What Are the Twelve Tribes of Israel?
The 12 Tribes of Israel were named after the sons and grandsons of Jacob. Jacob, named “Israel” by God (Genesis 32:28; 35:10), had 12 children with his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and his concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah. The names of Jacob’s sons were Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, and Levi. The tribes are named after ten of Jacob’s sons, all except for Joseph and Levi. Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are named as the final two tribes. Levi is not named as one of the 12 Tribes of Israel; however, Levi is the Tribe of the Chosen, set apart from the others as God’s Tribe.
The Names of the 12 Tribes
Nearing the end of his life, Jacob names each tribe after ten of his sons and two of his grandsons: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. From his deathbed, Jacob goes into detail about each tribe, sharing his blessings and prophecies for their descendants: “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him” (Genesis 49:28)
Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob. The Hebrew name Reuben translates to “Behold a son!” The birth of Reuben was exciting for his mother Leah, who felt that Jacob loved Rachel more than her (Genesis 29:16-17). Leah believed that this child would make Jacob love her as much as he loved her sister (v. 32). The symbol used for the tribe of Reuben, described by Jacob as “my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength” (Genesis 49:3), is either a rising sun or a blossoming plant.
In Hebrew, the name Simeon means “to be heard.” One of the notable Bible stories about Simeon is found in Genesis 34. After his sister Dinah was defiled, Simeon and his brother attacked and killed the men of an entire city to avenge her. The symbols of his tribe are a gate and a sword. The sword is used because Simeon used a sword when he slaughtered the men of Shechem. The gate is also used because it symbolizes the gate located on the road between Shechem and Jerusalem.
The tribe of Judah was the first territory established in the land of Israel, and it occupied the southern part of the Holy Land. After settling south of Jerusalem, Judah quickly became one of the most powerful tribes in Israel. Known as the Tribe of Kings, Judah has many notable biblical descendants, including King David, King Solomon, and Caleb, as well as Mary and Jesus in the Christian Bible. In Hebrew, Judah (Yehuda) means “praise” and is often symbolized as a lion.
The fifth son of Jacob, Dan’s name translates to “God is my judge” in Hebrew, as the Tribe of Dan was known for its judges and laws. In fact, one of the most prominent judges of Israel, Samson, descended from the Tribe of Dan. The tribe is often symbolized as the scales of justice or as a snake, the latter the result of Jacob’s blessing for his fifth son: “Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backward” (Genesis 49:17).
Both Naphtali and Dan shared Jacob and Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah as their birth mother. Jacob’s sixth son was born when Rachel and Leah were still competing with each other for his love. As a result, Rachel named Bilhah’s second son Naphtali, which means “I have prevailed” or “to win through wrestling” in Hebrew. Jacob blesses Naphtali with words of beauty, saying he is “a doe let loose” (Genesis 49:21), thus the Tribe of Naphtali is symbolized by a gazelle running.
Settled into territory east of the Jordan River, the Bible describes the Tribe of Gad as “brave warriors, ready for battle and able to handle the shield and spear” (1 Chronicles 12:8). The name Gad means “warrior” in Hebrew, and this tribe is symbolized by a military tent, for those who protected the borders of Israel, traced back to Jacob’s blessing for his seventh son: “Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels” (Genesis 49:19).
Genesis tells us of the birth of Jacob’s eighth son, whose name means “happy” and “blessed” in Hebrew: “Then Leah said, ‘How happy I am! The women will call me happy.’ So she named him Asher” (30:13). Jacob blesses Asher, telling him that his “food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king” (Genesis 49:20). An olive tree is the symbol for the Tribe of Asher, assigned by Joshua to territory near Galilee known for its fertile land and olive trees.
The Tribe of Issachar is symbolized by a donkey, after Jacob’s biblical blessing: “Issachar is a rawboned donkey, lying down among the sheep pens. When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor” (Genesis 49:15-15). Known for their wisdom and foresight during the reign of David, tribesmen from Issachar are described in the Bible as “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Zebulun, another son of Leah, was born after Issachar. Derived from the word “zabal” in Hebrew, his name means “to dwell” and is symbolic of Leah’s hope that a new son would find Jacob dwelling with her instead of her sister Rachel. The most common symbol for the Tribe of Zebulun is a ship, after Jacob’s blessing that says this son “will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships” (Genesis 49:13).
Manasseh and Ephraim
Both Ephraim and Manasseh are the sons of Joseph and the grandsons of Jacob. Ephraim and Manasseh are often called the “two half-tribes of Joseph” since Joseph is not listed as one of the tribes. The name Manasseh, Joseph’s first son, means “one who forgets.” While this may sound negative, Joseph named his son Manasseh “because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Genesis 41:51).
