Foremothers and the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Question: Would you tell me more about the Twelve Tribes? Were there any "daughters of Israel," and who was the mother?

Discussion:  As previously mentioned, the tribes descended from the twelve sons of Jacob, whom God renamed "Israel." While each child had the same father, not all of them had the same mother. According to the account in Genesis 29, Jacob's first wife Leah bore the first group of sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Then Leah's younger sister Rachel, who was Jacob's second wife, became jealous of those offspring. Since she could not bear to be childless but could not bear children herself, Rachel followed the ancient custom of giving her servant to her husband to have a child in her stead. When Bilhah bore a son, Rachel named him Dan, and the next son she named Naphtali. Then Leah gave Jacob her maid Zilpah, which resulted in the birth of Asher.

By now, the first son Reuben was old enough to help his mother Leah look for mandrakes — an herb thought to aid conception. When Rachel saw the herb, she asked for some, and bargaining ensued until she gave Leah permission to sleep with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes. Genesis 30 doesn't say how long this consent continued, but Leah gave birth to sons Issachar and Zebulon and, finally, a daughter Dinah. With a total of ten sons and one daughter of Israel born to those three mothers, the formerly childless Rachel finally gave birth to Jacob's beloved Joseph, then Benjamin. Perhaps this youngest child would have displaced Joseph as the favored son if Rachel had not died during childbirth.

Prior to Rachel's death, the ten less-favored sons lost even more of their father's favor. In one tragic event, a young man from another community fell in love with Dinah but slept with her without her permission. At the time, there were not yet in place the limits to retribution that God would establish many generations later through the law given to Moses, who interestingly descended from the Tribe of Levi. Without the most basic justice system of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24) to guide them, Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi killed the enamored rapist, his entire family, and all of the able-bodied men in town. 

Just before this episode, Rachel stole her father's household idols, breaking faith with her father, her husband, and the one true God. Shortly after her death, Leah's oldest son Reuben slept with Rachel's maid, who was also Jacob's concubine Bilhah. This act broke faith with his father, who, according to Genesis 35:22, "was greatly offended."

 Some time after this, the brothers ganged up on Joseph, who, because of their actions, became enslaved in Egypt. Everyone thought him dead, of course, since years went by with no word. Finally, drought and starvation drove the whole family to seek food in the very place where Joseph had, by then, been placed in charge of Pharaohs' storehouses. Subsequently, Jacob's sons and families had all they needed to survive, but ironically, the Twelve Tribes of Israel became enslaved themselves. This bondage lasted for a few hundred years until Moses was rescued as a baby by Pharaoh's daughter, reared in Pharaohs' house, and, as a mature adult, obtained freedom from his adoptive family and the house of Pharaoh for the descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Since Moses and his brother, Aaron, came from the Tribe of Levi, their tribe became the ruling head of the Israelites and the Levitical priests. For his successor, however, Moses appointed Joshua, the son of Nun of the Tribe of Joseph. Famous for his faith in God and his success in the battle of Jericho, Joshua led the Twelve Tribes of Israel after Moses' death into the Promised Land.

Chapters 13 through 21 of the book of Joshua describe the territories assigned to each tribe with the descendants of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, often mentioned instead of Joseph himself. From their territories came many judges and prophets, but when the people demanded a king, Saul, a descendant of the small Tribe of Benjamin became the first king of Israel. When King Saul disobeyed God, however, he lost most of his followers and the throne, which was then given to David of the Tribe of Judah.

Known for his faithfulness to God and his promptness in repenting after he'd done wrong, King David was beloved by his people and loved, too, by the readers of the many Psalms written by this lyricist. Under David's rule, which I and II Samuel recorded, the Twelve Tribes banded together, and the Kingdom of Israel flourished. By the time David's son, Solomon, came into power, peace abounded, leaving King Solomon time to build the first Temple in Jerusalem (see I Kings 6), write books of wisdom, and marry hundreds of women, including pagans who led him away from God. At his death, his not-very-wise son Rehoboam burdened the people with taxes to support his opulent lifestyle.

When rebellion ensued, only the Tribe of Benjamin stood with the Tribe of Judah in the House of Israel, while the other ten tribes formed the Northern Kingdom and appointed their own king. Battles raged. Kings disobeyed God, and people followed their lead in doing evil. Prophets threatened of God's coming wrath. Reforms began, and everyone repented. Then they sinned again until the ongoing cycle ended in exile with the peoples clamoring for a Savior. One came — not as the king and warrior the peoples expected, but as a baby born in a cave-like barn in Bethlehem.

As discussed last time, Jesus descended from the Kingly Tribe of Judah, which also produced King David and King Solomon. Matthew 1 and Luke 3 give details about Jesus' lineage as does a previous Bible Talk article, but you might be interested to know that Jesus began his ministry "in the region of Zebulon and Naphtali" (Matthew 4:13.) Quite likely then, at least some of the Apostles came from those Tribes of Israel. Also, Saul, who became known as the Apostle Paul, descended from the Tribe of Benjamin. (See Philippians 3:5.) Nevertheless, in times to come, the peoples of God will include "…a great multitude which no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb'!" (Revelation 7:9-10.)

Clearly, Jesus the Lamb descends from the Virgin Mary and the Tribe of Judah, but also from God the Father. But who is this Almighty Being: a God of wrath or God of love? Lord willing, we'll see what the Bible has to say about that — next time.

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  • Guest

    Did the division of the Jews into twelve tribes take place under the covenant with Abraham, or did they originate with Moses (Torah)?  In either case, is this division necessary in some way with the advent of the Messiah?

    I know Scripture says that the Messiah will come from the tribe of Judah, which means that God ordained that, but do we have any understanding as to why God might have planned for that specific tribe as opposed to Israel in general? 

  • Guest

    Hi, Danny. I just saw your note. Two earlier Bible Talk articles ("The Ancestry of Jesus" and "The Twelve Tribes of Israel") might answer your questions about God's choice of Judah. Regarding the 12 Tribes, neither Abraham nor Moses had anything to do with that division. (Abraham lived much earlier and Moses much later.) Originally, the tribes were simply the 12 sons of Jacob, who had families that eventually became large tribes of people. When God gave Jacob the new name "Israel," his 12 sons then became the 12 Tribes of Israel.