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Location of Tribes

TRIBES, LOCATION OF. For the concept of tribe in Israel, cf. article Tribe.

Sources of information.

The main information about the tribal portions is found in Joshua 13-21. Some of the information can be checked, mainly for the spelling of place-names by 1 Chronicles 4:24-5:26; 6:54-81; 7; 8. Whatever views are held of the date and composition of Joshua, wherever scholars have been able to free themselves from the bondage of the Graf-Wellhausen theory, it has been generally accepted ever since the work of M. Noth and A. Alt that the tribal boundaries are very ancient. The geographer has been able to show that with a few exceptions the boundaries so given conform to the natural divisions of the land. In some cases the places named have not been identified and therefore the interpretation of the information is not always certain.

History of tribal divisions.

For reasons that are not given, the tribal portions of Judah (Josh 15; 16) and of Ephraim and half-Manasseh (ch. 17) were allocated in advance. The portions for Reuben, Gad, and half-Manasseh had been allocated already by Moses from the land conquered E of Jordan (Num 32; Deut 3:12-22; Josh 13:8-32). The remaining land was divided into seven portions that were apportioned by lot (Josh 18:11-19:46). The tribe of Levi was granted only sixty-one cities with their “common lands” (NEB), of which thirteen were for the priests (Josh 21). The division was made in advance of complete conquest, and so some of the boundaries remained an ideal, and some of them were never achieved.

The Trans-Jordan tribes

The limits of Canaan.

The main divisions of Trans-Jordan.

The River Arnon, flowing into the Dead Sea about mid-distance between the N and S ends, was always the southern boundary of Israelite territory. All S of it was Moab, whether it was independent or subject to Israel. The next effective boundary to the N was the wadi Heshban (not mentioned in the Bible), N of Heshbon. Of little importance in itself, it marks the northern end of the tableland, where the broken hills of Gilead begin. Gilead stretches N to the River Yarmuk (not mentioned in the Bible), and is divided in two by the River Jabbok. North of the Yarmuk lies Bashan (cf. Deut 3:10). Since these divisions are not very great and the eastern tribes were owners of cattle, and hence semi-nomadic, the frontiers between the Trans-Jordan tribes were constantly fluid.


Reuben received the tableland between Heshbon and Aroer, on the edge of the Arnon valley, i.e. the former kingdom of Sihon (Josh 13:15-23). Fourteen cities in all are mentioned, but Dibon and Aroer (Num 32:34), Reubenite towns, are mentioned as in the hands of Gad; Ataroth was prob. also in this area. It would seem that Reuben was not able to hold its territory for long, for the last mention of its effective presence is in Judges 5:16 (1 Chron 5:26 is hardly a contradiction of this). Mesha, king of Moab, mentions Gad on the Moabite stone, whereas Reuben does not appear. There are indications that some Reubenites may have moved into Judah and Benjamin.


Gad’s tribal portion lay between Reuben and the Jabbok, but it took in the Jordan valley as far as the S of the Sea of Galilee. Eleven cities are mentioned (Josh 13:24-28), but Mahanaim seems to have been shared with Manasseh (13:29). Ramoth-gilead, which was in the area of Manasseh, is said to belong to Gad (20:8; 21:38). The overlap in this case was in part due to the fact that northern Gilead was very thinly populated at the time of the Conquest, being largely covered with forest.

Half-Manasseh (Machir).

The descendants of Machir, Manasseh’s eldest son, were given their portion E of Jordan (13:29-31). It included N Gilead (Havvoth-jair, NEB) and Argob (Deut 3:13). It is far from clear how its territory was occupied. If Judges 5:14 is taken literally, Machir was still W of Jordan at that time. The details of the expeditions of Jair and Nobah (Num 32:41, 42; cf. Deut 3:14) suggest later activity than the defeat of Og.


