Did Israel Always Have Twelve Tribes?
The depiction of the twelve tribes comprising Israel is central to Genesis through Kings. Nineteen of the roughly twenty-six complete or nearly complete lists of the tribes in biblical literature appear in these books. Until the 1980s, most scholars assumed that the descriptions of this twelve-tribe system were historically accurate, and detailed scholarly reconstructions of this tribal league and its institutions were a fixture of scholarly histories of ancient Israel. Over the last few decades, however, against the backdrop of growing skepticism about recreating the early history of Israel based on biblical sources, many scholars now doubt the veracity of the twelve-tribe system, and even whether the earliest version of this tradition assumes the existence of twelve tribes.
Part of the recent skepticism derives from scholars questioning when and how Judah, in the south, and Israel, in the north, began to see themselves as related. In fact, several scholars have suggested that the biblical vision of “Israelite identity” was invented in Judah after the exile of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722, and likely as a way of claiming an Israelite identity that was not really theirs.
Even though most of the tribal lists were composed in Judah only after the fall of Israel, for much of the twentieth century biblical scholars did not see this as problematic since they understood most traditions, especially in the Torah, as little more than a reflection of a much earlier oral literature. But scholars are now beginning to recognize that most twelve-tribe lists are in fact late, Judahite lists, and that the twelve-tribe concept is a late, Judahite idea. Ostensibly contradicting this new model, however, are three tribal lists still treated by many as early compositions: Judges 5, Genesis 49, and Deuteronomy 33.
1. The Song of Deborah: Judges 5
The Song of Deborah in Judges 5, the oldest of all tribal lists according to many scholars, does not present the standard twelve tribes. First, it depicts Gilead and Machir, usually treated as part of the tribe of Manasseh (son of Joseph), as tribes in their own right, no different from the others:
שופטים ה:יד מִנִּי מָכִיר יָרְדוּ מְחֹקְקִים וּמִזְּבוּלֻן מֹשְׁכִים בְּשֵׁבֶט סֹפֵר.
Judg 5:14 From Machir came down leaders, from Zebulun such as hold the marshal's staff.
שופטים ה:יז גִּלְעָד בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁכֵן וְדָן לָמָּה יָגוּר אֳנִיּוֹת
Judg 5:17 Gilead tarried beyond the Jordan, and Dan, why did he linger by the ships?
This song also leaves out the tribes of Judah, Simeon, Levi, and Gad. Not all of these omissions need to have the same cause, but the first three are the tribes most often associated with the region of Judah, and their absence implies that Judges 5 does not consider these southern tribes to be part of its group.
It is possible, however, that the tribes listed in Judges 5 do not give us a comprehensive vision of early Israel, since only the tribes that actually participated in this ancient war, or were expected to, are recalled. Nevertheless, the pattern of ignoring the southern tribes may be at play in another of these tribal lists, that of Deuteronomy 33.
2. Moses’ Blessing: Deuteronomy 33
Deuteronomy 33, which presents itself as Moses’ blessing of the tribes shortly before his death, lists only 11 tribes, excluding Simeon. Thus, this text too does not support the twelve-tribe system. But a closer look at this text helps us recover its prehistory, suggesting that it originally spoke of still fewer tribes.
The first two blessings, for Reuben and Judah, present these tribes as weak and in need, and do not fit the pattern seen in the rest of the blessings:
דברים לג:ו יְחִי רְאוּבֵן וְאַל יָמֹת וִיהִי מְתָיו מִסְפָּר.
Deut 33:6 May Reuben live and not die, though few be his numbers.
דברים לג:ז שְׁמַע יְ־הוָה קוֹל יְהוּדָה וְאֶל עַמּוֹ תְּבִיאֶנּוּ... וְעֵזֶר מִצָּרָיו תִּהְיֶה
Deut 33:7 YHWH, hear the voice of Judah and bring him to his people… be his help against his foes.
All of the other blessings describe the strength of Israel’s tribes. The blessing of Benjamin— יְדִיד יְ־הֹוָה יִשְׁכֹּן לָבֶטַח עָלָיו, “the beloved of YHWH rests in security”—is typical. But Benjamin is the territory just north of Judah, and it is hard to envision a time when it would be sitting in security while Judah was in desperate need of help from its foes. This suggests that the blessings of Judah and of Benjamin were composed in different periods.
The third blessing, of Levi, is an outlier as well. It does not speak primarily about the tribe at all, but about a Levite person, either Moses or Aaron: אֲשֶׁר נִסִּיתוֹ בְּמַסָּה תְּרִיבֵהוּ עַל מֵי מְרִיבָה, “whom you tested at Meribah, whom you contended with at the waters of Meribah.” This blessing is also much longer than all the others except that of Joseph (33:8–11).
