THE TWELVE TRIBES
The existence of the Twelve Tribes in the Promised Land after the Exodus
can be attested outside the Bible.
1) The presence of Semitic "Hebrew" people in Egypt is shown by more
than lists of slaves. A record left by Amenhotep II, circa 1438-1412, states
that he returned from Asia with 3600 Apiru captivesNET.
2) Modern scholars place the Exodus under Moses sometime late in the
thirteenth century BC. Traditionally it took place some two hundred years
earlier around the middle of the fifteenth century, at the time of Amenhotep
II. Various considerations apply to the fixing of the dates. Modern archeology
supports the later dates rather than the earlier ones.
3) A huge black stele erected by Marniptah, circa 1224-1211, in his
mortuary temple at Thebes, lists Israelites as one group of opponents then
located in Canaan. However, the text shows them to be a landless peopleNET.
The date of the stele was the fifth year of Marniptah's reign; therefore
we may assume that Hebrew tribes had entered the land of Canaan but had
not yet settled down to definite geographical locations. This would be
the period described by Joshua before the apportionment of the lands.
The Marniptah stele is the first known historical record of uniquely
identified Israelites outside the Bible.
4) From archeological excavations we know that Palestinian sites at
Lachish, Debir, Hazor and Bethel were destroyed in the latter part of the
thirteenth century. These sites are attested in the biblical record: Lachish
in Josh 10:31-32, Debir in Josh 10:38-39, Hazor in Josh 11:10-11, and Bethel
in Judg 1:22-26. The destruction may have been due to the Hebrew tribes
in their conquest of Canaan.
A remark in Exod 12:38 says the people were a "mixed multitude." This
mixed multitude was in addition to some 600,000 men, not including women
and children, Exod 12:37. The number of men older than twenty years is
given in Exod 38:26 and Num 1:46 as 603,550. This is a very large body
of people. If the number of woman equaled the number of men, and if the
number of children equaled the number of adults, the total number of people
would have been in excess of 2,000,000. Add the "mixed multitude" with
cattle and goods and there would have been an impressive array of marching
The numbers are unrealistic. If they moved four abreast and remained
six feet apart between ranks they would have created a marching line extending
some six hundred miles from the Nile to the Euphrates river. This number
of people approaches that of the population of the modern state of Israel.
Such a multitude would have been unmanageable. Besides the problems of
logistics there would have been severe problems in communication. Two to
three million people in tents would have required perhaps five thousand
acres or eight square miles to camp.
The numbers must have been much smaller. When the people saw the Egyptian
army approaching they appealed to Moses, Exod 14. A miracle occurred which
permitted them to cross the "sea" dry shod. Then another miracle took place.
A strange cylindrical object, a "pillar of cloud" called the angel of God,
moved through the air and hovered between the two camps so that one did
not come near the other all night, Exod 14:19-20. In the morning, as the
Egyptians tried to pursue, the "sea" came rushing back and caught the Egyptians
in the water.
We must conclude that the Jewish scribes who put the accounts together
either had unrealistic numbers in their source documents or elevated the
numbers to bring greater glory to Israel. They cannot be taken literally;
they must be examined against hard evidence. The record of the subsequent
movement into Canaan must also be examined with prudent care. The Haberu
records in Chapter 29 provide a more realistic picture.
Although the biblical accounts may contain exaggerated numbers we should
not neglect the truly extraordinary care exhibited by divine agents. Time
and again Moses talks with the God of Israel, face to face, Exod 33:11.
He went up into the "mount," that strange object, on several occasions,
Exod 19, 24, and so on. In one visit he took with him Aaron, Nadab, Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel. They saw the God of Israel and they
ate and drank with him, Exod 24:9-11. In several places it is recited that
Moses was so moved by his experiences that his face shone, Exod 34.
During these strange events in the Sinai the covenant with Israel is
renewed. God remembered his covenant with Israel and respected it, Exod
2:24-25, 6:4-5. If they obeyed God and kept his covenant they would be
a special treasure above all people. They were to be a holy nation and
a kingdom of priests, Exod 19:5-6. As a sign of the renewal of the covenant
they were to keep the Sabbath day throughout all generations as a perpetual
reminder of the covenant, Exod 31:14-16. They were to obey the ten commandments;
they also were not to make molten gods or go a whoring after the gods of
The tribes spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. They were
told when to stay and when to go by that strange cylindrical object in
the sky, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, Exod 13:21,
40:35-38, Num 14:14. Moses supervised the people of Israel; he was the
direct link between celestial beings in that strange object and the people;
he was God's human agent. He also was a foremost proponent for righteousness.
But when the tribes reached the Jordan his work was finished. He died before
they entered the promised land. They now were mostly on their own.
