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Last updated: Sep 23, 2013
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Dear Bob, Can you please help me understand "the twelve tribes of Israel"? I see differences all over the Bible when the twelve tribes are listed!
Answer: Thank you for this fascinating question! Yes, there are "differences" in the listings of the Tribes, and, the reason is that there are a total of fourteen "Tribes" listed in the Bible as the "Tribes of Israel" :-)
The original "12 tribes of Israel", named for the twelve sons of Jacob, are listed in Genesis 49:1-28:
Gen 49:28 States - "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel"...
"Israel", here in Gen 49:28, is not the "Nation of Israel", but the "man" Israel, the son of Abraham and Isaac.
Remember, God renamed Jacob, in Genesis 32:28, "And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed". "Israel" means "Prince of God". The original Twelve Tribes, which are listed in Genesis chapter 49, are named for the twelve sons of Jacob, who was renamed "Israel".
From Gen. chapter 49, through the end of the Book of Exodus, these are the names of the "Twelve Tribes of Israel".
Then, in Numbers 1:1-50, we see a big change! God assigned the priestly duties of the Temple worship to the Tribe of Levi, and being the "priestly tribe", Levi was no longer counted in the "Twelve Tribes".
With Levi being removed from the "Twelve", the Tribe of "Joseph" was given a "double portion", (Jacob loved Joseph the best, Gen. 37:3) and Joseph, was split into the tribes of his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. So, the names of Levi and Joseph were dropped from the "twelve Tribes", and Ephraim and Manasseh replaced them.
The "12 tribes of Israel", from the Book of Numbers, all the way to the Second Advent of Christ, drop Levi and Joseph, and list Ephraim and Manasseh. We find the new arrangement of the 12 Tribes in Numb. 2:1-29:
These are the commonly known names of the "twelve Tribes of Israel", and the ones we find in the vast majority of the Scriptures.
But, at the Second Advent of Christ, we find the twelve original Tribes listed again. In Ezekiel 40:46, 43:19, 44:15, and 48:11, we see that the Tribe of Levi will be relegated to the menial tasks of the Millennial Temple, because of their great sin during the time of the Kings. The sons of Zadok will be assigned the priestly duties in the Millennial Temple.
Under this new order of the Priesthood, we see in Eze 48:31-34, that "the gates of the city shall be after the names of the tribes of Israel: three gates northward; one gate of Reuben, one gate of Judah, one gate of Levi.
32 And at the east side four thousand and five hundred: and three gates; and one gate of Joseph, one gate of Benjamin, one gate of Dan.
33 And at the south side four thousand and five hundred measures: and three gates; one gate of Simeon, one gate of Issachar, one gate of Zebulun.
34 At the west side four thousand and five hundred, with their three gates; one gate of Gad, one gate of Asher, one gate of Naphtali".
The names of the twelve Tribes of Israel on the gates to the Millennial city are back to the original twelve, as listed in Gen 49:1-28!
To add to the confusion, in Eze 47:13, the Millennial land of Israel will be divided into twelve areas "according to the twelve tribes of Israel: Joseph shall have two portions". So, in the division of the land, Levi and Joseph are replaced by Ephraim and Manasseh, but the names of the twelve Tribes of Israel on the four gates to the city are the original twelve tribes of Genesis 49:1-28!
So, there are fourteen Tribes of Israel listed in the Book of Ezekiel!
The last mention of the Twelve Tribes of Israel is in Rev 21:10-12 -
10 "And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,
11 Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;
12 And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel:"
I take "the children of Israel" here, to mean the twelve sons of the "man" Israel (Jacob).
So, I expect to see the names of the original Twelve Tribes, of the "man" Israel, on the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem!
Fascinating, isn't it?
Your questions are a blessing to me, and I am sure the Scriptures we examine are a blessing to others also.
Yours "in Christ",