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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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From the earliest times the nation of Israel was divided into various tribes, the number invariably being given as twelve. Conflicting opinions have been held as to how these tribal divisions arose, the traditional theory being that the different families descended from the sons of Jacob multiplied till they formed tribes. Others take the view that the history of the sons of Jacob is really a history of the various tribal communities which were combined to form the nation, and that the divisions were to a large extent geographical. In the lists of the tribes, as we find them in the OT, considerable variations are to be found, and frequently the tribes descended from Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) have to be regarded as one in order to make the number twelve. Some of the tribes seem to have disappeared at an early date or were absorbed into larger communities, and the divisions tended more and more to become geographical. After the return from the Exile many members of other tribes probably came to Jerusalem along with Jews strictly so called, i.e. those belonging to the ancient tribe of Judah. Most of these returned exiles came to be regarded as members of the tribes of Judah or Benjamin, although some may have been able to trace their descent from a distinguished member of another tribe, and others determined their tribe from the locality which they left at the Exile. No doubt many members of the priestly caste were in a position to claim their descent from the tribe of Levi.

In the NT we have few allusions to any of the tribes, with the exception of Judah and Benjamin, which were always more or less closely associated. Anna the prophetess, however, is stated to have belonged to the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36), and Barnabas is described as a Levite (Acts 4:36). The apostle Paul, a Jew brought up in the Roman province of Cilicia, claims to belong to the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1, Philippians 3:5). The fact that Jesus was connected with the royal tribe of Judah is frequently mentioned, and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews calls attention to the fact in order to bring out the uniqueness of Christ’s Priesthood (Hebrews 7:13-14). In the same way the writer of the Apocalypse calls Him the ‘lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Revelation 5:5).

In NT times the conception seems to have been general that Israel even at that date still consisted of twelve tribes. Thus in Acts 26:7 Paul, in addressing king Agrippa, uses the phrase ‘our twelve tribes’ as synonymous with ‘Israel.’ But just as the term ‘Israel’ came to be employed in a spiritual and Christian sense as the true people of God, so the expression ‘twelve tribes’ is used to signify Christian believers generally. Thus James (James 1:1) addresses his Epistle to ‘the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.’ In Revelation 7:4 ff. the writer speaks of the sealing of the servants of God. We are told that one hundred and forty and four thousand of ‘all the tribes of the children of Israel’ are sealed, and then follows a list of twelve tribes each furnishing twelve thousand. The tribes enumerated are Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. The remarkable features about this list are the substitution of Joseph for Ephraim, and the omission of Dan, which seems to have fallen into disrepute at a comparatively early date. The fact that the writer has taken over a Jewish apocalypse and worked it into a Christian setting makes it difficult to settle who exactly are meant here by the servants of God who are sealed in their foreheads. Are the ‘servants of God’ of Revelation 7:3 identical with the ‘multitude’ of Revelation 7:9 ‘whom no man can number’? Can this be the case when the sealed are numbered so definitely? If not, who then are the sealed? Are they faithful Jews of the OT dispensation, or are they Jewish Christians, and are the Gentile Christians not to be sealed? The first suggestion is impossible, as the sealed are evidently still on the earth. The view that Jewish Christians are the sealed, while possible, is unlikely, as the whole trend of the Apocalypse is to identify Christians as the true Jews, the Israel of God. Probably, in spite of all difficulties, the same persons are indicated in both passages, and neither the numbering of the sealed nor the reference to the various tribes of Israel is to be taken literally. The servants of Revelation 7:1-8, who are safeguarded on earth, are the innumerable multitude of Revelation 7:9-17, viewed after their martyr death under a definitely Christian light. The OT imagery of the sealing is used to express the thought that God’s faithful people are numbered and protected on earth to the last individual, while the subsequent vision (Revelation 7:9-17) points to their glory in heaven. For our writer as for James (James 1:1) and Paul (Galatians 6:16) the true Israel consists of Christian believers (cf. J. Moffatt, Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Revelation,’ London, 1910, p. 395).

W. F. Boyd.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Tribes'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​t/tribes.html. 1906-1918.
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