In his blessing of the two sons of Joseph, Jacob “put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh” (Genesis 48:20). The name Ephraim means “fruitful, fertile, and productive,” which Joseph chose “because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Genesis 41:52).
In Hebrew, the name Benjamin translates to “son of my right hand.” In his biblical blessing, Jacob called his youngest son “a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder” (Genesis 49:27), so a ravenous wolf is the symbol of the Tribe of Benjamin. King Saul and Mordecai were a couple of the most famous tribesmen from this tribe also known for standing against all of Israel during the civil war (Judges 20:14-21:24).
Levi: God’s Chosen Tribe
The Tribe of Levi is often not listed among the 12 Tribes of Israel. However, it is a tribe, but is set apart from the other 12 as “God’s Chosen Tribe.” In Hebrew, Levi means “attached” or “joining,” and is the one tribe that did not join in worshipping the golden calf the Israelites created when Moses was on Mount Sinai.
What Are the Lost Tribes of Israel?
Today, ten of those 12 tribes are considered to be the Lost Tribes of Israel. How is it possible to lose entire groups of people? To answer that question, we need to have a brief history lesson. Following the death of King Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms—the northern kingdom, called Israel; and the southern kingdom, known as Judah. The tribes of Reuben, Simon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, and half the tribe of Manasseh made up the northern kingdom. Benjamin and Judah made up the southern kingdom.
The 10 Lost Tribes of Israel
In 722 B.C.E., the kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, and according to Scripture, many of the Israelites were deported and scattered in foreign lands: “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, in Gozan on the Habor River and in the towns of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6). Unfortunately, those from the northern tribes have not been heard from since.
Where Are the Lost Tribes of Israel Today?
Theories abound as to the location of the “lost” ten tribes. According to the Encyclopedia of Judaism, a wide range of non-Jewish tribes and groups claim descent from the Israelites, such as sections of the Nigerian Yoruba tribe in Africa. Groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan have sub-tribal names such as Reubeni (Reuben), Efridar (Ephraim), and Ashuri (Asher), suggesting that they come from the biblical lost tribes of Israel.
The Jewish historian Favlius Josephus (37-100 CE) wrote in his book Antiquities of the Jews, “There are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers.”
Stories of the recent discovery and return to Israel of the Bnei Menashe—the Jews living in India—and the Jews of Cush, or Ethiopia, support the idea that Jewish exiles to the north migrated to the “four quarters of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12), just as the Bible prophesied. And as Scripture also foretells, God “will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people” (v. 11).
Bnei Menashe: The Children of Manasseh
Today, a tribe called Bnei Menashe (Hebrew for “Children of Manasseh) lives in the northeastern part of India. Believed to be the descendants of the Tribe of Manasseh, they began making aliyah (immigrating) to Israel 15 years ago, with The Fellowship helping this lost tribe return to their biblical and historic homeland.
Beta Israel: Ethiopian Jews
Ethiopian Jews known as Beta Israel are one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Yet, for hundreds of years there was little to no knowledge that there were Jews in Ethiopia. The world quickly turned its attention to Beta Israel when famine broke out in North Africa in the 1980s, pushing these Jews to seek asylum. As a result, Ethiopian Jews left Sudanese refugee camps and made aliyah to Israel in a series of covert missions now known as Operation Moses.
Ethiopian Jews and many others believe that Beta Israel are descended from the Tribe of Dan. This theory was also believed by famed ninth-century traveler and philologist, Eldad ha-Dani, who believed the Tribe of Dan decided to leave Israel when the Kingdom of David split and went to the land of Cush. In Isaiah 18, it is also prophesied that Jews would move to and live in the land of Cush, which is present-day Ethiopia.
Biblical Prophecy: Jews Returning to Israel
Jews from the former Soviet Union, Africa, India, South America, and elsewhere around the globe are returning to Israel — some returning with help from the generous donations of Christians through The Fellowship’s On Wings of Eagles ministry. God is bringing back His people to their homeland.
As we witness biblical prophecy being fulfilled and see firsthand God’s mighty work in and through His people, we can be encouraged that the Holy One we worship is faithful to all His promises. We can look forward to the day when, according to Zechariah 8:13, Judah and Israel will no longer be a curse among the nations, but a symbol and “a blessing.”
Discover how you can help bring God’s children back to their biblical homeland through The Fellowship.
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