Twelve tribes of Israel

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Israel map from 1695

Twelve tribes of Israel

According to the tradition of the Tanach, the twelve tribes of Israel make up the people of Israel . According to the biblical texts, the emergence of this people is set in the pre-state period of the history of Israel (around 1200–1000 BC). As in many other cultures, the number 12 has a mythological meaning as a symbol . The order of the names of the tribes appears in 20 different variations. In the New Testament , too, reference is made to these 12 tribes in connection with the kingdom of God (Gospel of Matthew 19.28 EU and Gospel of Luke 22.30 EU ). According to previous archaeological knowledge, there is no historical basis for this tribal history - apart from the written records.

Biblical tradition

The name Israel

See also: Jacob , Israel (name) , today's State of Israel

The tribal union appears in the stories of the Bible since the 2nd book of Moses as a people "Israel" under unified leadership. However, he only became this people in the course of the settlement process in the cultivated land of Canaan , into which tribes of semi-nomads of different origins from around 1500 to 1000 BC Infiltrated in the late Bronze Age . The first extra-biblical confirmation of this is given by the "Israeli stele" of Pharaoh Merenptah (around 1210 BC), which Israel uses as a name for a group of people or peoples.

The growing together tribes developed an awareness of their togetherness through a common language, neighboring settlement areas and above all through the religion practiced at certain places of worship . Biblical historiography has linked its individual traditions - especially the stories from Abraham to Joseph - in such a way that the development of this people is represented in history as the purposeful work of the God YHWH from the beginning . The tribes can be traced back to common patriarchs , whose traditions were brought into a generation succession. The third of these ancestors, Jacob , received the honorary name "Israel" from God.

The origin of this name can no longer be clarified. Its word formation resembles other theophoric place and person names common in the area of ​​Canaan , which were combined with the local divine title El . The translation is "God fighters", it would also be possible "God fight for you". This expresses the hard-won faith of the Israelites in their particularity among the other peoples. They saw it as their task to make their God known to the world as the Creator of all human beings and his will to bless and to take on God's judgments, opposition and persecution from other peoples (cf. Genesis 12 : 3 EU ). .

The twelve tribes of Israel appear biblically as descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob Israel (see also Deuteronomy 33 : 6-25 EU and Book of Judges 5: 14-18 EU ). They initially had no common political leaders and institutions. Nonetheless, their belief in the God of their fathers at work in history united them in a community.

Biblical stem lists

The genealogical tables and stem lists handed down in the Bible distinguish the arrangement, number and names of the tribes, but retain the superordinate twelve number. A list of the twelve sons of Jacob appears three times in Genesis :

  • Gen 29: 31-30, 24:
Lea's sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah.
Bilha's sons: Dan, Naftali.
Silpa's sons: Gad, Ascher.
Lea's sons: Issachar, Zebulun (daughter of Dinah).
Rachel's son: Joseph. Her request for another son is answered a little later with the birth of Benjamin (Gen. 35:18).
  • Gen 35: 23-26:
Lea's sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun.
Rachel's sons: Joseph, Benjamin.
Bilha's sons: Dan, Naftali.
Silpa's sons: Gad, Ascher (= 1. Chron 2,1f).

The names of the tribes are grouped according to tribal mothers, chronologically or according to the status of their mother (Jacob's first wife, second wife, their maids as "surrogate mothers"). Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah are in first place in both lists and apparently formed a unit with the other sons of Leah.

  • Gen 49.1–27: Jacob blesses each of his sons before his death: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Ascher, Naftali, Joseph and Benjamin.

You learn a lot about their peculiarities, their tribal area and their future fate. Simeon and Levi are told that they will be dispersed, which indicates that they will later lack their own tribal area. Judah already receives the announcement of a ruler: a reference to the kingdom of Judah and the expectation of the Messiah that arose there . This is probably where this text was written.

  • Num 26,4–51: At the end of the desert wandering, the direct descendants of each of the twelve sons are listed: Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph - divided between his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim - Benjamin, Dan, Ascher, Naftali.

The Levites are also mentioned here, but separate from the actual "Children of Israel". This is justified by the fact that they did not receive their own land and were therefore not permanent residents of Israel. They were commissioned to serve as priests for all other tribes. According to the land distribution described in the book of Joshua in Jos 14-19  EU , the tribe of Levi therefore received residential cities within the other tribal areas (Jos 21).

Apparently in this later version the need to maintain the twelve number after the fall of Levi was felt: That is why the tribe of Joseph was divided into the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim. At the same time Gad moved in place of Levi, so that the number of Lea's sons remained six. Martin Noth therefore considered the versions that Levi named as a separate tribe in third place to be older than those in which he is missing. He explained the fixed order of Lea's six sons from an early tribal unit, even before the other tribes moved into the settlement area of ​​Israel.

