Tribes of Israel

The tribes of Israel are groupings of the descendants of the sons of Jacob, who is renamed Israel in Genesis 32.28. There is a bit of an issue in moving from the designation "sons of Israel" to the "tribes of Israel." There is a 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 and in the tables further down on this page. But 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 and in the list below. 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 a 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 the tribes that also form units in the camp and on the march.

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

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

In the book of Numbers there are basically two census, the first on is for those of military age as the nation is preparing for the battle to possess the promised land. 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. They will not 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.

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 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 and split Joseph in two.

Tribes of Israel
  Name From Census in Numbers 3
1 Reuben 46,500
2 Simeon 59,300
  Levi – Belong to the Lord*  
3 Judah 74,600
4 Dan 62,700
5 Naphtali 53,400
6 Gad 55,650
7 Asher 41,500
8 Issachar 54,400
9 Zebulun 57,400
  Joseph**  
10 Ephriam of Joseph 40,500
11 Manasseh of Joseph 32,200
12 Benjamin 35,400
  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.