How Many Tribes Were There in Israel?

Just as we know that Jesus had twelve disciples, we know that Israel had twelve tribes, right?

Jacob (also known as Israel) had twelve sons and each son became a tribe, right? Well sort of.

Even though Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, there is no tribe named Joseph. Instead Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, both became tribes. So that ups the number of tribes to thirteen.

To make things a tad more confusing, the tribe of Manasseh split into two groups, with half receiving territory on one side of the Jordan River and the rest on the other side. Effectively, each half of Manasseh became a tribe. So the number of tribes arguably becomes fourteen.

However, Levi, while a tribe, did not receive a territory (they were assigned cities to live in throughout the nation). So Levi is a tribe without territory. Should we count them or not?

We can go crazy trying to sort this out.

Just as with the question of “How many disciples did Jesus have?” we can best resolve this by understanding that “The Twelve Tribes” was a label, a generic reference, and not a quantifiable amount.

Jesus had “twelve” disciples, symbolically matching the “twelve” tribes of Israel.

The fact that the actual number of tribes and disciples may have been thirteen or even fourteen doesn’t matter; the parallelism of “twelve” connects the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and links the nation of Israel with the salvation of Jesus.

A lifelong student of the Bible, Peter DeHaan, PhD, wrote the 1,000-page website to encourage people to explore the Bible. His main blog and many books urge Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.

By Peter DeHaan

Peter writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and make a faith that matters. Learn more at