The Twelve Tribes of Israel
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 25 October 2008; Revised 12 March 2018
Sources: Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic and Jewish nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
The "twelve tribes of Israel" refers to those family clans who descended from the twelve sons of Jacob and his four wives. Jacob's wife Leah gave birth to six sons − Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, and their only daughter, Dinah. Rachel delivered Joseph and Benjamin. Bilhah gave Jacob his sons Dan and Naphtali and Zilpah bore Gad and Asher. After the family's sojourn in Egypt where they multiplied into a great host (Ex 1:7), they were from that time known as Israel or Israelites. God told Moses, "Israel is My son, My firstborn" (Ex 4:22). The name "Israel," meaning "God prevails," was given to Jacob after he wrestled with the Angel of ADONAI at Peniel (Gen 32:28).
After the Israelites successfully invaded and conquered Canaan under Joshua's leadership, the land was divided among the tribes. The tribe of Levi, having priestly and judicial responsibilities, was given no land (Josh 13:33, 14:3), but instead received forty-eight cities, including six cities of refuge to which anyone guilty of manslaughter could flee (Num 35:6). In contrast, Joseph's two sons Ephraim and Manasseh were granted the status of full tribes in their own right, replacing the tribe of Joseph (Gen 48:5, 13-20; Josh 14:4).
No Gentile was ever called an Israelite (cf. Acts 4:10; 9:15; Rom 11:25) or a member of any specific tribe. Gentiles that "sojourned" with Israel were treated as citizens of the commonwealth, as long as they obeyed the laws of God. (See Ex 12:19, 43-49; 20:10; 23:12; Lev 16:29; 17:8-15; 18:26; 20:2; 22:10, 18-19; 24:16, 22; Num 9:14; 15:14-16, 26-30; 19:10; Deut 5:14; 16:11, 14; 31:12.) This status meant that they had the same justice rights as native-born Israelites. Gentiles could also share in the Passover meal as long as the males were circumcised (Ex 12:48).
Were Tribes "Lost?"
Many people believe that ten tribes of Israel disappeared after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and deportation by ancient Assyria. Some scholars believe that the tribes ceased to exist altogether. Others believe that survivors were not in sufficient numbers to considered as having a tribal identity. Since the 17th century many theories have sprung up to identify descendants of the ten tribes. However, the teaching that various Gentile groups (e.g., the British, the Irish, American Indians, the Mormons and various pseudo-Jewish and Christian Zionist groups) descended from the ten "lost" tribes, or the tribe of Ephraim, amounts to a most peculiar, if not antisemitic, mythology. Such a thorough assimilation into Gentile culture would have been impossible given the universal hostility toward Jews lasting for centuries throughout Europe. Moreover, orthodox Jews have never accepted the idea that the ten tribes were lost because of all the prophecies about a restored and reunified Israel (cf. Ezek 37:16-17).
What did happen to the ten tribes? To answer that question requires a review of history according to Scripture and other ancient writings.
With the death of King Solomon a division occurred creating the Kingdom of Israel, consisting of the ten northern tribes, and the Kingdom of Judah with the remaining southern tribes. The only mention of "ten tribes" in the Bible occurs in 1 Kings 11.
"and said to Jeroboam, "Take ten pieces for yourself, for thus says ADONAI, God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will tear the kingdom out of Solomon's hand and will give ten tribes to you. … Yet I will take the kingdom out of his son’s hand, and I will give it to you—the ten tribes." (1Kgs 11:31, 35 TLV)
In order to identify the ten tribes that became the Kingdom of Israel the overall tribal situation must be considered. The tribe of Simeon, while sometimes mentioned with the ten "lost" tribes, was actually located entirely within the land of Judah (Josh 19:1). Thus the Kingdom of Judah consisted of the tribes of Benjamin, Simeon and Judah. The tribe of Levi was never considered a member of the northern kingdom, given their distribution throughout the tribal territories, and large numbers resided in the Kingdom of Judah and served at the Temple. The Kingdom of Israel, then, consisted of Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, and Ephraim, plus the two half-tribes of Manasseh that occupied separate allotments on either side of the Jordan (cf. Num 32:33; Josh 13:7-8).
When the Assyrians invaded the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, thousands from the ten northern tribes were carried away and resettled in other parts of the Assyrian Empire. These ten tribes became known as "lost" because they never returned from captivity to their homeland in significant numbers and their tribal boundaries were never restored. However, there is no suggestion in Scripture, the Talmud or other ancient historical sources that the ten tribes disappeared from existence or lost their identity through assimilation with Gentile culture.
