Bible Terms

Bible Term: Tribe

The descendants of Jacob, which later became the nation of Israel, was divided into tribes.

Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (later called Israel) had twelve sons. As the result of deception and competition, they were born to four different women (Jacob’s two wives and their respective maidservants). The descendants of these twelve men would later become known as the twelve tribes of Israel or the nation of Israel.

The sons of Jacob’s first wife, Leah, were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.

The sons of Jacob’s second wife, Rachel, were Joseph and Benjamin.

The sons of Rachel’s maidservant, Bilhah, were Dan and Naphtali.

The sons of Leah’s maidservant, Zilpah, were Gad and Asher.

Later, when the nation of Israel was divided, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin split off, perpetuating the royal line of king David; they were known as the nation of Judah. This is covered in Second Chronicles as well as First and Second Kings.


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.