The gibe mentioned in Judges 12:4 may very well mean that a considerable number of Ephraimites had filtered across the Jordan and found homes in the wooded district N of the Jabbok in the area near Zaphon (Judg 12:1).

Tribes without stated boundaries.

For three tribes, cities are mentioned but no, or few, boundaries are indicated. The reason seems to be that they were never able to consolidate their hold on their land, so that when the territory finally came into effective Israelite control, it was incorporated into other tribes.

Simeon (Josh 19:1-9; 1 Chron 4:28-33).

It is clearly stated that their nineteen settlements were within the territory of Judah. Not all can be identified, but they all fell into the NW Negeb. It is probable that Ziklag (1 Sam 27:6) was not the only one to come under Philistine rule. The statement that these places remained Simeonite “until David reigned” (1 Chron 4:31) prob. implies that their dispersion (4:34-43) began then, leading to the vanishing of the tribe as an entity. It may have been partly due to a period of drought, which would be particularly felt in the Negeb (cf. 2 Sam 21:1). In the list of Judean administrative districts, cf. V, 2, the Simeonite towns are simply listed as Judean.

Issachar (Josh 19:17-23).

The tribal portion clearly lay in the Plain of Esdraelon and the valleys running down from it to the Jordan, but only its northern border, separating it from Naphtali and Zebulun, is indicated. No clear northern boundary is given for Manasseh (17:10, 11), cf. VI, 3, but it is stated that it controlled a number of places in Issachar and Asher (apparently only Dor). These were all Canaanite strongholds, which were first made tributary by Manasseh and then absorbed by it. Issachar held only the weaker places (Josh 19:17-21), at first doubtless under sufferance, and prob. at the price of tribute (cf. Gen 49:14, 15).

Dan (Josh 19:40-48; Judg 18:27-29).

It might be thought that Dan’s boundaries are not given, because those of its neighbors have already been described. The southern border of Ephraim (Josh 16:5, 6) reads as though it took in the coastal portion of Dan. Of the eighteen Danite cities mentioned (19:40-46) five sites have not been identified, six appear as Judean elsewhere, one as Benjaminite, and six as Ephraimite. Though there is no reason to suppose that all members of the tribe moved to Dan in the N (19:47), it is clear that most of its territory fell into the hands of the Philistines, and then, as these were driven back, the area was incorporated into its neighbors. A large portion of it appears in two of the Judean administrative districts, cf. V, 2. The history of the tribe was continued in this small area at the far N of the Jordan valley; strictly it belonged to Naphtali, but it was isolated from the remainder of its territory by the marshes of the Huleh basin.

Judah (Josh 15)

The documents.

The description of Judah’s boundary and territory is very much more detailed than that of any other tribe. Whereas the boundary description is early, there are very clear indications that the list of cities (vv. 21-62), must be considerably later. In LXX v. 58 is followed by eleven names in northcentral Judah including Bethlehem and Tekoa, which have been rightly included in NEB. A careful use of 1 Chronicles 2-4 will throw some light on Joshua 15.

Judah’s administrative districts.

Since the pioneering work of A. Alt scholars have come to general agreement that Joshua 15:21-62 gives the list of the twelve administrative districts of Judah after the division of the kingdom, though there are disagreements concerning the identity of one of the districts and the date of the list. Alt dated it in the time of Josiah; Cross and Wright preferred the time of Jehoshaphat; Aharoni first suggested the time of Uzziah, but now prefers that of Jehoshaphat. Archeology, however, will apparently not permit a date before the 9th cent.

The boundaries of Judah (Josh 15:1-12).

Though some of the places mentioned have not been identified, there are no real problems in tracing the boundary. The S boundary was the southern limit of settled population, and indeed much of the southern part remained semi-nomadic until the reign of David, if not longer. The W boundary was the Mediterranean, which took in all of what was to become the Philistine country. This was an ideal, which was never fulfilled in OT times. The northern ran SW N of Ekron, dividing Judah from Ephraim (Dan had migrated) and then along the line of the Sorek to Timnah; it then went NNE to the N of Kiriath-jearim. From there it ran ESE S of Nephtoah to take in the valley of Rephaim and the valley of the son of Hinnom. Finally it passed through the wilderness of Judah S of Jericho to the Dead Sea, which formed its eastern boundary.

