Who are the Twelve Tribes of Israel?

Happy All Saints’ Day!  I’ve been sitting on this question for a couple weeks, and it seems appropriate that I finally get to writing about it on this day of all days.  As Christians, we are grafted into the vine known as Israel, and so the twelve tribes (though now defunct as far as Christian identity is concerned) are part of our history.  Their story becomes our story, their history our history, their lessons our lessons.

So… who are the twelve tribes?  It should be a simple and straight-forward matter, but the actual list shifts throughout the Old Testament history.

We begin with Israel himself, originally named Jacob.  He has twelve sons, all listed in Genesis 35:23-26.  Reuben , Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.

At the end of his life, Jacob (Israel) blesses his sons.  This is probably where the twelve tribes are considered to be initiated.  Here this list is: Reuben, Simeom, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin.  It’s the same twelve names as before, just in a different order.

Additionally, the two (oldest) sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, receive blessing from Jacob (Israel) in Genesis 38, as if they were his own sons.  Thus the tribe of Joseph is split into two half-tribes.  This will cause some confusion for us as try to keep count of the “twelve tribes” through the rest of Old Testament history.

Next we turn to the book of Joshua, in which the tribes receive their land allotments (chapters 13 through 19).  The tribes named here are: Levi (which gets no land), Reuben, Gad, Manasseh, Judah, Ephraim, (Manasseh again), (Ephraim & Manasseh together as Joseph complain), Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan.  So already we’ve got twelve groups with land and a thirteenth group without land.  We picky modern westerners would like to argue that there are at this point 13 tribes of Israel, but the Bible continues to assert there are 12, so we must continue to assume that Ephraim & Manasseh together count as one!

Tragedy strikes in Judges 20-21: civil war breaks out, and the tribe of Benjamin is almost entirely wiped out.  An insane plan of allowing them to steal wives from other tribes saves from from extinction, but from then on Benjamin is an inconsequentially small tribe.  (Hence the big deal that King Saul was picked from their numbers later on.)  But as we shall see, God preserves them and they continue to be represented among the twelve.

Hundreds of years pass, and we get to the prophet Ezekiel receiving visions from God concerning the restoration of a broken and conquered Israel.  Among these visions are images of land allotment for the twelve tribes in a new arrangement (chapters 47-48).  The tribes named here are (from North to South: Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, Judah, the priests and Levites, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, and Gad.  Once again there are thirteen names, but Manasseh and Ephraim are still adjacent to one another – still the large tribe of Joseph split in half; for we know from sources like the book of Sirach that the Hebrew people continued to consider the total number of tribes to be twelve.

And then something extraordinary happens: the Messiah arrives, proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God.  Israel is finally to be restored!  But does he gather up representatives of each of the twelve tribes in order to do so?  No.  But he does gather up twelve leaders: Simon/Peter, Andrew; James the son of ZebedeePhilip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus/Judas,Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot.  Jesus even told them that they would be judging the twelve tribes, and judging in the Bible isn’t just about the judiciary, but actually ruling the people.  The twelve apostles are the new heads of Israel; the twelve tribes have been transformed into spiritual families.  St. Paul echoed this reality when he wrote that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”

This idea of the twelve apostles representing/replacing the twelve tribes is confirmed by their own actions in the book of Acts.  They ask Jesus one last time if he is going restore the kingdom now.  Jesus chides their prying into the plans of God, but then immediately affirms that they will receive power, which begins on Pentecost, ten days after that.  So then, realizing that the kingdom is being restored by the Holy Spirit in them, they take the initiative to replace Judas Isacariot who had killed himself not long before.  They understood that Israel was being rebuilt, and it would only be appropriate for twelve leaders to be starting this off.  The twelve tribes were fulfilled – brought to their greater New Testament reality – in the persons of the twelve apostles.  In a sense, they are the twelve tribes of Israel now.

And so in the book of Revelation the number 24 shows up quite prominently (chapters 4, 5, 11, and 19).  There are 24 elders around the throne of God worshiping him at all times.  This is a picture of the full presence of Israel, both Old Covenant and New, all together.  Similarly, in the Heavenly City described in chapter 21 there are twelve gates with the names of the twelve tribes on them and twelve foundations with the names of the twelve apostles on them.  Once again, the fullness of Christ’s kingdom is the bringing together of Old and New.

One last weird snag remains: the twelve tribes are listed in Revelation chapter 7 are as follows: Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.  For the first time since Genesis 35, Joseph is on this list.  Now, it may well be the case that “Joseph” is simply filling in for the half-tribe Ephraim, which was one of Joseph’s sons.  That’d be pretty normal with how Ephraim and Manasseh had been treated all along.  But why, then, is the tribe of Dan missing?  There are two main reasons:

  1. The tribe of Dan was the center of the apostasy in ancient Israel.  From the time of the Judges all the way to the end, they had their own religion with its own priesthood.  Because the visions in Revelation deal heavily with final judgment, it was appropriate to omit Dan from the list of those sealed for salvation in order to illustrate the point that salvation is for the faithful, not the unfaithful.
  2. For those who follow a spiritualist or symbolic reading of the vision, it doesn’t matter as much what the specific list of twelve tribes are, as long as twelve of them are there.  After all, being in God’s kingdom is not simply a matter of physical inheritance, but one of spirit and truth!

Needless to say, these two views work together quite well.

But, as far as we Christians are concerned, the twelve tribes of Old Israel are no longer part of the present state of affairs.  Israel’s New Covenant form is headed by the twelve apostles: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus/Judas, Simon, and Matthias.  And as far as we Catholic Christians are concerned, their office of shepherding the flock has been passed along to their successors – bishops.  In a way, each diocese is like a tribe of the New Israel.  Kinda neat, huh? 🙂

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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