What are the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel?

12-tribes-of-israelStrictly speaking, the twelve tribes of Israel are the children of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham.  In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to go to a land that He would show him.  “Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Genesis 12:1). When Abram was in the land of Canaan, we read, “And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him” (Genesis 12:7).  God changed Abram’s name to Abraham in the promise that he would be the father of many nations.  In Genesis 22:17, God told Abraham, “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.”

So Abraham had a son by his wife Sarah.  God promised Abraham that he would have this son and that it was through this son that He would make him a great nation. “And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (Genesis 17:19).  So this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, formed the basis of the nation of Israel.

In Genesis 25, Rebecca is about to give birth to Jacob and Esau.  God told Rebecca, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).  Jacob was the younger of the two.  From this prophecy we see that Jacob became God’s choice to begin the nation of Israel.  In Jacob’s life itself, God appeared to him many times.  At one point, Jacob had a dream of a great ladder ascending into heaven.  God was at the top of the ladder.  He said to Jacob, “And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of”  (Genesis 28:14-15).

After this, Jacob went to the land of his soon-to-be father-in-law, Laban.  He met and married both Rachel and Leah.  He also had children by their maidens, Zilpah, Leah’s servant, and Bilhah, Rachel’s servant.  All in all, Jacob fathered twelve children: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Joseph, Gad, Benjamin.  Joseph had two children, Ephraim and Manasseh.  This is recorded in Genesis 35:22-26: “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve:  The sons of Leah; Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun:  The sons of Rachel; Joseph, and Benjamin:  And the sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid; Dan, and Naphtali:  And the sons of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid; Gad, and Asher: these are the sons of Jacob, which were born to him in Padanaram.”

After this, God told Jacob to return to the land of Canaan, and he took his family with him including all of his sons.  On this journey, Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God.  It was during this encounter, that God renamed Jacob to Israel. “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28), and this is how the nation of Israel received its name.  The sons of Jacob became the children of Israel.  Eventually, they moved from their home in Canaan to Egypt to avoid famine.  Joseph was already there, and was able to save the nation.  Exodus 1:5 tells us, “And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was in Egypt already.”  These seventy along with Joseph and his family, became the twelve tribes of Israel with one little wrinkle.  The tribe of Levi became the priestly tribe, and inherited no land.  However, Joseph received a double-portion of inheritance in his sons Ephraim and Manasseh.  So, the tribes of Israel were: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Ephraim, Manasseh, Gad, Benjamin.  It’s really thirteen tribes in number if you count Joseph as two, but only twelve of these thirteen were land owners.

In Romans 2:28-29 the apostle Paul wrote, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”  What Paul was saying is that we can be part of the nation of Israel today, not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one.  Paul wrote in Galatians 3:26-29, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  Why not become a child of God tonight by putting Christ on in baptism and be part of the spiritual nation of Israel?