As I showed earlier, the book of Joshua is a highly glamorized account
of the conquest of the promised land. The scene was not simple. The people
of Canaan were generally of Semitic stock, and thus related to the tribes.
They strongly intermarried, as illustrated by Esau and other members of
the Abrahamic family. The first chapter of the book of Judges shows that
the inhabitants were allowed to remain. The returning tribes mixed with
them. These factors must be considered in any assessment of conditions
and interplay among people. The descriptions by later Jewish scribes suppress
reality to sharply heighten the religious meanings and to show the personal
hand of Yahweh in support of his chosen people.
Chapters 13 to 21 in Joshua show the allocation of the lands to the
respective tribes. Reuben, Gad and a half tribe of Manasseh were given
shares on the eastern side of the Jordan, "beyond the Jordan east of Jericho."
Only the tribe of Levi received no allotment. The other tribes all received
apportionments, from Simeon, Benjamin, and Judah in the south to Asher,
Naphtali, Issachar, and Zebulun in the north. The tribe of Ephraim was
near the center of the geographical distribution, with another half tribe
of Manasseh just north of him. Dan also received a portion west of Benjamin
just south of Ephraim. Asher was on the coast in the lands traditionally
assigned to the Phoenicians, including the city of Tyre. Naphtali was just
east of Asher on the mountain range separating Phoenicia from Syria.
Were there twelve distinct tribes? Probably, but constantly mixing.
Witness the free marriages with surrounding people. Genealogy was highly
important. The heavy concentration on genealogy in the Bible demonstrates
how dear a record of ancestry was held by those people. In Num 36:5-12
Moses commanded that the people should marry within their own tribes. However,
the tribal boundaries blurred as people intermarried. Common sense discounts
strict tribal identities, but the tradition is very strong.
An important characteristic of the Hebrew people was their chasing after the popular gods and social trends of other people. As a group, they did not adhere to one God. Moses was constantly warning them of their tendencies. During their travels in the wilderness they were warned against turning to the idols and images of helpless gods. When they pleaded for molten gods, Aaron and Miriam fashioned one from golden ornaments. Moses was delayed in his activities on the "mountain." In his absence the people felt a need for an object they could worship. In spite of the many miraculous deeds, the presence of that awesome flying object, and communications directly from celestial beings, they still demanded idols. They simply could not forsake the old habits. When Moses returned and saw the calf he was hot with anger. The people just could not understand a living God; they constantly reverted to dead gods, Exod 32.
As they settled down to a life of relative ease in the promised land,
and without the direct presence of celestial beings, they forgot God even
more quickly. In short order they turned to the Ashteroth, to Baal, and
to pagan superstitions. Ever and again Yahweh would raise up judges from
among the people, voices who would remind them of their example as a light
to the world. The book of Judges describes this period, from the time of
settlement of the lands, to the time of Samuel and Saul. The judges included
Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, and Jair among others. The spirit
of Yahweh came upon Othniel and he judged Israel, Judg 3:10. Chapters 4
and 5 describe Deborah, the only woman judge. Even more famous is Samson,
whose exploits are described in Chapters 13 to 16.
It is not my purpose to detail the history of Israel. That has been
done admirably by others, including John Bright in A History of IsraelHOI.
Bright compared the biblical account against the many historical records
available from all over the Near East and from Egypt, for the entire period
of the Israelite experience. The patriarchal period is adequately supported
by clay-tablet documents and accounts from Mesopotamia, showing that the
Hebrew families easily had origin in the general locales and among the
tribes that the Bible portrays. Likewise the captivity, return, and settlement
in Canaan are fully supported both by contemporary documents and by archeology.
Anyone familiar with the data, reading firsthand the accounts of the many
officials, would not question that the Bible reflects description of those
days, even if embellished and glamorized. If the historical books were
compiled by Jewish scribes during the Babylonian captivity those scribes
had to be working from material that was a faithful reflection of prior
The people of Israel had been warned against putting their trust in
worldly power. The book of Judges ends with the remark that in those days
there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.
It was God's purpose to be king and ruler in Israel. If the people obeyed
his commandments they would have no need for political rulers. But they
drifted continually from high moral and religious standards. They envied
the worldly power of the nations round about. They wanted to be like those
nations, putting their faith in kings and armies. When the Philistines
made war with them they were defeated in battle at Aphek. They felt that
if they took the ark of the covenant into battle God would give them victory,
I Sam 4. Their plan failed; the ark was captured. Although it was eventually
returned they still demanded a king, I Sam 8.
In our study of these events we often fail to recognize God's objective.
