The Twelve Tribes of Israel by Andrew Tobolowsky

Between Gen 29:1-30:43 and Gen 35:16-18, the patriarch Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. By the end of Genesis, these twelve sons have become the eponymous ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. From that point on, the twelve tribes of Israel are the main protagonists of the Bible’s visions of history. These tribes are the ones that Moses leads out of Egypt, that wander through the wilderness together, that conquer Canaan with Joshua, and that, ultimately, divide the promised land between them. They are the ones that are ruled, if fitfully, by the titular figures of the book of Judges and then by Saul, David, and Solomon during Israel’s United Monarchy. In 1Kgs 11:1-12:33, the kingdom of Israel splits into two, Israel and Judah, never really to be united. In 2Kgs 17, Israel, and not Judah, is conquered by the Assyrians, with the apparent loss of many of the tribes into exile. Still, the twelve tribes of Israel remain at the center of the biblical account, not just of Israel’s history, but of who “Israel” fundamentally is.

History or Myth?

How scholars think about the twelve tribes of Israel, both as a historical institution and as a tradition, has changed as scholars have reconsidered the reliability and antiquity of biblical traditions more generally. Over the course of the last century or so, scholars have broadly given up on the historicity of almost every era in which the tribal organization is supposed to have been the dominant political structure: the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and the conquest of Canaan. Since the 1930s, many scholars have argued that there were twelve tribes of Israel, but that they formed only in Canaan and only in the few centuries before the rise of monarchy in Israel, not in Israel’s more remote prehistory. These reconstructions, even of the premonarchical period, are often very different from anything the Bible describes, but they do affirm both the antiquity and the basic reliability of the twelve tribes tradition to some degree.

More recently, however, even these comparatively modest arguments have faced serious challenges from those who wonder whether the “all Israel” identity embodied in the tribal concept ever actually existed in early periods. Increasingly, scholars realize it is possible that Israel and Judah were never actually unified, and some have argued that the belief that they were developed only in Judah, sometime after the Assyrian conquest. Others merely point out that the available evidence does not support the existence of so powerful or so organized an entity as the biblical twelve tribes of Israel in early periods and argue instead for something smaller and looser—whether it included the ancestors of both Israelites and Judahites or not. Either away, while scholars still generally believe that early Israel was a tribal society, many now wonder whether the biblical account of the twelve tribes represents an idealized or even invented vision of early Israelite realities, emerging only in relatively late periods.

An Israelite idea or a Judahite idea?

Today, scholars are increasingly reassessing the importance of certain facts about the composition of biblical tribal traditions that have long been acknowledged but rarely appreciated. In short, not only were the main biblical accounts of the Israelite past generally shaped in Judah after the fall of Israel, the vast majority of descriptions of the tribes of Israel must be included in this category. On the one hand, there are still descriptions of tribal Israel that scholars believe to be very early, including Gen 49 (the so-called “Blessing of Jacob”), Deut 33 (the “Song of Moses”), and Judg 5 (the “Song of Deborah”). The continuities between these texts and the rather voluminous corpus of later, Judahite traditions reveals the deep antiquity of some aspects of the twelve tribes concept and, likely, of tribal realities.

On the other hand, these continuities are neither so significant nor so prevalent that they are really capable of demonstrating the early existence of the familiar twelve tribes tradition itself or the institution to which they refer. In fact, the opposite case seems increasingly easy to make. For one thing, of the three aforementioned lists, only Gen 49 even mentions twelve tribes. For another, the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Levi are the ones most often regarded as the tribes of the kingdom of Judah—though some have argued that Benjamin should be included in this group—and Judg 5, generally considered to be the oldest tribal text in biblical literature, does not include any of them. Deut 33 is also missing Simeon, and long before the historicity of the twelve tribes concept was seriously challenged, some had argued that Levi and Judah might have been added to the original text and that the blessings of all of Judah, Levi, and Simeon in Gen 49 may have been part of another poem originally. Meanwhile, outside of the Bible, there are virtually no references to the tribes—individually or as a whole—in the historical record save perhaps for a reference to Gad in the Mesha Stele, a Moabite inscription from the ninth century BCE. Still, scholars are careful about what conclusions they draw about the ancient world from poor or absent evidence, and they will no doubt continue debating the origins of the twelve tribe concept for quite some time.

Andrew Tobolowsky, "The Twelve Tribes of Israel", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:



Andrew Tobolowsky
Assistant Professor , William & Mary

Andrew Tobolowsky is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies department at William & Mary. He is the author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles: The History of the Tribal System and the Organization of Biblical Identity (Mohr Siebeck, 2017).

The twelve tribes of Israel tradition plays a central role in the Bible’s definition of Israelite identity but may or may not reflect early Israelite realities.

Did you know…?

  • There are roughly twenty-six lists of the tribes of Israel in biblical literature.
  • Nineteen lists appear between Gen 29 and Judg 5, and lists appear in each book between the Genesis and Judges except for the book of Leviticus.
  • The books of Chronicles begin with nine chapters recapping the history of ancient Israel and Judah, largely in the form of a massive tribal genealogy.
  • In 1930, Martin Noth was the first to suggest that while Israel had originated as a twelve tribe league, this had only happened in Canaan, and only a few centuries before the rise of monarchy.
  • A majority of tribal lists mention Judah, Simeon, or Levi—the tribes most often associated with Judah—at or near the top, and these three are among Jacob’s four eldest sons—reasons to suspect the Judahite origins of the familiar tribal concept.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Gen 29:1-30:43

Jacob Meets Rachel
29 Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. 2 As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flock ... View more

Gen 35:16-18

The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel
16 Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, ... View more

1Kgs 11:1-12:33

Solomon’s Errors
11 King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from th ... View more

2Kgs 17

Hoshea Reigns over Israel
1In the twelfth year of King Ahaz of Judah, Hoshea son of Elah began to reign in Samaria over Israel; he reigned nine years.2He did wh ... View more

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

Judges 5, a poetic account parallel to Judges 4 and attributed to the prophetess and judge Deborah.

Gen 49

Jacob's Last Words to His Sons
1Then Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.2Assemble and ... View more

Deut 33

Moses' Final Blessing on Israel
1This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death.2He said:
The Lord came from Sin ... View more

Judg 5

The Song of Deborah
1Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:2“When locks are long in Israel,
when the people offer themselves willingly— ... View more

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