The Twelve Tribes of Israel
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

In the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), the Israelites are described as descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel in Gen 32:28), the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.

The phrase "Twelve Tribes of Israel" (or simply "Twelve Tribes") sometimes occurs in the Bible (OT & NT) without any individual names being listed (Gen 49:28; Exod 24:4; 28:21; 39:14; Ezek 47:13; Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; Acts 26:7; and Rev 21:12; cf. also "Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion" in James 1:1). More frequently, however, the names are explicitly mentioned.

The Bible contains two dozen listings of the twelve sons of Jacob and/or tribes of Israel. Some of these are in very brief lists, while others are spread out over several paragraphs or chapters that discuss the distribution of the land or name certain representatives of each tribe, one after another. Surprisingly, however, each and every listing is slightly different from all the others, either in the order of the names mentioned or even in the specific names used (e.g., the two sons of Joseph are sometimes listed along with or instead of their father; and sometimes one or more names is omitted for various reasons). A few of the texts actually have more than 12 names! Upon closer analysis, one can discover several principles for the ordering and various reasons for the omission or substitution of some of the names, as explained in the notes below the following tables. In some cases, however, the reasons are not so obvious, leaving us to wonder about the many variations.

Jacob's twelve sons are first mentioned in the order of their births (to four different mothers) in the Book of Genesis (29:31–30:24 & 35:16-20). For easier analysis, they are distinguished by colored highlighting in the table below:

Gen 29–30, 35 Gen 35:22-26 Gen 46:8-27 Gen 49:1-27 Exod 1:1-5 Num 1:5-15 Num 1:20-54 Num 2:3-29 Num 7:1-88 Num 10:11-28 Num 13:4-15 Num 26:5-50 Num 34:19-28
Reuben Reuben Reuben Reuben Reuben Reuben Reuben E: Judah [ Levi ] Judah Reuben Reuben [ Reuben ]
Simeon Simeon Simeon Simeon Simeon Simeon Simeon E: Issachar Judah Issachar Simeon Simeon [ Gad ]
Levi Levi Levi Levi Levi Judah Gad E: Zebulun Issachar Zebulun Judah Gad [ Manasseh-E ]
Judah Judah Judah Judah Judah Issachar Judah S: Reuben Zebulun [ Levi-G+M ] Issachar Judah Judah
Dan Issachar Issachar Zebulun Issachar Zebulun Issachar S: Simeon Reuben Reuben Zebulun Issachar Simeon
Naphtali Zebulun Zebulun Issachar Zebulun Ephraim Zebulun S: Gad Simeon Simeon Manasseh/Js Zebulun Benjamin
Gad Joseph Gad Dan Benjamin Manasseh/Js Js/Ephraim [ Mid: Levi ] Gad Gad Ephraim Js/Manasseh Dan
Asher Benjamin Asher Gad Dan Benjamin Manasseh W: Ephraim Ephraim [ Levi-K ] Benjamin Ephraim/Js Manasseh-W
Issachar Dan Joseph Asher Naphtali Dan Benjamin W: Manasseh Manasseh Ephraim Dan Benjamin Ephraim
Zebulun Naphtali Benjamin Naphtali Gad Asher Dan W: Benjamin Benjamin Manasseh Asher Dan Zebulun
Joseph Gad Dan Joseph Asher Gad Asher N: Dan Dan Benjamin Naphtali Asher Issachar
[ Benjamin ] Asher Naphtali Benjamin Joseph Naphtali Naphtali N: Asher Asher Dan Gad Naphtali Asher
. . . . . omit: Levi [ Levi ] N: Naphtali Naphtali Asher omit: Levi omit: Levi Naphtali
. . . . . . . . . Naphtali . . omit: Levi

 

Deut 27:12-13 Deut 33:1-29 Josh 13–19 Josh 21:4-8 Judg 5:12-22 1 Chr 2:1-2 1 Chr 2–7 1 Chr 12:24-38 1 Chr 27:16-22 Ezek 48:1-29 Ezek 48:30-34 Rev 7:5-8
Bl-Simeon Reuben Reuben Judah Ephraim Reuben Judah Judah Reuben Dan N: Reuben Judah
Bl-Levi Judah Gad Simeon Benjamin Simeon Simeon Simeon Simeon Asher N: Judah Reuben
Bl-Judah Levi Manasseh-E Benjamin Machir/Manasseh Levi Reuben Levi Levi Naphtali N: Levi Gad
Bl-Issachar Benjamin Judah Ephraim Zebulun Judah Gad Benjamin Aaron ! Manasseh E: Joseph Asher
Bl-Joseph Joseph Ephraim Dan Issachar Issachar Manasseh-E Ephraim Judah Ephraim E: Benjamin Naphtali
Bl-Benjamin Zebulun Manasseh-W Manasseh-E Reuben (neg.) Zebulun Levi Manasseh-W Issachar Reuben E: Dan Manasseh
Cr-Reuben Issachar Benjamin Issachar Gad/Gilead (neg.) Dan Issachar Issachar Zebulun Judah S: Simeon Simeon
Cr-Gad Gad Simeon Asher Dan (neg.) Joseph Benjamin Zebulun Naphtali [ Levi ] S: Issachar Levi
Cr-Asher Dan Zebulun Naphtali Asher (neg.) Benjamin Dan Naphtali Ephraim Benjamin S: Zebulun Issachar
Cr-Zebulun Naphtali Issachar Manasseh-W Naphtali Naphtali Naphtali Dan Manasseh-WE Simeon W: Gad Zebulun
Cr-Dan Asher Asher Reuben . Gad Manasseh-W Asher Benjamin Issachar W: Asher Joseph
Cr-Naphtali . Naphtali Gad omit: Judah Asher Ephraim Reuben Dan Zebulun W: Naphtali Benjamin
. . Dan Zebulun omit: Simeon . Asher Gad omit: Gad Gad . .
. omit: Simeon omit: Levi omit: Levi omit: Levi . omit: Zebulun Manasseh-E omit: Asher . . omit: Dan

Notes on Each Passage:

Meanings of the Names:

Name Meaning in Hebrew Explanation (NRSV translation) Ref.
Reuben "see, a son" Leah: "Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me." Gen 29:32
Simeon shama = "heard" Leah: "Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also." Gen 29:33
Levi lawah = "joined" Leah: "Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons." Gen 29:34
Judah hodah = "praise" Leah: "This time I will praise the Lord." Gen 29:35
Dan "he judged" Rachel: "God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son." Gen 30:6
Naphtali niphtal = "wrestled" Rachel: "With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed." Gen 30:8
Gad "fortune" Leah: "Good fortune." Gen 30:11
Asher "happy" Leah: "Happy am I! For the women will call me happy." Gen 30:13
Issachar sakar = "hire; reward" Leah: "God has given me hire because I gave my maid to my husband." Gen 30:18
Zebulun zabal = "honor" Leah: "God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons." Gen 30:20
Joseph "he adds" Rachel: "May the Lord add to me another son." Gen 30:24
Benjamin "son of the right hand"
or "son of the South"
Rachel calls the baby "Ben-oni" ("son of my sorrow"); but Jacob calls him "Ben-jamin." Gen 35:18
Manasseh "making to forget" Joseph: "God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house." Gen 41:51
Ephraim "to be fruitful" Joseph: "God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes." Gen 41:52

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See also my page on the Family of Abraham.

Maps showing the Twelve Tribes of Israel in the Land of Canaan are available from BibleStudy.org or Bible.ca or other online sources.


Electronic New Testament Educational Resources
The Biblical Resources Page

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