Simeon’s portion

(cf. IV, 1). The abandonment of part of Judah’s territory to Simeon is explained in Judges 1:3. Judah evidently felt that its manpower would be too widely spread over what was the largest tribal area, except perhaps that of Machir (III, 5). The area placed at Simeon’s disposal, however, was shrewdly chosen by Judah as being most open to pressure from the coastal plain.

The central tribes


Ephraim, half-Manasseh, and Benjamin occupied the central hill country, which forms a clearly marked physical unity, with the territory of Benjamin forming the link with the Judean hills. The transitional nature of the Benjaminite territory is seen in the fact that under the divided monarchy the frontier between N and S ran almost all the time through Benjamin and not along the Ephraimite border; this has left its mark on the Benjaminite city list in Joshua 18:21-28 (cf. VI, 4). The paucity of detail about Ephraim and Manasseh may be compared with a similar attitude in 1 Chronicles 7:14-29; it expressed the conviction of Scripture that these two tribes moved out of God’s will. No indication is offered why the house of Joseph had a prior claim to its territory.

Ephraim (Josh 16).

Apparently, Ephraim received the less attractive portion of the central area, since its height is repeatedly referred to as “the hill country of Ephraim.” In the long run, however, it was prob. a gain for them and one of the reasons for their early prominence in Israel. Owing to its wooded nature (17:15), it was very thinly settled, the only Canaanite cities in their portion being Bethel (cf. Judg 1:22-26) and Gezer, on the edge of the plain (Josh 16:10). They were able to consolidate their position, while other tribes were still struggling. This prob. explains how they were able to infiltrate into Manasseh (16:9) and also to capture the Canaanite city of Tappuach, though Manasseh had occupied its lands (17:8). Its southern border started at the Jordan N of Jericho and ran fairly due W, passing to the S of Bethel and on to the sea. In the N, its territories stretched to near Shechem; from here the boundary ran SE to near Jericho and SW along the wadi Qanah. In other words, it had no real footing on either the Jordan or the sea. In the list of Levitical cities (cf. VIII), Shechem is given as Ephraimite (Josh 21:20, 21) thus suggesting further infiltration.

Manasseh (Josh 17:1-13).

Manasseh was intended to occupy not merely the northern part of the central hill country, but also Sharon and the northern Jordan valley. In fact (cf. IV, 2), it found itself facing a line of unconquered Canaanite fortresses that controlled Esdraelon and the passes over Carmel. As it first made them tributary and then merged them in its territory, it found that it had encroached heavily on the territory of Issachar and to a much less extent on that of Asher (17:11-13). The fact that the lead against the Midianites was taken by Gideon, a Manassite, rather than by a member of the tribe of Issachar, which was most heavily involved, is typical of the position. Indeed, so heavily had they been ground down, that they are not even mentioned in the story of Gideon.

Benjamin (Josh 18:11-28).

Benjamin was the worst sufferer from Israel’s pact with the Gibeonite tetrapolis (ch. 9) and from Judah’s failure to deal adequately with Jerusalem (Judg 1:8), for these cities lay within the boundaries allotted to it. This may well have been the grievance that led to Benjamin’s desire to leave the Israelite amphictyony and the disaster reported in Judges 2 and 21. It was not merely Benjamin’s weakness, but also its centrality that made Saul’s kingship politically acceptable. The only explanation that carries conviction of the division of the Benjaminite cities into two groups is that Joshua 18:21-24 gives the cities that were incorporated into Israel, vv. 25-28 those that were incorporated into Judah at the division of the kingdom. When Jerusalem was captured by David, it became royal property instead of reverting to Benjamin.

