Twelve Jewish Tribes, Completeness

The number twelve appears in the book of Revelation as the twelve thousand Jews from each of the twelve tribes (Rev. Rev. 7:5-8+, Rev. 14:1+), the woman’s garland of twelve stars (Rev. Rev. 12:1+), the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem named after the twelve tribes and attended by twelve angels (Rev. Rev. 21:12+), the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem named after the twelve apostles (Rev. Rev. 21:14+), the length, breadth, and height of the city being twelve thousand furlongs (Rev. Rev. 21:16+), the twelve pearls at the twelve gates (Rev. Rev. 21:21+), and the twelve fruits of the tree of life, yielding its fruit each month (Rev. Rev. 22:2+).

The primary symbolism denoted by the number twelve is its dominant association with the sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen. Gen. 35:22; Gen. 49:28). Since Israel is God’s elect 1 and Jesus chose twelve apostles,2 it may be that God’s sovereign choice is also reflected in this value. But even in Jesus’ selection of twelve apostles, a direct relationship to the twelve tribes of Israel is intended (Mtt. Mat. 19:28; Luke Luke 22:30).

In the book of Revelation, nearly all occurrences of twelve, with the exception of the fruit of the tree of life (Rev. Rev. 22:2+), are related to the tribes of Israel and reflect the intense “Jewishness” of the book. 3 As we shall see in our discussion of related passages and themes, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the nation Israel is a key to understanding much of what takes place in the book of Revelation. Hence, the preponderance of twelve.

Some have seen twelve as denoting ‘unity in diversity’ in that individuals (the tribes, the apostles) are considered as a unified people of God.4 Still others have found in the number the idea of completeness with the twelve tribes representing all Israel and twelve months representing a complete year.5


1 Ex. Ex. 3:7, Ex. 3:15, Ex. 3:18; Ex. 6:6; Ex. 19:5-6; Lev. Lev. 20:26; Deu. Deu. 4:34, Deu. 4:37; Deu. 7:6-8; Deu. 10:15; Deu. 14:2; Deu. 26:18-19; 2S. 2S. 7:23; 1K. 1K. 8:53; 1Chr. 1Chr. 16:13; 1Chr. 17:21; Ps. Ps. 105:6; Ps. 106:6-7; Ps. 135:4; Isa. Isa. 41:8; Isa. 43:1, Isa. 43:10; Isa. 44:1; Isa. 45:4; Jer. Jer. 10:16; Mtt. Mat. 24:22; Rom. Rom. 9:4; Rom. Rom. 11:5.

2 Mtt. Mat. 4:19; Mat. 9:9; Mark Mark 1:17, Mark 1:20; Mark 2:14; Luke Luke 5:27; Luke 6:13; John John 1:43; John 6:70; John 15:16; John 17:6; Acts Acts 1:2; Rom. Rom. 1:1, Rom. 1:6-7; Gal. Gal. 1:15.

3 Recognition of this very emphasis was a factor which led some to initially oppose acceptance of the book within the canon.

4 “Twelve . . . represents completeness as well as the accompanying idea of unity in diversity, as in the one nation Israel composed of twelve tribes. the twelve apostles mirror the same reality for the people of God in the NT period.”—Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 59.

5 “Twelve is the number of completeness. There are twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles of Christ, twenty-four elders (a double twelve), tree of life has twelve types of fruit (Rev. Rev. 22:2+), New Jerusalem has twelve gates guarded by twelve angels (Rev. Rev. 21:12+), the city has twelve foundations (Rev. Rev. 21:14+). There are twelve precious stones adorning the foundation stones and twelve pearls (Rev. Rev. 21:19-21+). There are also multiples of twelve: Each of the twelve tribes contains 12,000 people, making a total of 144,000 (12,000 times 12); the wall measures 144 cubits (12 times 12).”—Edward Hindson, Revelation: Unlocking the Future (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), 6.