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TRIBE (Heb. matteh, rod, staff, tribe, shēvĕt, rod, scepter, tribe, Gr. phylē, tribe). With two exceptions (Isa.19.13; Matt.24.30 kjv) these words always denote a tribe (or the tribes) of Israel. A tribal group comprised all the individuals descended from the same ancestor. As for the Hebrews, each tribe was made up of all the persons descended from one of the sons of the patriarch Jacob. The clan was composed of kinsmen on the father’s side. The heads of the tribes are called “rulers” (kjv) or “leaders” (niv) (Exod.34.31), “heads” (Num.1.16), or “chiefs” (Gen.36.15ff.).

The twelve tribes of Israel (Jacob’s new name given in Gen.32.28) were first mentioned by Jacob in prophecy (Gen.49.16, Gen.49.28). While the Hebrews were in Egypt they were grouped according to their fathers’ houses (Exod.6.14). After they left Egypt the whole company was conceived of as the twelve tribes of Israel (Exod.24.4). The twelve sons of Jacob were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Although they all had a common father, they had four mothers, Leah and Rachel, who were full wives, and Bilhah and Zilpah, who were concubines. The tribes were called by these names. On the breastplate of the high priest were twelve precious stones arranged in four rows; each stone had the name of a tribe engraved on it (Exod.28.21, Exod.28.29; Exod.39.14).

When the Israelites were counted to find out the number of men of war in each group, the tribe of Levi was left out of this census because the Lord selected them to take care of the keeping and transporting of the tabernacle and its furniture (Num.1.1-Num.1.54). The whole encampment of the Israelites was organized at Sinai and each tribe assigned its place in which to march and to camp (Num.2.1-Num.2.34).

The leadership of Judah among the tribes was prophesied by Jacob (Gen.49.10), and this tribe was assigned first place in the order of marching (Num.2.3; Num.10.14). Judah also was the first tribe to bring an offering after the setting up of the tabernacle (Num.7.12).

The withdrawal of the Levites from the group of tribes left only eleven tribes. In the list of leaders from each tribe who were to take the census, the children of Joseph are divided between his two sons to make up the tribe of Ephraim and the tribe of Manasseh (Num.1.10), bringing the total number of tribes back up to twelve.

Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manasseh chose to settle on the east side of the Jordan (Num.32.33). After the land of Canaan was subdued, the land was divided among the nine and one-half tribes (Josh.15.1-Josh.15.63-Josh.19.1-Josh.19.51). Judah was given the first lot and received the largest area of land (Josh.15.1-Josh.15.62). The tribe of Simeon was assigned territory within Judah (Josh.19.1). Judah had all the land west of the Dead Sea and south of Kadesh Barnea. North of Judah were Dan and Benjamin. Ephraim was next to them, Manasseh (half-tribe) was next; then Issachar, Zebulun, Naphtali, and Asher were situated north of the Valley of Jezreel, west of the Sea of Galilee, and northward to the Lebanon Mountains. Part of the tribe of Dan went north and seized some territory just south of Mount Hermon, thus settling the farthest north of all the Israelites (Judg.18.1-Judg.18.31).

During the period of the judges in Israel the tribes were each a law to themselves. The judges’ leadership was sectional. When David became king over the whole land, the twelve tribes were again unified. Jerusalem was conquered and made the capital of the country. There Solomon built the temple. The Lord chose this city as the one place out of all the tribes of Israel where he would put his name (2Chr.12.13). David appointed a captain over each tribe (1Chr.27.16-1Chr.27.22). He also took a census of the tribes (2Sam.24.2). Later, when Elijah built an altar in the contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, he used twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel (1Kgs.18.31).

The unity of the tribes had a tendency to be disrupted into two factions. After the death of Saul, David reigned over only Judah at first (2Sam.2.4) and did not become king of all the tribes until later (2Sam.5.3). After the death of Solomon this same division occurred again: Judah and Benjamin became one nation, the kingdom of Judah, and all the area north of them became another nation, the kingdom of Israel (1Kgs.12.20). This division continued until both kingdoms went into captivity—Israel in 721 b.c. to Assyria, and Judah in 586 to Babylon. These catastrophes wiped out tribal distinctions. The tribes are not mentioned by name again except in the devotional literature of the Psalms and in prophecy.

Jesus says that the apostles of Christ will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt.19.28; Luke.22.30). The Holy City, the New Jerusalem, will have twelve gates, each bearing the name of one of the tribes of Israel (Rev.21.21).——CEH

The origin of the Israelite tribes.

