The Twelve Tribes

This is a brief excerpt from the larger book I’m writing at the moment. Thought it might be interesting for anyone who hasn’t noticed before the nuances of how the tribes are counted, ordered, and mentioned in varying contexts.

The “Twelve Tribes” of Israel

The tribes are always described as 12, even though the composition of that 12 is sometimes different. Prior to the Egyptian captivity, the 12 tribes were simply the “sons of Israel” (genealogies reckoned in 1 Chronicles 2):

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Asher, Gad, Joseph, Benjamin.

Before Israel (the man) dies, he blesses Ephraim and Manasseh (the two sons of Joseph) and declares them to be considered fully sons of Israel for all purposes, including individual inheritance of land (Gen 48:5-6). So at the time of the Exodus, there were 13 tribes:

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Asher, Gad, Benjamin, Manasseh, Ephraim.

After the Exodus, Levi is set aside as the tribe devoted to God for the purposes of the functions of priesthood and Moses is told not to list them nor count them among Israel (Numbers 1:49). The tribes are now 12 again:

Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Asher, Gad, Benjamin, Manasseh, Ephraim.

This composition is how the twelve tribes were counted for the rest of Israel’s history through the diaspora for the most part. Ezekiel’s vision of a future temple (Ezekiel 47 and on) includes land grant designations by tribe which follows the same tribe composition as above. However, the same vision includes twelve gates (three on each side) that follows the “sons of Israel” designation where Levi is included as a tribe and Manasseh and Ephraim are subsumed into Joseph.

The Book of Revelation adds to the mystery by having an entirely different composition when it refers to 12,000 from each of these tribes:

Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin.

This accounting includes Levi and gives Manasseh individual designation separate from Joseph. Most importantly, Dan is completely missing. Interestingly, Dan is one of two places where Jeroboam put one of the major idols he used to prevent the people of his ten tribes from going to Jerusalem for required yearly duties before the temple and priests. Dan is also the subject of an ominous prophecy in this regard:

[Amo 8:13-14 ESV] 13 “In that day the lovely virgins and the young men shall faint for thirst. 14 Those who swear by the Guilt of Samaria, and say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’ and, ‘As the Way of Beersheba lives,’ they shall fall, and never rise again.”

This pattern is interesting, given the potential parallels between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles of the Lamb. Initially, twelve apostles are chosen, and Judas Iscariot is among them. Judas betrays Jesus and hangs himself in the Potter’s field (remember Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Zechariah’s prophecies about the clay being marred in the Potter’s hands). That leaves eleven. A twelfth is chosen by lot (Matthias) and Acts 1:26 records him as being “numbered with the eleven apostles.” The verse says he was numbered with them – it’s perhaps another question whether Matthias was genuinely an apostle. He is never again mentioned in the New Testament. Later on, Saul of Tarsus becomes an apostle (he is never explicitly called an apostle except in his own letters). That’s 13, if Matthias is to be considered authentic.

But Revelation only recognizes twelve “Apostles of the Lamb”:

[Rev 21:14 ESV] 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

It’s also interesting that Catholicism derives authority for its Bishops from the lineage of the “twelve apostles”, and that Peter is given a particular status as the Vicar of Christ. Perhaps he is given a special consecration to God the way Levi was, returning us to 12 tribes and a priestly tribe?

Anyhow, the sum of this information is to convey that there are similar dynamics with the twelve tribes of Israel as there are with the twelve apostles, and that should be kept in mind when analyzing them.

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