Accordingly, none of the tribal lists portrayed a specific historical settlement status known from the traditions of the tribes. According to Noth, the first three tribal areas mentioned had already merged into larger units at the time when later tribes such as Josef and Benjamin were added; their names were recorded nonetheless.

However, the number twelve was probably not original. The Deborahlied (Ri 5), which is one of the oldest components of the Pentateuch , names only ten tribal areas: Efraim, Benjamin, Machir (= Manasseh), Sebulon, Issachar, Ruben, Gelead (= Gad?), Dan, Ascher and Naftali . Judah and Simeon, whose settlement area later formed the southern kingdom of Judah, and Levi, from whom the priests of Israel are derived, are missing . So it is probably a tradition of the northern Reich of Israel .

Settlement areas

Territories of the 12 tribes of Israel

When the conquest of the land, Joshua gave land to only seven tribes of the Israelites (Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naftali, Dan) at the meeting in Silo . However, the absence of some tribes from this allocation does not mean that they did not exist at the time, but that they already had a fixed territory. In retrospect, the aforementioned conquests and landings are more likely to belong to the late phase of the early Israeli expansion. The regional tribes united to form the tribe of Judah, including the cities of Jericho, Hebron, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, have passed on the story of Abraham in particular, which was later recorded in the books of the Pentateuch, so that a much earlier existence and settlement is considered to be assured. Furthermore, the story about the sale that saved Joseph (as a slave to Egypt, at the suggestion of his brother Judah, who later became a great help for the family remaining in the country when there were famines) also suggests an early existence. This is probably a southern tradition from Jerusalem and Judah.

The conquest outlined in the book of Joshua had a further decisive effect, since it annexed the areas of the Canaanites that were settled north of Judah and thus eliminated the geographical separation of the northern and southern tribal areas that had existed until then. The territorial cohesion achieved in this way, in turn, strongly favored the political and cultural coalescence of the tribes spread over this area.

Common facilities

As a segmentary society, each of the tribes had a high degree of self-determination and brought their own traditions and stories with them, which were collected in the Bible. The cohesion of the twelve tribes formed common sanctuaries , at which annual sacrificial festivals took place. They received harvest dues administered by the thirteenth tribe, the Levites . In the event of an external threat to one or more tribes, they may conduct joint defense campaigns. An army commander who felt himself to be called sent letters to all tribes in order to raise an army. This was dependent on the situation and did not become a fixed institution.

Transition to royalty

Map circa 1741: "Judaea seu Palaestina" with cities and tribal areas

According to Book 1 of Samuel , the long-standing threat from the Philistines ended the era of the loose tribal union, and Israel became a monarchy like the surrounding peoples. The king, designated by a prophet , was originally only confirmed by the tribes after he had proven successful in foreign policy. So he took over the function of the appointed charismatic military leader and made it permanent. According to the Bible, the great empire of Israel is said to have included all twelve tribes under the first kings Saul , David and Solomon before it broke up into the northern kingdom of Israel with ten tribes and the southern kingdom of Judah with two tribes. David had made Jerusalem his capital, which later became the capital of the southern kingdom.

The amphictyonia hypothesis

Until around 1960, Old Testament science often explained the Israelite tribal union as an amphictyony , i.e. a solid unit of actual twelve tribes grouped around a central shrine. This hypothesis is now widely considered to be refuted.

H. Ewald (1864) and Hermann Gunkel put forward forerunners of this thesis (an overview of this is provided by Georg Fohrer) : Following the Pentateuch's own presentation, they adopted a tribal union in the patriarchal period, which was established before the exodus from Egypt under Moses and the Adoption of the YHWH belief existed in the Palestine area. Ewald already pointed to lists of twelve and six for non-Israelite peoples in the Bible:

Max Weber assumed a "Confederation", which was conceived as a war alliance and accordingly saw YHWH as the god of war. Its members could then change.

Martin Noth developed this thesis since 1930 with the essay The System of the Twelve Tribes of Israel . He explained the tribal union as the unification of the settled neighboring tribes on the veneration of YHWH in the time of the judges under Joshua , the successor of Moses, as it is shown in Jos 24 and Judge 19-21. To spread such a sacred unity around a central shrine , he drew extra-biblical parallels from ancient Greece and the Italians . The Israelite tribal union only waged war in exceptional cases.

Albrecht Alt ( Kleine Schriften I, 55ff. And II, 7f.21f.) Adopted this concept, but expanded it to include a preliminary form in the pre-Palestinian period. Sigmund Mowinckel (cf. 1946, 20ff.) Then assumed originally ten tribes, which were only expanded to twelve tribes under King David . Similarly, A. Weiser (1959, 96) and K.-H. Schunck (1963). Various researchers added that there had been small secondary amphictyonia, for example in Hebron (Sayce 1889), Kadesch (Noth and Alt), Sichem (Noth and TJ Meek 1936), Gilgal (K. Möhlenbrink 1938) or Betel (Alfred Jepsen 1953/54).