Earlier liberal scholarship, with its unavoidable lack of knowledge about the first half of the second millennium b.c., could conceive of the Patriarchs merely as personifications of tribes, for some of the stories seemed to involve more than individuals. Since then, archeology has shown us that the population of the Fertile Crescent was relatively low at this time, and that it was marked out by the movements of many semi-nomadic groups, most of fairly small size. In addition, it is clear that in the Fertile Crescent the unit of government was, and remained to a much later date, the fortified settlement or city, however much one city or another could establish general control over a wider area. Archeological estimates of the population of Canaanite cities during the second millennium b.c. show that it was seldom over five thousand and often smaller. Under such circumstances, Abraham with his 318 slaves born in his house represented a considerable force, which explains why Melchizedek and Abimelech could deal with him as an equal (Gen 14:17-20; 21:22ff.), and why the elders of Hebron regarded him as “a mighty prince” (23:6). Similarly, when Esau came from Seir to meet Jacob, he had four hundred men at his disposal (32:6), whereas Jacob was strong enough to fight and capture land (48:22).

Under such conditions, the leader of such a group had absolute control over it, but his family, slaves, and such broken and homeless men as might throw in their lot with him were regarded as little more than extensions of his personality. However big or small a patriarchal group at any given moment—Jacob fleeing to Haran was a single individual—Genesis is correct in depicting the decisions made, whether material or spiritual, as those of its head.

As is shown by Lot’s having to leave Abraham (13:1-13), there was a size beyond which such a semi-nomadic group could not grow, unless it settled down as tillers of the soil. The same process would inevitably have taken place in Jacob’s family, if he had not gone down into Egypt. As it was, he had to divide his flocks (37:12, 17). In Egypt, even if Jacob’s sons and their descendants had wished to separate, the permission under which they had entered the country would not have allowed it; in addition, even then there was no room in Egypt for semi-nomadic groups. Passing references (Exod 3:22; 11:2) show that at least most of the Israelites had adopted a settled life, and that many were living intermingled with Egyptians. Although the twelve tribal groups regarded themselves as independent units, they were held together by a common origin, situation, persecution, and hope. 1 Chronicles 7:20ff. shows how independent action at the time was possible.

For the history and development of the various tribes, cf. articles under tribal names.

Tribal organization.

The anarchist’s ideal, lack of leadership and organization, has never existed, even among the most primitive of peoples. The mention of “the elders of Israel” (Exod 3:16; 4:29; 12:21, etc.) shows that the Israelites never became a mere mob of slaves in Egypt; they preserved a living tradition and code of behavior from their ancestral past. It has often been shown that the Sinaitic legislation, social and religious, is based on ancient Fertile Crescent patterns, though transformed and purified. The passages relied on to deny this (viz. Exod 18:13-26; Deut 1:9-18) point another way. Much of the organization introduced by Moses at Jethro’s suggestion was clearly military and to meet the needs of bringing the tribes unitedly through unknown and difficult desert country. On the judicial side, the purpose was prob. mainly to help people from different tribes and no tribe (the “mixed multitude” of Exod 12:38) to live together in peace under novel, demanding circumstances.

The בֵּית אָב, though normally rendered “father’s house,” really means “family” (so NEB), “which comprised not only the father, his wife or wives and their unmarried children but also their married sons with their wives and children, and the servants” (R. de Vaux). Breaches of the law and customs within the family, provided they were not calculated to bring down the divine wrath on the wider community, were the sole concern of the family head. The whole force of the story in 2 Samuel 14:4-11 derives from this fact. Only where the head of the family could not enforce his authority (Deut 18:21), was it referred to the elders of the city. It is clear that Gideon’s father is held responsible for his son’s behavior (Judg 6:28-32).

A number of families formed a מִשְׁפָּחָה, H5476, which KJV misleadingly renders “family”; RSV sometimes and NEB more frequently have the preferable “clan.” A number of clans formed a tribe, cf. “In the morning come forward tribe by tribe...clan by clan...family by family” (Josh 7:14 NEB). A division of the clan, which seems to have been little used, when the historical books were compiled, was the אֶ֫לֶף, H547, (Judg 6:15; cf. Mic 5:2, RSV, NEB). It seems to have covered the inhabitants of one city, whose normal contribution to the tribal militia was about a thousand, the predominant later meaning of the word.

So far as the evidence available allows one to judge, this simple system proved adequate in the early centuries of Israel’s life in Canaan. It had only one major inadequacy. As soon as a man passed beyond the borders of his own tribe, he had no rights beyond those given to the גֵּר, H1731, the resident alien. The force of the tragic story in Judges 19-21 is that the wronged Levite had no way of obtaining justice, if the leaders of Benjamin refused it (20:12f.). There was no middle way between allowing open evil to have its way and fighting.

Intertribal organization.

Ever since 1930, when M. Noth published his Das System der zwölf Stämme Israels, there has been a general willingness on the part of a majority of OT scholars to recognize that Israel’s early tribal organization could be called an amphictyony, although there are few who are prepared to accept his views in all their details.

The term amphictyony is taken from Gr. history and covers a system there and in Italy by which a number of unconnected tribes joined together to maintain and protect a common sanctuary. “Early Israel was neither a racial nor a national unit, but a confederation of clans united in covenant with Yahweh. This covenant both created her society and held it together” (Bright). The central sanctuary of the confederacy was at Shiloh for most of the period of the Judges. The old critical view that there was no central sanctuary has been decisively disproved, but it is clear that it was not an exclusive one. It is generally accepted that representatives of the tribes met at the sanctuary at the three pilgrim feasts and possibly at a special covenant festival. It will have been on these occasions that intertribal disputes on the personal or group level were dealt with.