If a nation lives in truth, honesty and righteousness it has no need for
kingly rulers. All will obey the commandments, not out of fear of God's
laws, but because it is the expression of their hearts. Mutual respect,
confidence and trust will rule; not earthly power. There will be no need
for laws, police, enforcement, or complex administration. A nation founded
on high principles of moral conduct and righteousness would truly be an
example to others. It would become a light to the world.
But Israel failed. Her people simply were not matured to such elevated
and godly culture. Nor have any people been since that time.
When Samuel became old he appointed his sons Joel and Abijah as judges
over Israel. But they took bribes and perverted justice. The people came
to Samuel saying that his sons were unjust and that he was old; they wanted
a king to rule over them like all the nations. When Samuel prayed to Yahweh
he was told to listen to the request of the people. They had rejected Samuel;
they had rejected God. Because of their waywardness, from the time he brought
them out of Egypt, forsaking him and serving other gods, he would grant
them their request. Samuel was to warn them solemnly. He was to explain
the ways of earthly kings. Their kings would build a military state, taking
a tenth of everything to support their armies, and appointing men and women
to work for the state. When the kings did this the people would cry out
but Yahweh would not answer them.
Still the people refused to listen; they would not heed the warnings.
They demanded to have a king. When Samuel again went to Yahweh he again
was told to give them a king. Their doom was sealed.
Saul was a man of self-conflicts. He had a striking appearance, towering
above his fellows, I Sam 9:2. He exercised initiative, 11:7, but he was
also full of pride, 18:8, and rebelled against the word of Yahweh, 20:31.
Although he displayed bravery, Chap 13, he was reckless, 14:24. When he
was older he was beset by mental disorders, 16:14 and 19:9, and consulted
familiar spirits, Chap 28. He did this because Yahweh would not answer
him, either through dreams, the Urim, or the prophets.
In his younger days David was a handsome lad of great common sense and
clever actions, I Sam 16:12, 17:49, who was greatly respected by the people,
18:7. In his later years he became a wicked man who lusted after Bathsheba,
the wife of one of his army generals, II Sam 11. When the woman became
pregnant with his child he schemed to have Uriah, her husband, killed in
battle, II Sam 11:14-17. The wickedness spread itself through his house.
David's son Amnon betrayed his half-sister Tamar; by trickery he raped
her, II Sam 13. Absalom, her full brother, then also resorted to trickery
to kill Amnon, 13:29. Absalom again later practiced deception, Chap 15,
to take over the kingdom. Although David had to flee for his life he returned
to power but with further strife and rebellion, Chaps 19-20. He lived a
troubled life until the day of his death.
In the granting of kingly inheritance to Solomon treachery still prevailed,
I Kings 1. Although David's reign is held in fond memory by Jews and Christian's
down to this day the glamour is not justified by the accounts given in
Time and again the people of Israel had been warned not to stray from
God. If they did not obey his commandments -- if they went after the Ashteroth
and worshipped Baal, they would reap the consequences. They admitted serving
the Baals and the Ashteroth, I Sam 12:10.
Solomon is remembered as the king who brought much glory and riches
to Jerusalem but he did so at high cost to the kingdom. He went after the
Ashteroth, I Kings 11:5. He had hundreds of wives and concubines; he loved
many foreign women, I Kings 11:1. He built temples to foreign gods for
his many foreign wives. He forgot Yahweh; his ambitious plans for kingly
glory set the stage for national disintegration. He was told that the kingdom
would be torn apart, not in his day, but in the days of his children, 11:11-13.
Upon his death the kingdom became divided between the northern ten tribes
and the southern tribes of Benjamin and Judah. The two divisions became
known as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Thereafter the people were in
constant strife and contention with one another.
From the time of Moses they were warned. If they did not harken to God,
if they walked contrary to him, they would suffer great affliction. They
would eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, Lev 26:29. God would
destroy their high places and cut down their incense altars; he would cast
their dead bodies upon the dead bodies of their idols; he would destroy
their cities and devastate their lands. And surely he would scatter them
among the nations, Lev 26:33. They would have no power to stand before
their enemies; they would perish among the nations, Lev 26:37-38. If, when
they were in the lands of their enemies, they confessed their iniquities
and their treacheries which they committed against him, he would remember
his covenant with Jacob, with Isaac, and with Abraham. God also would remember
the land, but it would lie desolate without them. Yet, for all that, when
they were in the land of their enemies he would not spurn them that they
might be utterly destroyed, but for the sake of the covenant he would remember
The same warnings were repeated in Deuteronomy. Yahweh would scatter
them among the nations and they would be left few in number, Deut 4:27.
But then, in the latter days, when they would be in tribulation and all
these things would come upon them, they would return to Yahweh their God
and would obey his voice, 4:30.
Chapters 28-33 of Deuteronomy continue with repeated warnings but also with promises of what God would do with his people.