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Tribes of Israel


The vast majority of the Old Testament deals with the comings and goings, both spiritually and geographically, of one particular family, eventually known as the Nation of Israel. The main Patriarch of the family, Abraham, formerly Abram, is first introduced in Genesis 12, but their lineage can be traced all through the Bible, from Adam to Noah, and then from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham. This is where the term “Anti-semite” comes from, as a Shemite was a descendant of Shem.

This is the fourth entry for our Lamp Lighters supplemental material this quarter, which explores this particular family and how they were organized into the 12 tribes of Israel.

In Genesis 12:1-3 we see God calling out Abram, and in that call God makes him a promise, that his descendants will be a “great nation” that will be used to bless all of the world. Through a series of mistakes (which is a bit of a theme with the patriarchs) Abraham eventually is blessed with a son, the first step in this covenant promise, Isaac. Isaac eventually goes on to have two sons of his own, the younger of which spends a lot of the biblical narrative lying, tricking and being tricked. This is Jacob, who in Genesis 32 gets his name changed to Israel after he “wrestles with God”.


  1. Why is it important that the people of Israel have their heritage trace all the way through the Torah? 

  2. What can we learn from the fact that Genesis is filled with stories of the patriarchs lying and failing but also at other times showing faith and reverence?


Father Abraham

The chart above shows Jacob’s four wives and the breakdown of his 12 sons. From the story of Moses onward the descendants of Abraham are described in this way, as 12 tribes. From these tribal groups the people drew their identity, occupation and culture. In the Israelite culture, which tribe you are from matters. Part of what made Saul have a humble origin is because he was from the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest and youngest. When Moses had to take a sword to the rebels in his community, a random group of people did not stay loyal to him, his fellow Levites did. Even when the 12 spies were sent into Canaan, they sent one from each tribe, guaranteeing equal representation.


  1. What can we learn about a biblical character based on what tribe they are from? 

  2. What is the value in shaping your identity partly on your family?

Tribal Organization

One quick note on how the tribes were organized. One tribe was set apart to be the resident priests of Israel, the Levites. These people were not given property in the Promise Land, but were organized to be spiritual leaders throughout the land. Therefore, when the tribes gathered for war, the Levites were not among them. Instead, the descendants of Joseph were split into two tribes, based on Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. These two groups are sometimes called “half-tribes.” This is why you will never read about the Tribe of Joseph, as whenever the tribes came together, Manasseh and Ephraim are there in place of Joseph and Levi.

The book of Genesis ends in Egypt, with Joseph reunited with his brothers and his elderly father being brought down to him. Israel then goes about blessing each of his sons before he dies. It is through these blessings that many of the individual characteristics of each tribe is described. Israel also makes a very important statement about Judah, who was the head of the tribe that would eventually bring about King David, King Solomon and eventually, Jesus. In Genesis 49:8-13 Israel says that a King will come from Judah who will command obedience of the nations.


  1. Who could this prophecy from Israel be referring to? 

  2. How could a better understanding of the 12 tribes of Israel and their formation help foster a better understanding of the Old Testament as a whole?

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