Invasions, wars and forced relocations did not destroy tribal identity. In fact, after the Assyria invasion, there were members of those tribes that migrated to Judah or were already there at the time of the invasion (2Kgs 15:29; 17:6, 21; 2Chr 30:1, 21, 25; 31:1; 32:17, 23; 34:9, 21; 35:17; 36:13). The continuing survival of the ten tribes, whether in Judah or in exile, may also be seen in the continuing use of the name "God of Israel" found in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Malachi and in the Besekh (Matt 15:31; Luke 1:68).
During the intertestamental period learned Jews translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. According to the Letter of Aristeas (ca. 200 BC) and Philo (On the Life of Moses II, 25-44) the project was initiated by King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC). The Letter of Aristeas says that the King requested the Jewish High Priest Eliezer to provide six representatives from each of the tribes. The Talmud records that 72 elders did come together during the King's reign to translate the Torah (Megillah 9a). The request could not have been made or the sacred duty accomplished if the twelve tribes did not exist.
In the apostolic era Jews knew their tribal connections. Yeshua came from the tribe of Judah (Heb 7:14), Barnabas from the tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36) and Paul from the tribe of Benjamin (Rom 11:1; Php 3:5), all of the original Kingdom of Judah. However, the woman of Samaria claimed Jacob as her ancestor (John 4:12) and she possibly descended from the tribe of Manasseh or the Levitical family of Kohath (John 4:20; cf. Josh 17:7-9; 21:20-21). Anna is identified as being from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36), and she obviously wasn't "lost." Moreover, Yeshua promised his apostles authority over the twelve tribes of Israel "when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne" (Matt 19:28; cf. Luke 22:30), which suggests that the twelve apostles were representatives from the twelve tribes and the twelve tribes would exist when Yeshua returns to establish his millennial reign. To assume that Yeshua used "twelve tribes" as a metaphor makes "twelve tribes of Israel" a tautology and makes him out of touch with reality.
When Peter preached his Pentecost sermon he addressed the crowd of Jews and Jewish proselytes that had assembled from every nation (Acts 2:5, 11) as "Men of Israel" (Acts 2:22) even though the Romans did not use that name as a political label for the land. In addition, Jacob addressed his letter to the "twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (Jas 1:1). Paul in his defense to King Agrippa referred to the twelve tribes as in existence at that time (Acts 26:7). The Jewish apostles would not refer to Gentile disciples or nations as being included in the "twelve tribes" unless they were proselytes.
The apostles could speak of the existence of the twelve tribes because by the first century A.D. there were numerous Jewish settlements in Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy and the islands of the Aegean, that had resulted from emigration (sometimes voluntary and sometimes forced) from Babylon (Sir William Tarn, and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization, 219). In A.D. 93 Josephus reported that "the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers" (Antiquities of the Jews, XI, 5:2). All of these settlements became the starting point for the apostles to proclaim the fulfillment of prophetic promises, since the good news was for the Jew first. The Talmud records Rabbinical debates as to whether the so-called "lost tribes" would ever return to Judea (Sanhedrin 110b), which would hardly be an issue if those tribes had ceased to exist.
The twelve tribes make up the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4. Contrary to popular opinion, the 144,000 is not a symbolic number for the Church, or any Gentile religious group. The plain sense of the idiom "sons of Israel" in this verse means representatives of the Jewish people and blood descendants of Jacob. There is no sufficient reason not to take this section of Revelation literally, especially given the specific language "from every tribe." The literal identification is also contrasted and reinforced by the description of the vast multitude of Gentile disciples in Revelation 7:9.
The appeal to the use of Israel in Paul's letters to symbolize the Church as the 144,000 fails to recognize that for Paul the term "Israel" referred to the commonwealth of Israel that consists of the faithful blood descendants of Jacob (Rom 9:6-7) with Gentile believers grafted in to receive the covenant privileges (Rom 11:17-24; Eph 2:11-16). John specifically reports that 12,000 were chosen from twelve separate and named tribes of Jacob's descendants, each of which points to both the tribal existence and its much larger constituency. The equal numbers from each tribe stresses the equality that all the tribes share in the special honor of being chosen and sealed for ministry by the Messiah. The text offers no allegorical explanations and none are required.
Gentiles will have an eternal reminder of God's love in the New Jerusalem for Jacob and his dozen sons. The names of "the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel" are inscribed on the gates to the city. No other leader in history, not a pope or famous minister or evangelist will be given such a distinct and lasting honor. This one verse in all the Bible should cause Gentiles to reconsider how they regard and treat these favored sons of Jacob. (See my complete commentary on Revelation 7:4-8.)
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