What Were the 12 Tribes of Israel?

12 Tribes of Israel Mosaic
12 Tribes of Israel Mosaic. Public Domain

The 12 tribes of Israel both divided and unified the ancient nation of the Hebrew people.

The tribes came from Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, to whom God promised the title "father of many nations" (Genesis 17:4-5).  God renamed Jacob "Israel" and favored him with 12 sons:  Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Each son became the patriarch or leader of a tribe that bore his name.  When God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, they camped together in the desert, each tribe gathered in its own smaller camp. After they built the desert tabernacle under God's command, the tribes camped around it to remind them God was their king and protector.

Finally, the Israelites entered the Promised Land, but they had to drive out the pagan tribes who already lived there.  Even though they were divided into 12 tribes, the Israelites recognized they were one unified people under God.

When the time came to assign sections of the land, it was done by tribes.  However, God had decreed that the tribe of Levi was to be priests. They did not get a portion of the land but were to serve God at the tabernacle and later the temple. In Egypt, Jacob had adopted his two grandsons by Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh. Instead of a portion of Joseph's tribe, Ephraim's and Manasseh's tribes each got a portion of land.

The number 12 represents perfection, as well as God's authority.  It stands for a solid foundation for government and completeness.  Symbolic references to the 12 tribes of Israel abound throughout the Bible. 

Moses built an altar with 12 pillars, representing the tribes (Exodus 24:4).  There were 12 stones on the high priest's ephod, or holy vest, each representing one tribe.  Joshua set up a memorial of 12 stones after the people crossed the Jordan River.

When King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem, a huge washing bowl called the Sea sat on 12 bronze bulls, and 12 bronze lions guarded the steps. The prophet Elijah built an altar of 12 stones on Mount Carmel.

Jesus Christ, who came from the tribe of Judah, chose 12 apostles, signifying that he was ushering in a new Israel, the Church. After feeding the five thousand, the apostles picked up 12 baskets of leftover food:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matthew 19:28, NIV)

In the prophetic book of Revelation, an angel shows John the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven:

It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates.  On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. (Revelation 21:12, NIV)

Over the centuries, the 12 tribes of Israel fell apart by marrying foreigners but mainly through the conquests of hostile invaders.  The Assyrians overran part of the kingdom, then in 586 B.C., the Babylonians attacked, carrying thousands of Israelites into captivity in Babylon.  After that, the Greek empire of Alexander the Great took over, followed by the Roman empire, which destroyed the temple in 70 A.D., dispersing most of the Jewish population throughout the world.

Bible References to the 12 Tribes of Israel:

Genesis 49:28; Exodus 24:4, 28:21, 39:14; Ezekiel 47:13; Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30; Acts 26:7; James 1:1; Revelation 21:12.

Sources: biblestudy.org, gotquestions.org, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, general editor; Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words, Eugene E. Carpenter and Phillip W. Comfort; Smith's Bible Dictionary, William Smith.

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Zavada, Jack. "What Were the 12 Tribes of Israel?" Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/12-tribes-of-israel-700165. Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). What Were the 12 Tribes of Israel? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/12-tribes-of-israel-700165 Zavada, Jack. "What Were the 12 Tribes of Israel?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/12-tribes-of-israel-700165 (accessed August 10, 2022).