The Tribes Of Israel


Numbers 1


Israel is comprised of twelve tribes – the descendants of each of the twelve sons of Jacob make up one tribe each – sort of. Some of the sons of Jacob were fascinating: Judah for instance – “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh [Jesus] comes.” – Genesis 49:10. Some had no personality whatsoever: ““Bread from Asher shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties.” – Genesis 49:20. And that is why we never remember Asher.


But each of the twelve sons of Jacob heads a tribe, except for Levi, whom we will soon find out gets no land, but rather is assigned to live among the people of the other twelve sons that do get land. And somehow the number stays at twelve, and does not reduce by one.


Jacob made no secret that Joseph was his favorite son. A popular song goes, “Joseph’s mother she was quite my favorite wife; Never really loved another all my life. And Joseph was my joy becuz he reminded me of her.” Jacob’s preference for Joseph was so profound that Jacob adopted Joseph’s two oldest sons to be his own: “And now your two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine.” – Genesis 48:5. Not only did he adopt them, but he gave them the status of being Jacob’s oldest two sons. And while I’m on the topic of reversing birth order, Manasseh is the older, and Ephraim is the younger. Yet Jacob preferred Ephraim.


So the twelve tribes of Israel are headed by 1) the ten sons of Israel not named Joseph or Levi; plus 2) Ephraim and Manasseh. There is no tribe of Joseph – the two tribes are collectively called the House of Joseph. Each of these twelve tribes gets a portion of land in Canaan – sort of. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with a divided opinion from the tribe of Manasseh, requested of God that they receive land from the wilderness. And God granted their request. The 2˝ tribes “received in themselves the penalty of their error.” Sometimes God punishes you by granting you (imposing irrevocably upon you) exactly what you requested.


When the nation of Israel divided north and south, Judah became the head tribe of the south, and the southern kingdom was called the nation of Judah. The nation Judah included the land assigned to Judah and Benjamin, and the Levites themselves migrated to Judah. In narrative, the nation-name Israel was transferred to the northern kingdom. But in prophetic writings, the tribe of Ephraim stepped forward as the head tribe of the north, and the nation is known as Ephraim. And so the two nations, Judah and Ephraim, coexisted for three hundred years.


A peek ahead will disclose that Moses will send one representative from each tribe to deliver a report on the state of Canaan. Ten came back with the recommendation that Moses abandon his journey. The minority report was delivered by Joshua and Caleb: Joshua of the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleb of the tribe of Judah. The tribe that would bear the Messiah, and the tribe onto whom Jacob imputed the status of the eldest.


Except for some claimed preservation of the line of Levi, the lineages are essentially lost today. When Israel is at last regathered, there will be some re-establishment of the tribal distinctions. I don’t know how they will determine who is of what tribe, God knows. But we know that something divinely directed will take place between now and then. For in the final roll call of the twelve tribes, Dan and Ephraim are not included. And though Manasseh is included as a tribe, Joseph gets his own tribe. And so does Levi. Revelation 7:4-8. The one constant throughout is that there are twelve.


Sometimes it’s not black and white. Sometimes it’s red and yellow and green and brown and blue.


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