How Many Tribes of Israel Are There?

2 minute read

As I was putting together the latest batch of numbers in Revelation, I ran into a problem: how many tribes of Israel are there?

You’d think this would be an easy question to answer, given the Bible’s obsession not only with the tribes but with the number twelve. But it turns out it’s not always as easy as you’d hope.

The twelve tribes are named at least nineteen times in Scripture. Here are some of the significant ones:

  • When the patriarchs of the tribes are born (Genesis 30, except Benjamin, who isn’t born until Genesis 35)
  • When Jacob blesses his sons (Genesis 49)
  • When Moses blesses the tribes (Deuteronomy 33)
  • When Ezekiel sees the gates of the city (Ezekiel 48)
  • When John lists the twelve thousand sealed from each tribe (Revelation 7)

These lists are, incredibly, not consistent in order or in number.

What happened?

Well, Jacob has exactly twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

He also has at least one daughter, named Dinah (Genesis 30:21), and probably many more.

After Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, he has two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. When Jacob and his family come to Egypt to escape the famine, Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons as his own, bringing the total to fourteen.

God sets apart the tribe of Levi for the priesthood, so Levi is left off of the lists of censuses (Numbers 1, 26), offerings (Numbers 7), camp arrangements (Numbers 2), marching orders (Numbers 10), spies (Numbers 13), and land grants (Numbers 34) throughout Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness.

Just before they finish their journey, Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh elect to stay outside the Promised Land, on the other side of the Jordan, because their flocks and herds are so large. (Moses only permits them after they promise to provide military support to the tribes that do cross the river.) Therefore, Reuben and Gad are also left off the land grant.

So far, so good, but then it gets weird.

When Moses blesses the tribes, he includes Joseph and both of his sons, but leaves off Simeon. When David takes his unwise census of Israel, Gad is excluded.

Ezekiel’s vision of the city of God includes Jacob’s original sons, but John’s vision of the same thing, hundreds of years later, adds Manasseh and leaves off Dan.

Finally, of the nineteen lists of the tribes of Israel in the Bible, only three have the exact same order: the arrangement of the camp around the tabernacle in the wilderness; the order of first offerings at the tabernacle; and the marching order when the nation moves.

All of the rest are different.

Why do you think the orders are different? What happened to Simeon, Gad, and Dan? If you think you know, please get in touch.