Tribes of Israel

The tribes of Israel are hereditary groupings of the descendants of the sons of Jacob, who is renamed Israel in Genesis 32.28. There is a subtle between designation "sons of Israel" and "tribes of Israel." Part of this that is genealogical and a part that is administrative or conventional. (Twelve is considered a perfect number, it symbolizes God's power and authority, as well as serving as a perfect governmental foundation.) We note that there are also 12 sons of Ishmael given in Genesis 25.13–15. The names of the sons/tribes of Israel are given in various lists in the Bible. There are various treatments of the subject in the tables further down on this page or they are accessible more directly from the content menu at the right. What becomes known as the tribes of Israel are those that receive an inheritance in the promised land and therefore became the political entities shown on the map. These divisions are also prominent in the order of the camp and in the order of the march also illustrated below. Within each tribe there are clan and family units which are mentioned but not in great detail. It is clear that each individual understands their place in the clan. On a more macroscopic level there are the groups of three tribes that form units commonly called camps. These units feature in the order of march and in the way the nation camps in the wilderness.

There are three sorts of topics that are related, restated and conflated here:

  1. The Genealogy of the tribes
  2. The family dynamics of Jacob's household
  3. The administration of the resulting nation12 Tribes of Israel Map

When the Children of Israel left Egypt to go and posses the promised land they were quite a multitude (estimates range from 5,550 to 140,000). It was also clear that they would have to fight to displace the people who were living there. The beginning of the book of Numbers we find the beginnings of national organization and establishing a military. 

In the book of Numbers is so named because it begins with two census, in the first one those of military age are counted. Those numbers are reflected in the table below; in the next census a count is made of the first-born sons. The first-born male of everyone and every animal are consecrated to the Lord in Exodus 13.2 in remembrance of the final plague that caused Pharaoh to let Israel go (see plagues).

 When establishing the organization of the camp and the order of the march in Numbers 3 God takes Levi into His service and in doing so redeems the first-born sons of the rest of Israel.

12 "I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether human or animal. They are to be mine. I am the Lord." (Numbers 3:12-13 NIV)

The Levites are exempt from military service so they are not part of the first census. Neither will they be given territory in the promised land as the other tribes are, because "their inheritance is the Lord" (Joshua 13.33). That said, we still refer to the Tribe of Levi with the understanding that they had a priestly function to stand between the rest of Israel and God. Additionally we need to note that all of the priests were Levites but not all of the Levites were priests. The various clans of Levi were given specific duties for service in the Tabernacle.

Joseph is the next to the last son of Israel and the beloved son who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers (Genesis 37.12-36). After the family is reunited in Egypt and when Israel is dying, he adopts Joseph's sons Ephriam and Manasseh as his sons. Joseph does not become one tribe but two.

To get to the number 12 for the 12 tribes then, you remove Levi, who is dedicated to the Lord, and split Joseph in two: Ephriam and Menasseh.

Tribes of Israel
  Name Meaning Standard From Census in Numbers 3
1 Reuben See, a son; but sounds like “he has seen my misery"   46,500
2 Simeon one who hears   59,300
  Levi – Belong to the Lord* attached    
3 Judah praise   74,600
4 Dan he has vindicated   62,700
5 Naphtali my struggle   53,400
6 Gad good fortune   55,650
7 Asher happy   41,500
8 Issachar sounds like reward   54,400
9 Zebulun probably means honor   57,400
  Joseph** may he add    
10 Ephriam of Joseph fruitful   40,500
11 Manasseh of Joseph causing to forget   32,200
12 Benjamin

Ben-Oni means son of my sorrow

Benjamin means son of my right hand

  Grand total of the men of military age.     603,550

* Levi receives no allotment because they are the priestly clan. They are allocated "Cities of Refuge" and the surrounding land within each of the other tribal allotments.

** Joseph receives the double portion as Israel adopts Joseph's sons (Genesis 48.5-6) and they are each granted allotments.