The difference between these first three blessings and the other eight suggests that they originated separately from the rest. This offers important evidence that the tradition that both Judah and Israel were “Israel” together is not an early one.
The tribe of Reuben is often grouped with Simeon, Levi, and Judah in other texts, especially in the story that makes these four into Jacob’s four eldest children (Gen 29:31–30:24). This may be related to Reuben’s geographical location, in the southern Transjordan.
This suggests that an original version of these blessings covered only eight tribes: Benjamin, Joseph, Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher. Reuben, Levi, and Judah were added later, and Simeon was not added at all. Something similar may be the case with our final example: Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49.
3. Jacob’s Blessing: Genesis 49
Genesis 49 has, in many different respects, the appearance of an ancient poem. It presents itself as a blessing spoken by the dying Jacob to each of his children in turn, and this framing is evident, for instance, in the blessing of Reuben:
In the “blessings” of the first four sons, Jacob is clearly speaking in the second person. For Reuben, he says:
בראשית מט:ג רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי
Gen 49:3 Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and first fruit of my vigor
This is also evident in the third blessing, of Judah, in which the speaker explicitly refers to Judah as בְּנִי “my son” (49:9). And yet, other parts of the poem, which do not contain direct speech, don’t read well in line with this conceit. Moreover, even the Joseph blessing, which is in the second person, implies that the speaker is not Jacob, since the text refers to Joseph’s father in the third person, as אָבִיךָ, “your father.”:
בראשית מט:כו בִּרְכֹת אָבִיךָ גָּבְרוּ עַל בִּרְכֹת הוֹרַי
Gen 49:26 Your father’s blessings are greater than the blessings of the ancient hills.”
This blessing gives us a hint as to the older form of the blessing, which predates the current narrative framework with Jacob as the speaker. Although it is expressed as direct speech, we do not know who the speaker was meant to have been. If this is correct, then the curse of Reuben and the blessing of Judah should be understood as supplements working with the (later) narrative framing, with Jacob himself as the speaker.
Another possible addition is the curse of Simon and Levi. On one hand, it does work with the same narrative framing as the Joseph blessing. It is presented as direct speech, for example, when the speaker says:
בראשית מט:ה בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי
Gen 49:5 Let me (my soul) not enter their council.
And yet, the “me” is clearly not Jacob, as we can see from the laying out their punishment, where the text refers to Jacob in the third person:
בראשית מט:ז אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל
Gen 49:7 I will divide them in Jacob; I will spread them out in Israel.
This suggests that, like in the Joseph blessing, the original speaker of these verses was not Jacob. Even so, the speech here is unique, since it is negative, which could be taken as evidence that it was added from some other context, and that its placement here is secondary to fill in the list.
If this is correct, then the same four tribes as Deuteronomy 33, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, are additions. The older layer of the poem, which again includes only eight tribes, predates the current narrative framework, as is made clear by the Joseph blessing, which does not read as if it is being given by Jacob.
Looking at Judges 5, Genesis 49, and Deuteronomy 33 together, we see that Judah, Simeon, and Levi are all absent from Judges 5, and that both Gen 49 and Deut 33 ultimately treat the Judahite tribes differently from at least most of the Israelite ones. What is the significance of this pattern? Part of the answer comes from when the texts were written.
The Emphasis on Twelve Tribes in Later Texts
The simple fact of the late debut of at least twenty and perhaps all twenty-three of the other tribal lists tells us quite a lot about the history of tribal traditions. By the late eighth century B.C.E., Israel had been conquered and at least some of the tribes lost. In the sixth century B.C.E., many elite Judahites were exiled to Babylon, to return only after the Persian conquest.
These are the periods during which biblical authors seem to have been most interested in the twelve tribes of Israel. The composition of these lists would have been part of the larger project of Judahites reinventing themselves as “Israel,” but is this the period during which the idea first emerged?
When Did the Idea of a Twelve Tribe Israel Originate?
It is possible that the conception of a twelve-tribe Israel did not first emerge in the Persian period, but is a relic of pre-monarchic times, and that Judah preserved this shared identity while the (northern) Israelite authors of the early poems rejected or ignored it. The “Panisraelite” identity it expresses might also be, in Judah, a relic of the Davidic period, during which, according to the Bible, a Judahite king ruled all of Israel, though the veracity of the biblical account here has been debated in recent scholarship. Alternatively, Panisraelite identity may have developed later, perhaps when Judah was a vassal of Israel, or even after the destruction of the north, when escaping Israelites came to live in Judah.
All of these are possibilities, but I am not sure how important it is to answer this question in order to understand why the idea emerged so prominently in the Persian period. Indeed, the debate about the biblical vision of Israelite identity, considered very generally, has stagnated around this question of origins. Ethnic identity, however, shifts over time. Panisraelite identity would have continued to change in response to new challenges, thus prompting the question as to why this identity emerged so prominently in the Persian period, whether as a new idea or a reinvestment in a pre-existing identity.