For Gerhard von Rad , the Holy War in early Israel was a recurring, central joint action by the sacred covenant of twelve tribes. In addition, Dus (1960, 1965) argued that he had already had a political organization with a council of elders and a leader, analogous to the Phoenician Carthage .

In 1965 Otto Eißfeldt was one of the first Old Testament scholars to criticize this "amphictyonization" of early Israelite history. Y. Kaufmann and HM Orliensky (1962) were also completely negative. AM Beek (1961) and Siegfried Herrmann (1962) adopted a rather loose association . An allocation of the YHWH war to the Rahelstämmen and the Amphiktyonie to the Leastämmen comes from Rudolf Smend (1963). Instead of an Israelite tribal union, Rahtjen (1965) adopted an amphictyony of the five Philistine cities.

The critics first questioned the legitimacy of an analogy to the Greco-Italic models. But this already hit the core of the hypothesis. With J. Maier (1965) the ark of the covenant was increasingly recognized as being constructed for the sake of mobility (distress from the Philistines).

In federal research of the 1950s, it was also believed that the entire structure of the book Deuteronomy and the Sinaipericope corresponded to the type of Old Ethite contract forms that had been deciphered: They contained contracts forced by the great king, placed under the protection of the gods through blessings and curse, in which he for obedience on his part promised reciprocity. Since these forms were dated before 1200, the covenant concept was also placed in Israel's pre-state times and the Decalogue in the time of Moses. According to the Amphiktyoniethese (connected with the assumption of the wandering ark as a central sanctuary), pre-royal Israel was called a tribal union, to which the divine union then aptly corresponded.

With the abandonment of the amphictyonic hypothesis and the realization that the Decalogue is much younger than the conditions described in it, this structure of hypotheses also collapsed and the covenant of God was declared as a theological idea of ​​the late royal era. Likewise, the twelve tribes are an attempted back projection of the conditions in pre-state times, when there was no central kingdom.

Transfer to the modern age

The traditional tribes of Israel lost their importance after the establishment of the monarchy in Israel, and then in particular due to the deportations by the Assyrians after the conquest of the northern empire around the year 722 BC. Since then, the ten deported tribes have been considered "lost" tribes , even if it can be assumed that individual Israelites returned to their ancestral lands at unknown times. With the Babylonian exile , the remaining two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, were forcibly relocated; they too finally returned. These population movements, as well as the conversion of other ethnic groups to Judaism, allowed precisely definable tribal affiliations to perish in pre-Christian times. Later mentions of the "Twelve Tribes" are mainly to be understood as a metaphor .

(inaccurate!) representation of presumed areas of distribution of the Jewish diaspora around 1490.

With the beginning of the modern Aliyah , traditional tribal theories were used on various occasions to determine the origin of Jews from the Diaspora , and immigrants to Israel to be recognized as members of the old tribes - for example, the Ethiopian Beta Israel are considered descendants of the lost tribe of Dan, without that a historically more reliable evidence can be given for this. Due to the great heterogeneity of both the way of life and the tradition handed down in each case, it played a major role in the integration in Israel whether immigrant Jews, for example, Ashkenazi , Sephardic , Romance , Karaitic , Ethiopian, Iraqi , Kurdish , Yemeni , Georgian , mountain Jewish , Persian, of Bukharian , Marathic , Malabar or other origin. In some cases, genetic studies were even carried out on the relationships between these groups.

Other theories of descent associated with Judaism are also linked to the ancient tradition of the twelve tribes using appropriate terms, such as the alleged descent of Eastern Judaism from the Khazars as the so-called "thirteenth tribe" , which was claimed in 1976 by Arthur Koestler .