The story in Judges 19-21 is to be understood from this viewpoint. The refusal to give justice to the wronged Levite meant quite simply that Benjamin was trying to opt out from the amphictyony, and the other tribes evidently felt that this was equivalent to apostasy, a renunciation of Yahweh.

The manner in which this tribal confederation worked is perhaps best illustrated in Judges 5. The campaign against Sisera is presented as a religious one. At the same time there was no method by which compulsion could be exercised. Those tribes that did not respond to the call to fight were regarded as failing Yahweh rather than Israel. When Meroz, however, is mentioned (5:23), it is bitterly cursed. The reason is that it lay within the area of one of the participating tribes, prob. Naphtali, and therefore its holding back was treason both to God and the tribe.

The later development of the tribes.

The destruction of Shiloh and its sanctuary by the Philistines (Jer 7:12; though there is no explicit statement that it was by the Philistines, archeology states that the date of destruction is from this period) was carried through to demonstrate that the amphictyony was dead, as it no longer had its sanctuary. To this must in large measure be ascribed the neglect of the Ark that followed, for it was the symbol of the confederation.

Saul’s method of summoning the militia against Nahash (1 Sam 11:7) seems to have been the old amphictyonic method (cf. Judg 19:29), and there are other signs that he considered he was in some way continuing it. His neglect of the Ark, however, shows that he was conscious that an irreversible change had been made. Judah’s unilateral action after Saul’s death (2 Sam 2:4) and the northern tribes’ lack of enthusiasm for Ish-bosheth and Abner (2:8f.) show that they did not feel committed by what had happened in the anointing of Saul. It is clear, too, that the mention that the tribes of Israel’s chose David (5:1) shows that they were still acting as independent entities. Though David tried to recreate the amphictyony by the importance he gave to the Ark, the unity he created was centered on his own person. On the death of Solomon, the northern tribes were acting entirely legally when they refused to accept Rehoboam as king. Thereafter, however, the ever increasing power of the king and his court made local and tribal autonomy of decreasing significance. Jezebel might use the forms of the judicial past (1 Kings 21:8-14) to achieve her ends, yet it was clearly a meaningless shadow compared to court power.

This erosion of tribal independence began with Solomon’s division of the country into twelve administrative districts, which, though they did not depart widely from the tribal boundaries, were yet willing to ignore them (1 Kings 4:7-19, cf. ICC ad loc.). Another factor was the breaking down of local life, partly due to its domination by the rich, so often denounced by the prophets, and partly by the development of a royal judiciary (cf. 2 Chron 19:4-11). By the time of the return from Exile, many had forgotten their genealogies and knew only the places from which their ancestors had come, as may be seen from the list in Ezra 2. No stronger indication is needed that the tribes as living organizations had ceased to exist. Also, a number of slaves had gradually been absorbed into the people; for them the old tribal system was a meaningless tradition.

Tribes in the NT.

A considerable portion of the Jewish people in NT times were descended from the forced conversions by John Hyrcanus (Jos. Antiq. XIII. ix. 1) and Aristobulus I (Antiq. XIII. xi. 3) and from large numbers of proselytes. The result was that those who really knew their genealogy prob. were a minority. Too much stress is generally laid on Josephus’ account (Jos. Life I. 1; Apion I. 7), for in both cases he is writing about the priests. Cases like Anna (Luke 2:36) and Paul (Phil 3:5) show that when tribal origin was known, it was treasured.

The term “the twelve tribes” (of Israel) is used either of the Church as the people of God (James 1:1), or of all (Acts 26:7) or of eschatological Israel (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; Rev 7:4; 21:12). The NT seems to be completely unconcerned about the fate or whereabouts of the “lost” ten tribes. Israel is used throughout as a synonym of Jew, stressing that he belongs to God’s people, or for the true spiritual remnant within Jewry (Rom 9-11).

When a tribe is used in non-Jewish or non-Christian contexts, it means simply a racial or political subdivision without any more exact force.

Tribes in later Judaism.

The rabbinic writings in general recognize priests, Levites, members of the tribe of Judah, and those of no tribe. The Standard Jewish Encyclopedia is correct in stating, “It is improbable that the genealogy of any Jewish family today can be demonstrated authentically beyond the late Middle Ages.” Even those who claim to be of priestly family, it must in many cases remain a matter of presumption.

Popular orthodoxy still expects the “lost” northern tribes to reappear, but this is an eschatological expectation, and there is no concensus as to where they may be found.


L. Köhler, Hebrew Man (1953) Eng. tr. (1956); M. Noth, The History of Israel (Eng. tr.2 1959); J. Bright, A History of Israel (1960, 1972); R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1958, 1960, Eng. tr. 1961); A. Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (various dates, Eng. tr. 1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)