What Are the Twelve Tribes of Israel?

Are the Legendary Tribes of the Israelites Just That?

12 Tribes of Israel
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The Twelve Tribes of Israel represent the traditional divisions of the Jewish people in the biblical era. The tribes were Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh. The Torah, the Jewish Bible, teaches that each tribe was descended from a son of Jacob, the Hebrew forefather who became known as Israel. Modern scholars disagree.

The Twelve Tribes in the Torah

Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah, and two concubines, by whom he had 12 sons and a daughter. Jacob's favorite wife was Rachel, who bore him Joseph. Jacob was quite open about his preference for Joseph, the prophetic dreamer, above all others. Joseph's brothers were jealous and sold Joseph into enslavement in Egypt.

Joseph's rise in Egypt—he became a trusted vizier of the pharaoh—encouraged the sons of Jacob to move there, where they prospered and became the Israelite nation. After Joseph's death, an unnamed Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites; their escape from Egypt is the subject of the Book of Exodus. Under Moses and then Joshua, the Israelites capture the land of Canaan, which is divided up by tribe.

Of the remaining ten tribes, Levi was scattered throughout the region of ancient Israel. The Levites became the priestly class of Judaism. A portion of the territory was given to each of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Menasseh.

The tribal period endured from the conquest of Canaan through the period of Judges until the kingship of Saul, whose monarchy brought the tribes together as one unit, the Kingdom of Israel. Conflict between Saul's line and David created a rift in the kingdom, and the tribal lines reasserted themselves.

Historical View

Modern historians consider the notion of the twelve tribes as descendants of a dozen brothers to be simplistic. It is more likely that the story of the tribes was one created to explain affiliations between groups inhabiting the land of Canaan subsequent to the writing of the Torah.

One school of thought suggests that the tribes and their story arose in the period of the Judges. Another holds that the federation of the tribal groups happened after the flight from Egypt, but that this united group didn't conquer Canaan at any one time, but rather occupied the country bit by bit. Some scholars see the tribes supposedly descended from the sons born to Jacob by Leah— Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun and Issachar—to represent an earlier political grouping of six that was expanded by later arrivals to twelve.

Why Twelve Tribes?

The flexibility of the twelve tribes—the absorption of Levi; the expansion of Joseph's sons into two territories—suggests that the number twelve itself was an important part of the way the Israelites saw themselves. In fact, biblical figures including Ishmael, Nahor, and Esau were assigned twelve sons and subsequently nations divisible by twelve. The Greeks also organized themselves around groups of twelve (called amphictyony) for sacred purposes. As the unifying factor of the Israelite tribes was their dedication to a single god, Yahweh, some scholars argue that the twelve tribes are simply an imported social organization from Asia Minor.

The Tribes and Territories


· Judah
· Issachar
· Zebulun


· Reuben
· Simeon
· Gad


· Ephraim
· Manesseh
· Benjamin


· Dan
· Asher
· Naphtali

Although Levi was dishonored by being denied territory, the tribe of Levi became the highly honored priestly tribe of Israel. It won this honor because of its reverence for Yahweh during the Exodus.

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Gill, N.S. "What Are the Twelve Tribes of Israel?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/twelve-tribes-of-israel-119340. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 26). What Are the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/twelve-tribes-of-israel-119340 Gill, N.S. "What Are the Twelve Tribes of Israel?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/twelve-tribes-of-israel-119340 (accessed June 5, 2023).