The Tribes of Israel

From the 12 sons of Jacob and the two sons of Joseph derive the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Ten were lost to history. The descendents of the survivors, Judah and Benjamin, constitute the Jews of today. Some of the tribe of Levi aslo survived as they lived among the other tribes (including Judah and Benjamin), and not in their own separate area.

According to the Bible, the patriarch Jacob had 12 sons and one daughter, Dina. Eleven of his sons: Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Levi, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon and Zebulun, became heads of tribes that bore their name.

The tribe named after Jacob’s most famous son, Joseph, lasted just one generation. This tribe was split into two, and named after his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Every Shabbat eve, Jewish boys are blessed in the name of these two brothers in memory of the dual blessing they received from their grandfather, Jacob.

The tribe of Levi became a priestly elite, Moses and Aaron being their leading figures. As such they did not constitute a tribe per se, and certainly received no territory (Joshua 13:14). Hence the Israelites who re-entered Canaan (Eretz Yisrael) consisted of 12 tribes.

Upon entering Canaan, every tribe was allocated a region. The tribe of Asher, from Jacob’s 3rd son, was given the coastal plain from Carmel to Sidon. Benjamin, from Jacob’s youngest son, was granted land east of the Judean hills.

The tribe of Dan from Jacob’s 5th son by Bilhah was assigned the coastal territory. They later migrated north. Gad, from Jacob’s 7th son by Zilpah was granted the valley east of the Jordan River.

Judah, from Jacob’s 4th son by Leah, was given a large area south of Jerusalem, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. Issachar, from a son of Jacob by Leah, settled the central plain of Jezreel. Levi, 3rd son of Jacob by Leah was not granted any territory. Naphtali, Jacob’s 2nd son by Bilhah received an area west of the Sea of Galilee.

Reuben, from Jacob’s 1st son by Leah was granted the territory east of the Dead Sea. Simeon, from Jacob’s 2nd son by Leah inherited the southern extremity of Canaan. Zebulun, from Jacob’s 6th son by Leah took the fertile plains of western Galilee.

Ephraim, Joseph’s younger son, was granted the central hill country from Bethel in the south to the outskirts of Shechem in the north. Manasseh, Joseph’s elder son, was granted land on both sides of the Jordan, between the tribes of Ephraim and Issachar.

Each tribe had individual characteristics. The tribe of Judah was redeemed because of its forefather’s two pivotal acts of virtue. Naphtali tribesmen were courageous warriors. Benjamin was the innocent one in the tale of Joseph, so his descendants held the shechinah, the divine spirit residing in the Temple. The Talmudic Aggadah tells us that the Zebulunites traded, so as to support the Issacharites’ penchant for studying Torah.

All these independent tribes were forced to unite under a single king. Eventually the kingdom split into two. Judah and Benjamin made up the southern Kingdom of Judea; the other ten tribes made up the northern Kingdom of Israel. Assyria destroyed northern Israel, dispersing its inhabitants and thus the ten northern tribes became ‘lost’.

Many scholars see the biblical story of the tribes as a mythical concoction. The idea of 12 tribes confederating around a central shrine (Amphictyony) was common in ancient Asia Minor and Greece. But whatever the truth, the legend of the 12 tribes endures as a strong theme in Jewish lore.