It is simple to say that the twelve tribes of Israel are those tribes that descended from Jacob's sons, but it is not quite that easy. Joseph received a double portion, the Levites were set apart, and different lists of the tribes contain different names.
What are the twelve tribes of Israel?
These are the sons of Jacob (and their mothers) and the tribal patriarchs in the order they were born:
Reuben (Leah): Reuben slept with Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid and Jacob's concubine (Genesis 35:22). Reuben convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph (Genesis 37:21) and planned on rescuing Joseph, but the brothers sold him before he had the chance. He told Jacob that Jacob could kill his two sons if Benjamin did not return from Egypt safely. The tribe of Reuben settled on the east side of the Jordan with Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh.
Simeon (Leah): When the other brothers went to Egypt to beg food, Joseph held Simeon hostage until the brothers could prove Joseph's brother Benjamin was well (Genesis 42:24). He, with Levi, betrayed the city of the man who seduced Dinah. They killed every male (Genesis 34) and did not receive a good blessing from Jacob (Genesis 49:5-7). The Tribe of Simeon's territory was within the boundaries of Judah (Joshua 19:1-9).
Levi (Leah): Levi also betrayed the city of the man who seduced Dinah (Genesis 34) and did not receive a good blessing from Jacob (Genesis 49:5-7). However, as the tribe of Moses and Aaron, and the only tribe to punish the others for worshiping the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:25-28), the Levites were given the priesthood. They did not have a single territory but did have several cities and surrounding farmland (Joshua 20). Zacharias, John the Baptist's father, was a Levite.
Judah (Leah): Judah personally ensured Benjamin's safety when the brothers took him to see Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 43:8-9). His was the dominant tribe of the southern kingdom; the entire kingdom took the name Judah, and the Israelites are called "Jews" because of his tribe's dominance. The tribe of Judah settled in a large area in the south (Joshua 15). Both Mary and Joseph, as descendants of David, were from the tribe of Judah. The possible reason that God chose Judah, the fourth-born, to be the ancestor of the Messiah is that the firstborn, Reuben, slept with his father's concubine and the next two, Simeon and Levi, betrayed and slaughtered the Hivites.
Dan (Bilhah): Territory in the north (Joshua 19:40-48). Dan is not listed among the tribes from which the 144,000 come during the Tribulation; no reason is given (Revelation 7:4-8).
Naphtali (Bilhah): Territory in the north (Joshua 19:32-39).
Gad (Zilpah): Settled on the east side of the Jordan with Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 22:1-9).
Asher (Zilpah): Territory in the north (Joshua 19:24-31).
Issachar (Leah): Territory in the north (Joshua 19:17-23).
Zebulun (Leah): Territory in the far northwest (Joshua 19:10-16).
Joseph (Rachel): As Rachel's son, Joseph was Jacob's favorite until Jacob was told he was dead. Joseph had been sold as a slave to Egypt and ultimately saved Egypt and his family from famine. Jacob adopted his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, thus giving Joseph a double portion of the inheritance (Genesis 48:5).
Benjamin (Rachel): Benjamin was the youngest son and favorite of Jacob after Joseph went missing; Rachel, Jacob's beloved, died shortly after his birth. The tribe of Benjamin settled just north of Judah, in the southern kingdom (Joshua 18:11-28). The tribe was nearly destroyed when they harbored violent fugitives (Judges 19:10-28). King Saul (1 Samuel 9:15-27), Esther, Mordecai (Esther 2:5-7), and Paul (Romans 11:1) were all Benjamites.
Joseph had two sons in Egypt, and both of them also received a blessing from Jacob:
Ephraim: The tribe of Ephraim settled in the middle, between Benjamin and Manasseh (Joshua 16). They became part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also sometimes called Ephraim. The tribe of Ephraim is sometimes called the tribe of Joseph. Though Ephraim was Joseph's second son (Genesis 41:52), Jacob blessed Ephraim as though he was the firstborn son (Genesis 48).
Manasseh: Settled in a very large northern territory that spilled over to the east side of the Jordan (Joshua 22:1-9).
Jacob also had a daughter, Dinah, whose mother was Leah. She was the only sister and was taken advantage of by Shechem the Hivite and avenged rather viciously by her brothers Levi and Simeon (Genesis 34).
In the book of Joshua, the tribes of Israel receive their territorial inheritance, and each of them gives a number of cities to the Levites. The tribes are listed in Joshua 21 as Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh—note that the tribe of Joseph was divided into Ephraim and Manasseh and so Levi received cities from twelve tribes. Of course, when a passage records the sons of Jacob, and not the tribes, Levi and Joseph are included, while Ephraim and Manasseh are not (Genesis 35:23-26; Exodus 1:1-4; 1 Chronicles 2:1-2). When the book of Revelation lists the tribes of the 144,000 who will witness during the Tribulation, Manasseh and Joseph are listed separately and Dan is not mentioned at all (Revelation 7:4-8).
Tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, and Joseph (often referred to as the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh).
Sons of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.
Members of the Northern Kingdom, conquered by the Assyrians: Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, Zebulun, Naphtali, Asher, Dan, Reuben, Gad, and some of the Levites.
Members of the Southern Kingdom, taken into Babylonian captivity and then released: Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, and some of the Levites.
Tribes from which the 144,000 come: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Joseph (Ephraim), and Manasseh.
Why should we read the Old Testament?
What do Jews believe? What is Judaism?
As God's chosen people, are Jews automatically saved?
What people are included in the 144,000?
What does the Bible say about the New Jerusalem?
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