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Tribes of Israel

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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TRIBES OF ISRAEL . The number of the tribes of Israel varied at different periods. The number 12 is an artificial one, as is seen from its application to the descendants of Ishmael ( Genesis 17:20; Genesis 25:13-15 ), of Nahor ( Genesis 22:20-24 ), and of Esau ( Genesis 36:15-19; Genesis 36:40-43 ). Simeon and Levi were ‘divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel’ ( Genesis 49:7 ) when the tribe of Benjamin arose, so that at that time there would be not 12 but only 11 tribes. Reuben, likewise, in the period of the kings, was an insignificant remnant, and, though mentioned in 1 Chronicles 5:26 as still existing in 734, had apparently become disintegrated long before. As Stade ( GVI [Note: VI Geschichte des Volkes Israel.] i. 146) correctly remarks, several of the largest tribes Judah, Ephraim, Manasseh, Gad contained many minor tribes which surpassed in number, possessions, and political significance several of those counted in the twelve tribes.

The number of the tribes, according to JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] ’s genealogy (Genesis 29:1-35; Genesis 30:1-43 ), is not 12 but 13, and in the following order:

Leah tribes Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah 4 Bilhah (Rachel) tribes Dan, Naphtali 2 Zilpah (Leah) tribes Gad, Asher 2 Leah tribes Issachar, Zebulun 2 Rachel tribes Joseph = (Manasseh, Ephraim) 2 Benjamin (born in Palestine), Genesis 35:18 1 13 To obtain the number 12 from this scheme it is necessary to omit Levi, or to count Manasseh and Ephraim as one.

Why the number twelve was chosen cannot be answered with certainty. Whether it is astronomical or mythological, i.e. connected with the 12 signs of the Zodiac and the 12 months in the year in which case it would be traceable to Babylonia, as Gunkei suggests in his Genesis (p. 300), and Winckier holds ( Gesch. Israels , ii. p. 57, where he connects the ‘ Zwölf Söhne ’ (Jacob’s) ‘with the Zwölf Monaten ’), or whether it rests upon Solomon’s partition of the land into 12 divisions so that each might provision the royal household one month in the year ( 1 Kings 4:7 ), as Luther thinks ( ZATW [Note: ATW Zeitschrift far die Alttest. Wissenschaft.] xxi. 34), or whether the true explanation has yet to be discovered, cannot be affirmed. The mythological explanation has to the present writer the greater probability in its favour.

The interpretation of the genealogical scheme of JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] , which appeals to be most acceptable to scholars, may be briefly summarized from Guthe, GVI [Note: VI Geschichte des Volkes Israel.] , p. 49 b . Benjamin appears as the last of the sons because this tribe came into existence last of all, and in Palestine ( Genesis 35:16-20 ). Joseph is younger than the others because it entered and settled in Canaan later than Simeon, Levi, and Judah, etc. Evidence of this is found in Judges 1:1 ff., Judges 1:22 ff., and Genesis 34:1-31 , which shows Joseph in possession of the region of Shechem, formerly occupied by Simeon and Levi. The order of arrangement, it would therefore seem, depended upon the author’s view of the time of a tribe’s respective settlement or origin in Canaan. Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher the Canaanite tribes of the concubines who were admitted to union with the other tribes owe their position also to these principles. Excluding Benjamin, who was born in Canaan, and the four tribes descended from the concubines, there remain only seven as extra-Canaanitish. The mothers, Leah and Rachel, represent different tribal groups at the head of which stand respectively Reuben and Joseph ( 1 Chronicles 5:1-2 ). History, however, gives us no record of Reuben’s priority in leadership, but assigns that rôle to Joseph, so that the primacy of the Reuben tribe must go back to an earlier time and to the East Jordan. It is possible that the tribes which entered Canaan under Reuben’s leadership, or during his supremacy, were classed under Leah, while those which followed under the lead of Joseph were classed under Rachel. The position of Issachar and Zebulun indicates that they were later in acquiring a foothold than the four earlier Leah tribes, yet earlier than Joseph. The position assigned to the Bilhah and Zilpah tribes, Guthe thinks, may be explained by their having come into closer relations to Joseph, and to Reuben or the last of the two Leah tribes respectively, and hence their mothers were given as handmaids to Rachel and Leah. This is all suggestive, but no certainty is reached. Reuben’s position (in view of the inferior role of the tribe in historical times) remains as a problem to be solved, and the groupings, e.g. Asher with Gad as Zilpah tribes, despite their wide separation, Issachar and Zebulun with Judah as Leah tribes, are of doubtful import.

James A. Craio.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Tribes of Israel'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​t/tribes-of-israel.html. 1909.
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