The challenge to name the number of tribes of Israel would fall into the category of “easy” by trivia fans. However, the term “The Twelve Tribes of Israel” can be enumerated in different ways at different times. Let’s clarify:
The Twelve Tribes of Israel began with the twelve sons of Jacob (also known as Israel): Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. While Reuben was the first born, his act of moving his father’s bed into his mother’s tent after the death of Rachel (Genesis 35:22) lost him his natural firstborn right. The rights of the firstborn were transferred to Rachel’s firstborn son, Joseph.
In Egypt, where the family of Jacob migrated to escape a famine in Canaan, Jacob met Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Menashe. He told Joseph “Your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you, to Egypt, shall be considered mine, like Reuben and Simon” (Genesis 48:5).
When, after years of enslavement, the Children of Israel left Egypt, the descendants of Joseph were regarded as two tribes in one. In some situations, such as when Moses blessed the tribes, both tribes together are referred to as the Children of Joseph. But, in other situations, they are addressed as the Tribe of Ephraim and the Tribe of Menashe. They each had their own princes and their own encampments in the wilderness, which, though adjacent, were distinct.
The double portion (a firstborn right) of Joseph’s descendants was a counterbalance to the status change of the Tribe of Levi. When the Levites were designated as the caretakers of the Tabernacle and as the teachers of the people, they yielded ownership of a portion of the Promised Land that all other tribes received. As a result of the division of the children of Joseph into two tribes, the balance of twelve tribal areas of the Promised Land was maintained.
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