[Reuben] was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel, so that the genealogy is not listed according to the birthright; yet Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came a ruler, although the birthright was Joseph’s’ NKJV. This verse drives home two major details which would have shaped the thinking of the nation in a dramatic way, and should orient our entire thinking for the remainder of this study. One concerns Joseph, the other Judah.

Regarding Joseph, birthright lay with him as a result of Reuben’s moral failure. In an act which echoed Jacob’s singling out of Joseph with the coat in chapter 37 verse 3, Jacob now singles out Joseph’s sons to receive the birthright blessings. He conveys the substance of the blessings to Ephraim, yet another case of passing over the firstborn. In fact, by this point, the birthright has already passed over several firstborns including Ishmael, Esau, Zerah and Reuben. Why all these breaks from the normal order of things? What is God teaching us? At a simple level, it is a lesson in His sovereignty. If only the nation had learnt it – if only we would – it took Jacob a lifetime. Proverbs chapter 16 verse 9, comes to mind, ‘A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps’. Others see a more typical picture of God working through the second man. It’s a very compelling possibility.

Ephraim’s birthright privilege gradually becomes evident as the Old Testament unfolds. So much so that ‘Ephraim’ becomes synonymous with the northern kingdom, ‘Israel’; a key consideration when reading books like Isaiah for instance. Yet despite the honour conferred on them, with all the promise that should have emanated from someone like Joseph, Ephraim ultimately failed to live up to it.

Which brings us to our second point regarding Judah. As the chronicler recorded, ‘Judah prevailed over his brothers’. Accordingly, Asaph wrote, ‘He rejected the tent of Joseph; he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves’, Ps. 78. 67. We will return to explore this more fully when we look at Judah. Suffice to say, it’s all a glorious insight into the gracious heart of God, who works all things together for good not because of us but in spite of us.

A Future Anticipated

Keeping all this in view, we return now to Jacob’s last words in chapter 49. Predictably, Judah and Joseph dominate the discourse. He addresses each son and, by extension, each tribe. As we noted earlier, the order here is only loosely based on birth. In keeping perhaps with common courtesy (cf. Deut. 21. 15-17), Jacob addresses the sons of Leah first, then of the handmaids, and lastly of Rachel. As one family, they would become one nation. Yet, born from two mothers, they would ultimately split into two kingdoms. This is just one of the implications we can draw, in hindsight, from Jacob’s foresight. How much did he appreciate we wonder? As is true of the book of Genesis as a whole, God is just laying the groundwork and setting the scene. It is truly marvellous to see the whole of God’s programme anticipated in it all, not least the coming of a King. This is the seed of the woman, the one who will prevail, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the one who will administer God’s will on earth.

Having laid out some background for this series, we are ready to consider each tribe more closely in order that we can learn some practical lessons to challenge and encourage us as God’s heavenly people. Similarly, His purposes for us will prevail, and by God’s grace, we too can be vehicles through which they can be realized.


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