The twelve tribes of Israel are named after the twelve sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin . Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim , also became tribes of Israel. The Levi tribe did not receive an inheritance like the others.
After an encounter with God, Jacob had his name changed to Israel. Just as their descendants became known as the people of Israel, the descendants of each of their sons became tribes with their names. When they conquered the region, each tribe received a portion of the land of Israel.
The twelve tribes were:
Reuben was Jacob’s first son , who he had with Leah. Despite being the eldest son, Rúben did not receive the eldest son’s right to be the next head of the family and to receive a larger inheritance. He lost that right because of his sin. Reuben had relations with one of Jacob’s concubines, dishonoring his father ( Genesis 49: 3-4 ).
In the 40 years in the desert, some men from the tribe of Reuben rebelled against Moses and Aaron and were punished by God. Later, the Reuben tribe decided to stay on the east side of the Jordan River, but helped the other Israelites to conquer the rest of Israel under Joshua.
Discover the history of the people of Israel here.
Simeon was Leah’s second son. Along with Levi, he killed all the men in the city where his sister had been raped. The tribe of Simeon did not have great notable men.
Another son of Lia, Levi was a violent man. However, the tribe of Levi was chosen by God to be a tribe consecrated to serve God. Only the tribe of Levi could work in the care of the temple ( Numbers 3: 6-8 ).
Moses, Aaron and Miriam were from the tribe of Levi. Aaron’s descendants became the priests of Israel. Because of their consecration to God, the Levi tribe did not receive land of their own, being scattered throughout the country.
Read the story of Moses here.
Judah was Leah’s fourth son. It was he who had the idea of selling José as a slave and, on another occasion, he was tricked and slept with his daughter-in-law.
Judah became the largest tribe of Israel and, later, a separate kingdom. King David and his descendants were from the tribe of Judah and God promised that the Savior would come from that tribe ( Genesis 49:10 ). As a descendant of David, Jesus was from the tribe of Judah.
See also: Jesus, the lion of the tribe of Judah – what does that mean?
Dan was Jacob’s first son with his concubine Bila. The tribe of Dan was small and was known for its violence and idolatry.
Naphtali was Bila’s second son. Barak, the military leader at the time of Judge Débora, probably came from Naphtali.
Gad was the son of Jacob’s other concubine, named Zilpa. The Gad tribe also settled east of the Jordan River, along with the Reuben tribe. Some brave warriors of Gad joined David when he was still at large, before he was king.
Aser was Zilpa’s second son. The Asher tribe received a portion of the land of Israel but was unable to expel several of the other peoples who lived in their territory.
Issachar was Leah’s fifth child, which she had after a while without being able to have children. The Issachar tribe produced an Israeli judge, named Tolá , who led the country for 23 years.
After Israel was divided into two countries (Israel and Judah), a man from Issachar, named Baasa, conspired against the king of Israel and killed him ( 1 Kings 15: 27-28 ). Baasa became king but did not obey God. His son and successor was short-lived as king and was also murdered.
Zebulun was Leah’s last son. After having Zebulun, Leah had a daughter named Dinah and stopped having children. Elom, who led Israel for ten years, came from the tribe of Zebulun.
His mother Raquel’s first son, José was his father’s favorite , because he was born when Jacob was old. Because of this, his brothers hated him and one day sold him as a slave. Joseph spent several years as a slave in Egypt but then he was used by God to save all people from hunger!
See the story of Joseph of Egypt here.
Joseph became very powerful and became the head of his family after Jacob died. Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons, granting them equal rights in inheritance with Joseph’s brothers ( Genesis 48: 5 ). Thus, Joseph gave rise to two tribes , named after his sons: Manasseh and Ephraim . Several leaders came from these two tribes, such as Joshua, Gideon and Samuel.
Benjamin was Jacob’s last son. His mother Rachel died in childbirth and he became the protégé of his father and brothers ( Genesis 35: 16-18 ). His meeting with Joseph in Egypt was very emotional, because he was his only entire brother.
The tribe of Benjamin had a troubled history. At a time when there was no king, men in a city in Benjamin raped and killed a Levite’s concubine. Because of this, the rest of Israel came together against them and almost wiped out the tribe of Benjamin.
A man from Benjamin was chosen to be Israel’s first king – Saul . But Saul was a bad king and he and his family were killed. Later, the tribe of Benjamin became united with Judah when the rest of Israel separated to form an independent kingdom. Other famous people in Benjamin were Mordecai, Esther and the apostle Paul.
Twelve or thirteen tribes?
In the Bible, the tribes of Israel are always referred to as twelve . Although Joseph became two tribes, the tribe of Levi was considered a separate tribe because of his consecration to God ( Numbers 1: 47-49 ). The Levi tribe represented all the people before God and received no inheritance like the other tribes.