Question: Are the Twelve Tribes of Israel the same as the twelve sons of Jacob? If so, why is Joseph not always mentioned? Did Jesus come from his tribe? If not, which one and why was it chosen?
Discussion: According to the first book of the Bible, the twelve sons of Jacob became the tribal chiefs of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, each of which bears the name of its founding father. You'll find lively stories about those sons and their families throughout much of Genesis, but for a summarization, turn to Chapter 49. There, Jacob (whom God renamed "Israel") gave his sons a final blessing and a prophetic word about the direction of their lives, at least partly based on their character traits and previous choices. In Chapter 48, however, Jacob blessed Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of his beloved Joseph. The Bible continues to mention them occasionally instead of (or in addition to) their father. To be clear though, this first Joseph lived many centuries before Jesus' birth, so he is, of course, not the man to whom the Virgin Mary was espoused.
In the book of beginnings, various stories indicate that Jacob blatantly favored his son Joseph, as Jews and Christians are still apt to do today. Initially, this favoritism occurred because of Jacob's love for his second wife, the beautiful Rachel, who became the mother of Joseph and his younger brother Benjamin. In addition, the New American Bible (NAB) version of Genesis 37:3 explained, "Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a long tunic." In other versions of the Bible, that long tunic translated into the famous "coat of many colors," but a long garment or a long-sleeved coat makes more sense because the added fabric implies that Joseph did not have to do hard labor as his brothers did.
Unhindered by such physical duties as tending the flocks and fighting off predators, this pampered son not only dressed like a young prince, he tattled on his brothers, who were already jealous of him. As Genesis 37:4 said, "When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his sons, they hated him so much that they would not even greet him" (NAB.) So they threw him into a pit and left him to die until Judah intervened, saying, "What is to be gained by killing our brother…? Rather, let us sell him to these Ishmaelites, instead of doing away with him ourselves" (Genesis 37:26-27, NAB.) By our standards, selling a sibling sounds appalling, yet that action kept the boy alive. Besides this, Genesis 16 records that the Ishmaelites originated from Abraham's first son Ishmael, while Jacob and sons descended from Abraham's second child, Isaac. Different mothers and, again, favoritism and jealousies made them adversaries from the start. Nevertheless, the Ishmaelites and the sons of Israel were kinsmen through their forefather Abraham.
Ironically, the actions of both clans (and, perhaps, another group of kinsmen known as the Midianites) placed Joseph into slavery in Egypt. During his years of captivity, the boy grew into maturity, exhibiting strong faith in God, high moral standards, and a shrewd head for business. In addition to those laudable traits, his eventual forgiveness toward his brothers caused Judeo-Christian believers to regard him highly too. Yet despite those ongoing accolades, Joseph was not the forefather of the tribe whom God chose to bring forth His own beloved Son. That special task went to Judah, the son of Rachel's older sister Leah to whom Jacob was first married.
According to Genesis 29:31, "When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he made her fruitful, while Rachel remained barren." Eventually, Leah the unloved gave birth to Reuben, Simeon, and Levi (through whom Moses, Aaron, and other levitical priests later arrived.) After she'd given birth to a fourth son, Leah said, "This time I will give grateful praise to the Lord," and so she named him Judah, a name that sounds similar to a Hebrew word related to a gift of praise.
As a young man and, later, a widower, Judah made some choices that did not put him in good favor with his father, much less generations of Judeo-Christians who still compare him unfavorably to Joseph or who, more likely, have never even heard of him or his mother. By Genesis 38:26, however, Judah had matured greatly, showing honesty and unprecedented accountability for his actions. Then, in Genesis 43 and 44, he chose to protect his father and youngest brother to the point that Judah offered himself as a pledge or "surety" for Benjamin's safety. This willingness to lay down his life for his family foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And so, like King David and Solomon before Him, Jesus descended from Judah and the Judaic line of love, redemption, and prophetic praise first spoken through their foremother, Leah, whom God blessed and loved.
In my next column, I will continue with this discussion of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.