Tribal kingdoms in the ancient Near East
Who were the 12 tribes of Israel? While the obvious answer is that they were the descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob, things are not nearly so clear, depending on where you look in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, as pointed out by Andrew Tobolowsky in his article “Were There 12 Tribes of Israel?” in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, outside of the Bible, there is practically no mention of the tribes of Israel at all, at least until long after the biblical period.
Besides the possible mention of the tribe of Gad in the ninth-century BCE Mesha Stele, historical sources from the Iron Age (c. 1200–586 BCE) are silent on the existence of the 12 tribes of Israel. Indeed, not even ancient inscriptions from Israel and Judah make mention of these tribes. So, did the 12 tribes exist?
Israel and Judah would certainly not be the only kingdoms that were made up of tribes in the ancient Near East. Perhaps the best-known example is the kingdom of Mari, which thrived in Upper Mesopotamia during the early second millennium BCE and included a large conglomeration of Simalite and Yaminite tribes. Similarly, the Kassites, who ruled Babylonia for roughly 400 years in the second half of the second millennium, were made up of various tribes, including the Bimati and Simhari.
Recent studies at the site of Timna in southern Israel have suggested the biblical Edomites began as a nomadic people, very similar to how the early Israelites are presented in the Pentateuch. In fact, tribal confederacies were a common feature of ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially those like ancient Israel that were originally nomadic or semi-nomadic, and tribal identities still play a key role in Middle East and even global politics today.
Taken together, even if Israel was originally a tribal kingdom, the truth behind the specific 12 tribes is less clear. They may have never existed as the standard set of 12 tribes that we typically think of today. So why would the biblical writers think the 12 tribes were so important? For one explanation, read “Were There 12 Tribes of Israel?” by Andrew Tobolowsky, published in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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