Tribes of Israel or Sons of Jacob?
In order to understand why the idea featured so prominently in late texts, we should first take a step back from the development of the concept of twelve tribes and ask about the development of the patriarchal family narrative itself. Were the early tribal traditions linked to traditions about the patriarch Jacob, or did the twelve tribes of Israel and the Jacob tradition originate separately?
Hosea is the only Israelite (Northern) prophet, and he thus offers important evidence of northern figures and traditions. Hosea 12 alludes to traditions about the life of Jacob that are in many ways familiar from the book of Genesis, our main source for Jacob as the father of twelve sons who are the ancestors of Israel’s twelve tribes.
Hosea, however, does not mention Jacob’s children. In fact, all Hosea says about Jacob’s family is,
הושע יב:יג וַיַּעֲבֹד יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאִשָּׁה וּבְאִשָּׁה שָׁמָר
Hos 12:13 Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he watched over (sheep)
Genesis 29–30 depicts Jacob with two wives and two concubines, who produced the children who became the tribes. In contrast to this, almost no tribal lists, and virtually none outside of the books of Genesis and Chronicles, mention Jacob or present him as the literal ancestor of the tribes.
The story of Jacob and his children in Genesis depicts Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah as his four eldest sons. In other words, it makes the three Judahite tribes three of his four eldest children. It is likely that Judahite authors were responsible for the Genesis version of the Jacob story, which elevates these three southern children. Given that there is little evidence outside of Genesis and Chronicles that other authors thought of Jacob as the tribal ancestor, might southern authors have invented the basic concept of Jacob as the ancestor of all the tribes?
Segmented Genealogies: A Greek Tradition
Scholars call the genealogy that makes Jacob the father of twelve sons a “segmented” genealogy, because it follows the descent of several different lines (or segments) at once. The other kind of genealogy, a “linear” genealogy, which traces descent from father to son, mother to daughter, in a single line, is far more common in biblical literature and almost universal in Levantine and Near Eastern literature outside of the Bible. Segmented genealogies, as John Van Seters observed already in the 1990s, are much more familiar from ancient Greek mythology.
This fact has a dual significance. First and most simply, Ancient Greeks were constantly re-organizing and manipulating their genealogical traditions to expand and contract who counted as “Greek” and to use these genealogies to make various kinds of claims.
Genealogy also played a central role in the production of what is called “Panhellenism,” the idea that all Greek-speaking peoples share a singular identity. This idea seems to have first developed in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., and helped to aggregate originally disparate people. This may suggest that the depiction of the twelve tribes functioned similarly and was influenced by this Greek concept.
The possibility that the twelve-tribe model of Israelite identity developed only in later periods, and the possibility that what I call the “tribal-genealogical” version of it developed even later, are, ultimately, mutually reinforcing. When Panhellenism was constructed through the aggregation of regional mythologies, together within an embracing genealogical framework, the result was the creation of a Panhellenic mythology, a way to tell many different stories together, as if they inhabited the same narrative universe.
The Twelve-Sons Genealogy: The Bible’s Adoption of a Greek Concept
In the case of Jacob and his sons, the various narrative collections in Genesis through Kings are not as well-connected as they sometimes seem to be. Few explicit references to the patriarchs appear in the exodus narrative, and fewer still show up in the biblical account of the monarchy, implying that the accounts of the patriarchs may not have been part of all Israelite origin stories. The exodus is seldom mentioned in the Bible’s account of David and Solomon’s lives and reigns, with a few key exceptions that likely come from later periods, and Moses appears only a handful of times. Aaron barely appears in the monarchical histories at all, save in 1 Samuel 12.
What binds all of these stories together, what explains their relationship to each other, is the concept of shared descent from Jacob. Moses is a Levite, David is a Judahite, but both are “sons of Jacob/Israel.” The possibility that the idea of descent from Jacob developed to serve this connective purpose—as descent from Hellen did in ancient Greece—is worth taking seriously.
I return to the three genealogies I began with, which all lack the southern tribes associated with Judah, either in their current or original form. If the twelve-tribe model of Israelite identity developed in Persian period Judah, it did so in part to provide needed connections between disparate parts of the Bible’s vision of the past. It now seems fairly likely that none of the early lists originally included the southern tribes, and their prominent place in the edited version of Genesis 49 shows who was responsible for this new vision of Panisraelite Israel.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 7, 2020
July 29, 2020
Dr. Andrew Tobolowsky is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Arts and Sciences Department of William & Mary University. He holds a Ph.D. from Brown University and is the author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles (Mohr Siebeck, 2017).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series