The northern tribes (for Issachar see IV, 2; for Dan, IV, 3)

Zebulun (Josh 19:10-16).

The description of Zebulun’s boundary begins with Sadud (Sarid) in its SE extremity and follows the Kishon W to near Jokneam. The western boundary ran W of Galilean Bethlehem and took in most of Lower Galilee within its northern stretch until it turned almost due S to Mt. Tabor and then back to Sarid. This was an area with no Canaanite cities of importance. Zebulun seems to have been able to capture it all and then hold it effectively.

Asher (Josh 19:24-29).

Because of the uncertain identifications of many of Asher’s cities, it is impossible to trace the boundary given in some of its parts. The mention of Dor (Josh 17:11) as belonging to Asher shows that its territory extended into the coastal plain S of Carmel. Since, however, Dor is not mentioned in ch. 19, it is likely that the factual boundary lay along the northern slopes of Carmel. Then its eastern boundary was that of Zebulon and Naphtali. Its northern section is far from clear. Inland it ran as far N as Sidon and then seems to have reached the coast just S of Tyre. It may be questioned, however, to what extent Asher was able to maintain its hold on the coast, though Judges 5:17b shows that for a while the sea coast was in fact its boundary.

Naphtali (Josh 19:32-34).

Naphtali’s border is traced eastward from Heleph, in all probability at the foot of Mt. Tabor to the Jordan just S of the Sea of Galilee. It was a natural line, that of the wadi Fajjas. For the western border the boundaries of Zebulun and Asher are given. The eastern is the upper Jordan, and no northern border is suggested. Since Dan was able to establish itself N of Huleh, apparently without protest from Naphtali, cf. IV, 3, it would seem that Naphtali had never tried to push past the Huleh marshes, and it prob. never established itself as far as the Litani River.

The Levitical Cities (Josh 21:1-42; 1 Chron 6:54-81).

Though there are considerable differences between the list of Levitical cities in Joshua and 1 Chronicles, Albright can say,

With the aid of the Greek...we can eliminate nearly all the differences between the lists in Joshua and Chronicles. The two or three remaining apparent divergences may be plausibly excised by simple textual changes of well-known types.

In his list so established, he is able to divide the forty-eight cities evenly among the twelve tribes. He has given strong reasons for thinking that the lists come from the time of David. Both archeology and known history make it almost impossible to move them back into the time of Joshua, unless one follows Y. Kaufmann and sees it as a utopian forecast. Alt pointed out that most of these cities are located either in frontier areas or in such as had been Canaanite. The Levites were intended to have a religious influence esp. where the standard of religion was low. Certain premonarchical stories suggest that in the troubled period after the conquest no effort had been made to provide the Levites with the homes and means of livelihood that had been promised them.


G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1894, 25th ed. 1931); A. Alt, Judas Gaue unter Josia (PJB, 1925, in Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel II, 1953); A. Alt, Das System der Stammesgrenzen im Buche Josua in Sellin-Festschrift (1927, in Kleine Schriften I, 1952). J. Garstang, Joshua, Judges (1931); W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1942, 3rd ed. 1953); A. Alt, Festungen und Levitenorte im Lande Israel (1952, in Kleine Schriften II, 1953); M. Noth, Das Buch Josua2 (1953); F. M. Cross and G. E. Wright, The Boundary and Province Lists of the Kingdom of Judah (JBL 75, 1956); L. H. Grollenberg, Atlas of the Bible (1956); Y. Kaufmann, The Biblical Account of the Conquest (1953). G. E. Wright and F. V. Filson, The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible5 (1957); D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957); Z. Kallai-Kleinmann, “The Town Lists of Judah, Simeon, Benjamin and Dan,” Vet Test VIII (1958); Y. Aharoni, “The Province List of Judah” Vet Test IX (1959); Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (Heb. 1962, Eng. tr. 1966).