Just Who Were the 12 Tribes of Israel and What Happened to Them?

Contributing Writer
Just Who Were the 12 Tribes of Israel and What Happened to Them?

Whether you are new to your Bible or not you have probably heard about the twelve tribes of Israel. The Old Testament is really God’s plan for the coming Messiah and his use of the nation of Israel to complete that plan. The tribes were essential to everything God did because they made up the nation of Israel. They were also important because that is how you were identified within the nation of Israel.

So, who were the 12 tribes of Israel? This is a full question that honestly would take more than one article to completely flush out. However, we can establish a solid framework to build on, so let’s do just that.

Who Were the 12 Tribes of Israel?

To understand who the 12 tribes of Israel were you need to consider the history of the nation. To make it simple, it begins in Genesis 12 when God makes a promise to Abraham.

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

Within this promise to Abraham God declared that he would become a great nation. At this time Abraham did not have any children and he could not because he was old and his wife was barren. Yet as God always does, he kept his promise which led to the birth of Isaac. Later in life Abraham did have other children, but the promise God made flowed through Isaac. 

Isaac eventually married Rebekah and gave birth to two sons, Esau and Jacob. To shorten the story, Jacob was the son through whom the promise flowed. It was Jacob that eventually gave birth to 12 sons who were the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Those sons were:

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

Here is what Genesis 49 tells us.

“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him” (Genesis 49:28).

If you fast forward in the history of the nation of Israel, you will later see that the people of the nation were identified by which tribe they belonged to. What you will also discover when you get to Numbers is that there seems to be some variation that needs further explanation.

In listing the tribes in Numbers 1, you will see that Levi is no longer counted among the tribes and the tribe of Joseph is represented by Ephraim and Manasseh. What happened?

The tribe of Levi, or the Levites, became the tribe that carried the priestly line. They were responsible for the priestly duties and God chose not to number them along with the other tribes.

“The ancestral tribe of the Levites, however, was not counted along with the others. The Lord had said to Moses: ‘You must not count the tribe of Levi or include them in the census of the other Israelites. Instead, appoint the Levites to be in charge of the tabernacle of the covenant law—over all its furnishings and everything belonging to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; they are to take care of it and encamp around it” (Numbers 1:47-50).

What Happened to the Tribe of Joseph?

As I mentioned earlier, the tribe of Joseph in Numbers 1 is represented by Ephraim and Manasseh. Does this mean that Joseph’s tribe was split in two, representing 13 tribes instead of 12? No these two tribes represented the two sons born to Joseph while he was in Egypt. However, as you read in Genesis 48, Jacob in essence adopted them as his own and they were given the same blessing as Jacob’s other sons. Here is what Jacob said:

“Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine” (Genesis 48:5).

This helps explain why when you get to Numbers 1, Ephraim and Manasseh are listed as representing the tribe of Joseph. These two half tribes made up the tribe of Joseph.

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How Are the 12 Tribes of Israel Connected to Jesus?

There is a very important promise that God initially made to Abraham in Genesis 12.

“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3, emphasis added).

How would it be possible that all the families or peoples of the earth would be blessed through Abraham? The reason this makes sense is because the nation of Israel, specifically the tribe of Judah, formed the lineage connected to the birth of Jesus. When you read Matthew 1 you will see this genealogy listed out.

As you know it is the death and resurrection of Jesus, whose earthly lineage is of the tribe of Judah, that brought salvation to all mankind, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Genesis 12. All the nations, peoples and families of the world have been blessed through Abraham’s lineage because of Jesus. 

Also mentioned in Genesis 49 is Jesus as the lion. This is mentioned again in Revelation when Jesus is referred to as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. 

“I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals’” (Revelation 5:4-5).

Where Do We See the Tribes Mentioned Throughout the Bible?

All throughout the Old Testament, knowing the 12 tribes of Israel was always of importance. Often it would be used to identify a person’s lineage. Let me give you two examples.

“But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel” (Joshua 7:1).

“There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Bekorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin. Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:1-2).

This identity did not stop with the Old Testament. There were some references in the New Testament, one by the Apostle Paul.

“Though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:4-5).

small group Bible study

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Why Are the Tribes Important?

While there are many answers to this question, I want to focus on just one. To do this, let’s not look back to who the 12 tribes of Israel were. Let’s look forward to see the importance as we move closer to the Lord’s return.

During the period of the Great Tribulation there will be 144,000, 12,000 from each tribe of Israel, who will be sealed and who will carry the message of the Gospel during this period.

“Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: ‘Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.’ Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel” (Revelation 7:2-4).

My goal here is not to go into the significance of the 144,000 but to show as a reminder that the prophecy of Genesis is being fulfilled even through the Great Tribulation. These who are sealed will be preaching God’s plan of redemption even in the midst of horrific circumstances. Giving all mankind another opportunity to receive the hope in Jesus Christ. This will create another opportunity for all the people of the world to be blessed through Abraham’s offspring. 

I hope this has given you a small introduction to who the 12 tribes of Israel were. As I said at the beginning, there is a lot more that could be written. Hopefully now when you read your Bible going forward some of the names, titles, and genealogies will make a little more sense.

Photo credit: Pexels/Oladimeji Ajegbile

Clarence Haynes 1200x1200Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. Clarence is also committed to helping 10,000 people learn how to study the Bible and has just released his first Bible study course called Bible Study Basics. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com

This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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