Counting the Tribes
The tribes are always described as twelve, though the composition of that twelve is sometimes different. Prior to the Egyptian captivity, the twelve 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 twelve 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 (but not Ephraim) individual designation separate from Joseph. Most importantly, Dan is completely missing. At the time of Solomon, Dan is one of two places where Jeroboam put the idols he used to prevent the people of his ten tribes from going to Jerusalem for required yearly duties before the temple and priests.
Thus, there are significant 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 thirteen, 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.
Catholicism derives authority for its bishops from the lineage of the “twelve apostles”, and Peter is given a particular status as the Vicar of Christ.
It is important to delineate how the tribes were separated and why that affected Israel’s history. The tribes are parallel to the twelve apostles and the pattern of the twelve informs the progression of Israel’s kingdom. Because of this, they also inform the progression of the church’s structure.
There were twelve original disciples and eventually twelve “Apostles of the Lamb” and of the twelve Peter was one of the few pre-eminent disciples. Not all of the disciples participated in the most important events of Jesus’ ministry and not all of them were mentioned much, if at all, in the writings of the New Testament. Only Peter, James, and John were present at the Transfiguration. Only John and Peter were present during the trial, and only John was present at the crucifixion. Peter and John were the ones who ran to the empty tomb. Paul’s words form a large portion of the New Testament canon measured in number of books contributed, yet he was probably absent for all those events.
Similarly, of the twelve tribes, only scant mentions of the acts of some of the tribes remain. There were a few pre–eminent tribes such as Judah, Ephraim, Levi, and Benjamin, whose acts are more prominently featured in the stories of the Old Testament. Those tribes can be considered the pre–eminent ones, particularly Judah and Ephraim.
As Peter was referenced in apostolic succession as the “Bishop of Rome,” so too Judah rose among the twelve tribes, paired with Ephraim in terms of rulership:
[1Ch 5:1–2] 1 The sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel, so that he could not be enrolled as the oldest son; 2 though Judah became strong among his brothers and a chief came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph),
This trend of Judah’s preeminence and Joseph’s unique responsibility to Israel continued in the Exodus, as Caleb (of the tribe of Judah) and Joshua (of the tribe of Ephraim) were the only men born in Egypt to enter the promised land. Rome was given significance in the early church because it was the place of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. The “You are Peter, and upon this rock…” statement of Jesus cemented Peter’s unique stature among the twelve, along with Peter’s forthrightness and boldness. Judah had a similar stature, cemented not only by his boldness, but by the words of Israel:
[Gen 49:10] 10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
Moses’ blessing upon the tribes before his death was more complimentary of Joseph, particularly Ephraim:
[Deu 33:13–17] 13 And of Joseph he said, “Blessed by the LORD be his land, with the choicest gifts of heaven above, and of the deep that crouches beneath, 14 with the choicest fruits of the sun and the rich yield of the months, 15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains and the abundance of the everlasting hills, 16 with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwells in the bush. May these rest on the head of Joseph, on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers. 17 A firstborn bull––he has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall gore the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth; they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.”
Given the heritage of Israel, competing claims for dominance over the tribes – exemplified by Jeroboam’s rebellion – seems more natural with these verses in mind. This “chief tribes” arrangement seemed prior to the fact to be quite unclear in differentiating who was in charge: Judah or Ephraim. Some verses emphasize the primacy of Judah, some emphasize the primacy of Joseph or Ephraim. This is strikingly like the words regarding papal supremacy in the early history of the church:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre–eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.[i]
One wonders what those in Samuel’s era, versed in the words of Moses, thought when Saul of the tribe of Benjamin was made king. It made worldly sense; Saul looked the part of a king. However, Benjamin has no prophetically endorsed ruling authority in the words of Israel or Moses. Benjamin had also been decimated during the time of the Judges. They may have believed that Benjamin didn’t have a real claim to the throne; luckily, Samuel had tremendous authority throughout Israel. Some dissenters’ words are recorded in the verses about Saul’s beginnings:
[1Sa 10:25–27] 25 Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home. 26 Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched. 27 But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.
When Saul fell in battle, David was a natural option as successor given his fame and quickly captured foothold in Hebron, the city Caleb took as part of his inheritance, not to mention the fact that Samuel had already anointed him for the job as a young man. David had spent a long period of time in enemy lands to avoid Saul’s attempts to kill him. David’s next goal was to consolidate authority to himself in such a way that he could reasonably unite all of Israel without having to exercise all-out war against Benjamin, who Israel still followed. Gradually, he won Israel over for the most part, although questions of authority surfaced early in Solomon’s reign and after Solomon’s death.
Paul came later than the original twelve apostles (minus Judas) and was among the apostles by a different dispensation than the eleven, as Ephraim son of Joseph son of Israel was a tribe of Israel by a different dispensation than the other sons of Israel. When Israel blessed Ephraim and Manasseh, he said:
[Gen 48:5–6] 5 And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. 6 And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance.
Practically, this meant Ephraim and Manasseh were counted as part of the twelve tribes of Israel, not merely sons of Joseph. So, there is great significance that Paul the Apostle was not a direct witness to the ministry of Jesus yet was converted by Jesus’ appearance and was a crucial figure in Rome with Peter, and they two comprised the preeminent figures which laid the groundwork in Rome – no less than Caleb and Joshua had done in the land of Israel pre–unification.
The split possession of preeminence and the birthright between Judah and Joseph became punctuated when Ephraim and nine other tribes separate themselves from Judah to form the Northern Kingdom of Israel (later headquartered in Samaria). What followed this fracture was disastrous for Israel and exposed Judah’s and Israel’s separate vulnerabilities to conquest by other nations.
David was of the tribe of Judah, and Judah’s traits as the patriarch of the tribe are very human, for good or for evil. Judah was embarrassed by mistaking Tamar for a prostitute in the affair involving Er and Onan. The largest black mark on David’s career, the Bathsheba incident, was not without precedent in his ancestry.
Judah prefigures David as well as Christ. When Joseph was the second ruler of Egypt, he had imprisoned Simeon and placed an obligation upon the visiting sons of Israel who were seeking to purchase food: Benjamin must come with them upon their return or they will not see Joseph’s face. Jacob refused to let his sons go back to Egypt to buy more food out of fear that Benjamin would die, presumably because he was the only other son through Rachel (Israel thought Joseph dead at this point). Judah promises Jacob that he would bear the shame forever if he did not bring Benjamin back, and Israel consents.
Before revealing himself to them, Joseph tricks his brothers and forces them to leave Benjamin there; Judah responds by offering himself up to save his father’s heartache at the loss of Benjamin, a powerful, selfless act by Judah that showed that he cared more about his father than his squabbles with his brothers from a different mother. This move cracks Joseph, causing him to reveal himself to his brothers. Likewise, David committed plenty of his own sins, but God described him as “a man after my own heart,” and in many ways his refusal to kill Saul and seize power by his own hand or cut off all of Saul’s house once he had obtained power signals the way in which he was very different from rulers of his era and from future kings of Northern Israel, who usually had ascended by subterfuge or direct violence.
[i] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Chapter III. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iv.html