The 13 Tribes
(Not Twelve?)

The Following is a List of the Fourteen Sons of Jacob



The numbers assigned reflect the order of birth





















Zilpah was Leah’s Handmaid












Although Joseph was a son of Jacob, there never was a Joseph tribe.




Ephraim and Manasseh were Joseph’s sons, but Jacob adopted them, [1] on a parity with his other children.[2]






Bilhah was Rachel’s Handmaid







Athough Jacob technically had fourteen sons, there were not fourteen tribes, nor were their eleven. There were always 13. Land was allotted among twelve of the tribes. Joseph wasn’t a tribe, so he doesn’t count. On the other hand, Levi didn’t get any land, but Levi was nevertheless always considered a tribe. Ephraim and Manasseh each got a full allotment. So, however you look at it, there were always thirteen tribes, and never twelve.

Even the Bible refers to “twelve” tribes, despite the fact that there were thirteen. There were fourteen sons of Jacob, two of them adopted, but one son, Joseph (a natural son), was never a tribe. Instead, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh were adopted by Jacob, and placed on a parity with Jacob’s first born[3] so that they each got a full inheritance from Jacob, equal to Joseph’s other brothers. Each is very definitely a full tribe, though they are sometimes referred to as the half tribes.[4]In fact, among the Northern tribes (Israel), Ephraim was dominant.

Since we can all count, the only way I can explain the constant reference to twelve, both in the Bible in and in the popular imagination, is that the number twelve held such a mystical significance that even the writers of the Bible, and naturally the readers of it, persist in ignoring the real number, in favor of an idealized one. This should tell us something.

It goes without saying that the tribal confederation gave itself a somewhat idealized history in any case. Most scholars believe that when the tribes came out of Egypt, they found other Hebrew speakers in Canaan who had never left. These Hebrew speakers undoubtedly had a common ancestry of sorts, and had shared historical and ancestral memories, with a probable basis in fact. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to treat the story as historical fact in all its details. The stories of the tribal confederation found in the Pentateuch are rich in metaphor and myth, which gives it a spiritual aspect that in the case of pure unadulterated history is much less accessible.

The Players
Genesis 29 & 30

Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah, and the grandson of Abraham.

Laban is Jacob’s uncle (Laban is the brother of Jacob’s mother Rebekah), and Laban is Jacob’s cousin too (Laban is also the grandson of Abraham’s brother Nahor). Since Abraham married his half-sister, Sarah/Sarai, the relationships are complicated further.

Abraham’s brother was Nahor. Nahor’s (and Abraham’s) father was Terah. Terah’s father was also named Nahor, which makes things a little confusing. Nahor is also the name of a city in Northern Mesopotamia, as is Haran, Abraham’s other brother’s name.[5] Recall that Terah, Abraham’s father, had three sons: Abram, Nahor and Haran. Lot was Haran’s son. Terah died in the city of Haran.

Nahor (Abraham’s brother), had married his niece, Milcah, Haran’s daughter. Milcah had eight children, among whom was a son named Bethuel, whom we later learn is the father of Laban and Rebekah (the mother of Jacob). Laban is the father of Leah and Rachel, who are Jacob’s wives, as well as his first (and second or third) cousins. This is a family tree that occasionally has trouble forking.

Leah is Laban’s elder daughter, and Rachel is the younger. Jacob is married to both of them. Jacob also married Leah’s handmaid Zilpah and Rachel’s handmaid Bilah. You know the story.

Incest and bigamy? Not by the standards of the time. With these stories as a part of our sacred tradition, it is no wonder the Christian attitude toward moral relativism is mixed.

The relationships are described in Genesis 29 & 30.

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I Think That The Following Is Taken From Encarta

The biblical accounts of Hebrew genealogy and history are credible in most instances, as far as can be ascertained from archaeological and historical research. They were not written in their present form, however, until centuries after the described occurrences; therefore they require careful interpretation. Thus, Moses said to the assembled Hebrews, “A wandering Aramaean was my father” (Deuteronomy 26:5). Characterizing the ancestors of the Hebrews as Aramaean nomads (“wandering” signifying the nomadic state of constant economic hardship) is more or less exact. In addition to Aramaean blood, the physical ancestry of the later Israelites included a mixture of other strains, such as Amorite and Hittite. The physiognomy that was characteristic of the ancient Hebrews, as depicted in Babylonian friezes, was similar to the physiognomy of the Hittites. The Hebrew language belongs to the northwestern Semitic language group.”[6]

The history of the tribes, as descendants of the patriarch Jacob, told in the Old Testament must be viewed in light of the national consciousness developed by the Jewish scribes who compiled and edited the historical books in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. In their efforts to tell a continuous and detailed story establishing a common ancestry, these scribes undoubtedly recorded legends as history; nevertheless, the biblical narrative is in accord with historical theory. Thus, the Scriptures tell of 12 Hebrew tribes, descended from 12 sons of the patriarch Jacob: Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Gad, Issachar, Joseph, Judah, Levi, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, Zebulun. Biblical scholars view the Jacob story as symbolic, with actual tribal history cloaked in the guise of personal experiences. Thus, the tribes were interrelated by blood, and some, such as Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah (sons of one mother), maintained an even closer alliance. The tribes of Asher and Gad (named as descendants of servants) were subordinate tribes. Another instance of tribal history written as personal experience is the covenant between Jacob and Laban (see Genesis 31:44-54), which is interpreted, in biblical criticism, as an early treaty between Hebrew and Syrian tribes, delimiting the borders of their grazing lands to the north of Gilead.

Tradition and historical theory trace the Aramaean ancestors of Israel (used collectively) to the district of Ur in Sumer, on the lower Euphrates River. About the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC a group of Aramaean tribes migrated to the region around Carrhae (now Harran, Turkey), an ancient Babylonian colony. Several centuries later several family units of these tribes migrated to the west and south, settling in scattered groups around the Jordan River. The Jordan settlers became the Hebrew tribes, including the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, and the Yahweh-worshiping Hebrews. In the Bible this period of tribal migration is known as the age of the patriarchs.

Jacob, in the Old Testament, one of the Hebrew patriarchs, son of Isaac and Rebekah, and grandson of Abraham. After depriving his brother Esau of their father's blessing and of his birthright by trickery, Jacob fled to the house of his uncle, Laban, for whom he worked for many years, and married Laban's daughters, Leah and Rachel. His wives and their handmaidens, Zilpah and Bilhah, bore him 12 sons, who became the patriarchs of the 12 [sic] tribes of Israel. Leah bore Issachar, Judah, Levi, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun; Rachel bore Joseph and Benjamin; Zilpah bore Gad and Asher; and Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali.

[1] Genesis 47:27-48:22.

[2] Genesis 48:5. “Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.”

[3] Id.

[4] Joshua 13:7.

[5]Genesis 22:20-24 (J)

[6] Quoted from Encarta, I think.