BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Looking for the 12 Tribes of Israel

Tribal kingdoms in the ancient Near East

The 12 tribes of Israel are represented with symbols on this modern street mosaic from Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. Djampa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Searching for Tribes

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.

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However, even if early Israel was a tribal society, the Bible is not consistent in how it numbers and identifies the tribes (see Judges 5). Indeed, it is only after the Babylonian Exile that references to the tribes begin to appear more frequently outside of the biblical text. In the New Testament, Paul himself takes great pride in being from the tribe of Benjamin (Acts 13:21; Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5).

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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Subscribers: Read the full article, “Were There 12 Tribes of Israel?” by Andrew Tobolowsky, published in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Related reading in Bible History Daily:

What Does the Mesha Stele Say?

The Blurred Lines of Biblical Timnah

Timna

Who Were the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites in the Bible?

Nomadic Biblical Kingdoms

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Mesha’s Stele and the House of David

New Light on the Edomites

Inside, Outside: Where Did the Early Israelites Come From?

How Bad was the Babylonian Exile?

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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2 Responses

  1. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    Since what is now called “The Bible” wasn’t written until after 722 BC(hristian)E, (late 8th Century BCE), it was mostly written by the remnants of the tribe of Judah. Here is a good possible explanation of how the “12 Tribes” story came about based on both the Jewish “history” in The Bible and what archaeological evidence has shown so far. This video is by a follower of Judaism.
    youtube.com/watch?v=7wtBBVnyX3A

  2. Sherri Hamiter says:

    Even though there is no physical evidence for the 12 Tribes, I believe what the Bible says. The Bible writes about the 12 tribes and that’s all I need in order to believe there were 12 tribes.

Write a Reply or Comment

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2 Responses

  1. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    Since what is now called “The Bible” wasn’t written until after 722 BC(hristian)E, (late 8th Century BCE), it was mostly written by the remnants of the tribe of Judah. Here is a good possible explanation of how the “12 Tribes” story came about based on both the Jewish “history” in The Bible and what archaeological evidence has shown so far. This video is by a follower of Judaism.
    youtube.com/watch?v=7wtBBVnyX3A

  2. Sherri Hamiter says:

    Even though there is no physical evidence for the 12 Tribes, I believe what the Bible says. The Bible writes about the 12 tribes and that’s all I need in order to believe there were 12 tribes.

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