How Many Tribes Are There, Really?

Q. I have always been a little confused concerning the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob had 12 sons, which became the 12 tribes. When land was given to the tribes, Levi received no land, and the 2 sons of Joseph were each given land making them 2 independent tribes. That makes 13 total.

After King Solomon’s death, God separated the nation. In 1 Kings, it says that God separated the nation into the northern 10 tribes (counting Joseph’s sons as separate tribes) and the tribe of Judah (10+1=11 tribes). Assuming the Levi was not included in this count because they received no land, that makes 12 tribes accounted for, but, since in the 10 northern tribes Joseph’s sons are counted as separate tribes, there should be a total of 13. The missing tribe appears to be Simeon, which was completely surrounded by the tribe of Judah. Can you explain why the tribes were counted like this?

A. It’s confusing because after Jacob adopted Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:5-6), there were fourteen names to choose from. But the Bible never lists more than 12 at a time, so sometimes the mix is different. The Levites received no land and never went to war, so they’re often omitted. Joseph was also left out when Ephraim and Manasseh were included, since the land they received was really Joseph’s inheritance. The strangest list is in Revelation 7 where Levi and Joseph are included but Dan and Ephraim are not.

Another confusing fact is that the Northern Kingdom retained the name of Israel while the Southern Kingdom was called Judah, which became Judea in the New Testament. But as you pointed out there were actually two tribes in the Southern Kingdom; Judah and Simeon. So the Northern Kingdom counted Ephraim and Manasseh among the 10 tribes, but not Joseph. And the Southern Kingdom included Judah and Simeon. Ten plus two equals 12. Add Joseph and Levi, who were not included on either list, and you have all 14 names.

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