See also


  • Otto Bächli: Amphictyony in the Old Testament. Research history study on the hypothesis of Martin Noth (= Theologische Zeitschrift. Special volume 6). Reinhardt, Basel 1977, ISBN 3-7245-0388-1 .
  • Martinus Adrianus Beek: On the ways and traces of the Old Testament . Mohr (Siebeck), Tübingen 1961.
  • Jan Dus: The "Elders of Israel" . In: Communio viatorum. No. 3, 1960, ISSN  0010-3713 , pp. 232-242.
  • Jan Dus: The "Sufetes of Israel" . In: Archive Orientálni. No. 31, 1963, ISSN  0044-8699 , pp. 444-469.
  • Jan Dus: The ancient Israelite amphictyonic poetry . In: Journal for Old Testament Science. No. 75, 1963, ISSN  0934-2796 , pp. 45-54.
  • Otto Eißfeldt : The Hebrew Kingdom . In: The Cambridge Ancient History . Vol. 2: Ch XXXIV. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1965.
  • Heinrich Ewald : History of the people of Israel . Volume 1: Introduction to the history of the people of Israel . 3rd edition, Dieterich, Göttingen 1864.
  • Georg Fohrer : “Amphictyony” and “Bund”? In: Theological literary newspaper. No. 91, 1966, ISSN  0040-5671 , pp. 801-816 and 893-904.
  • Hermann Gunkel : Prehistory and the Patriarchs. (The first book of Moses) (= The Scriptures of the Old Testament. Division 1: The sagas of the Old Testament. No. 1). 2nd unchanged edition, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1920.
  • Siegfried Herrmann: The Becoming of Israel . In: Theological literary newspaper. No. 87, 1962, ISSN  0040-5671 , pp. 561-574.
  • Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg : The little judges . In: Theological literary newspaper. No. 79 (1954), ISSN  0040-5671 , pp. 285-290.
  • Alfred Jepsen : On the tradition of the father figures . In: Festschrift dedicated to Albrecht Alt on the occasion of his 70th birthday ( scientific journal - social and linguistic series. Vol. 3, 1953/54, 1). Self-published by Karl Marx University, Leipzig 1953/54, pp. 139–153.
  • Johann Maier : The old Israelite ark sanctuary (= journal for Old Testament science. Supplements 93, ISSN  0934-2575 ). Töpelmann, Berlin 1965.
  • Theophile James Meek: Hebrew Origins (= The Haskell Lectures. Vol. 34, 1933). Harper, New York NY et al. 1936.
  • Kurt Möhlenbrink: The land acquisition sagas of the book of Joshua . In: Journal of Old Testament Science. No. 56, 1938, ISSN  0934-2796 , pp. 238-268.
  • Sigmund Mowinckel: On the question of documentary sources in Josua 13-19 (= Norske Videnskaps-Akademi - Historisk-Filosofisk Class. Vol. 1, Avhandlinger 1946). Dybwad, Oslo 1946.
  • Martin Noth : The system of the 12 tribes of Israel (= contributions to the science of the Old and New Testament. Vol. IV, 1). Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1930.
  • Gerhard von Rad : Theology of the Old Testament (2 volumes). Kaiser, Munich.
    • Volume 1: The Theology of the Historical Traditions of Israel . 4th revised edition, 1962.
    • Volume 2: Theology of the Old Testament . 2nd edition, 1961.
  • Bruce D. Rahtjen: Philistine and Hebrew Amphictyonies . In: Journal of Near Eastern Studies . No. 24, 1965, pp. 100-104.
  • Archibald Henry Sayce : The Cuneiform Tablets of El-Amarna, now preseved in the Boulaq Museum . In: Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archeology. No. 11, 1888/89, ZDB -ID 209191-4 .
  • Klaus-Dietrich Schunck: Benjamin. Investigations into the origin and history of an Israelite tribe. (= Journal for Old Testament Science. Supplements 86, ISSN  0934-2575 ). Töpelmann, Berlin 1963.
  • Rudolf Smend : Yahweh War and the Tribal League. Considerations on the oldest history of Israel (Professor D. Dr. Walter Baumgartner on his 75th birthday) (=  research on the religion and literature of the Old and New Testaments. No. 84). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1963 (also: habilitation paper, University of Bonn).
  • Max Weber : Collected essays on the sociology of religion . Edited by Marianne Weber . Volume 3: Ancient Judaism . 2nd photomechanically printed edition, Mohr, Tübingen 1923, (7th photomechanically printed edition, ibid 1983, ISBN 3-16-544647-4 ), in particular pp. 1-400.
  • Anton Weiser: The Deborahlied . In: Journal of Old Testament Science. No. 71, 1959, ISSN  0934-2796 , pp. 67-97.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Emil G. Hirsch: The Twelve Tribes , full text of the Jewish Encyclopedia published in 1906
  2. ^ Alan T. Levenson: The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel, and America Transformed an Ancient Text . Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2011. page 202. ISBN 978-1-4422-0518-5
  3. Martin Noth: History of Israel. 8th edition, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1976, ISBN 978-3-525-52120-5 , p. 111.
  4. ^ Thomas Wagner:  Israel (AT). In: Michaela Bauks, Klaus Koenen, Stefan Alkier (eds.): The scientific biblical dictionary on the Internet (WiBiLex), Stuttgart 2006 ff., Accessed on May 30, 2012.
  5. M. Noth: History of Israel. Göttingen 1976, p. 114.
  6. M. Noth: History of Israel. Göttingen 1976, p. 52.