<<clan, ethnic group>>

In the Bible, this normally refers to one or several of the twelve tribes of Israel. God said to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations when, in reality at that time, Abraham and Sarah were childless (Gen 15:2-5, 17:4,5). Abraham tried to help God out by fathering a son through Sarah’s servant girl; the resulting son was Ishmael from whom the Arab nations descended.  Fourteen years later ‘the son of promise’ was born to Abraham and Sarah (Gen16:16, 21:5). This only true son, Isaac, was the father of another only son, Jacob (who was also called Israel). His twelve sons became a collection of families, having a natural descent from the one ancestor. It was during the period when these sons were entering early adulthood that the second youngest (Joseph) was sold as a slave into Egypt, and then rose to a place of extreme power. Ultimately they also moved to Egypt as a family group, however their status changed from foreigners to slaves. It was over 400 years later that the Israelites finally left Egypt, in an exodus to the Promised Land, during which time they became a nation set apart for God.

During the wilderness journey under Moses’ leadership God choose the tribe of Levi (the Levities) for a special function – to transport, care for and serve in the tabernacle, ministering to the Lord on behalf of the other tribes (Num 1:47-53, 3:7-13). As such, their normal responsibilities were different from that of the other tribes. When they arrived in the Promised Land, they didn’t receive any specific inheritance of land, but the other tribes were to meet their needs (Num 35:2-4; Josh 13:14,33, 21:1-3). Two and a half tribes (Reubenites, Gadites, and half of the tribe of Manasseh) were content not to enter; settling to the east of Jordan, yet the men helped their blood brothers conquer Canaan from the occupying enemy nations (Num 32:20-22; Josh 14:3, 22:1-5). The remaining tribes living west of Jordan had their inheritance area determined by lot.

All the biblical genealogies follow this pattern of naming, related to a family, clan and tribe, instead of using surnames, as we do today (Num 1:4-43; Josh 7:16-18). Although the Levites continued as a tribe, they ceased to be listed among the twelve.  Joseph also did not have a tribe named after him but his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were

Christians take their name from                              their leader, Christ

selected to make up the twelve tribes (Gen 35:23-26). Each tribe had it’s own camping area, flag pole and banner (Num 1:52, 2:1-31). Being organised into tribes provided a sense of security and belonging, besides being an efficient way to manage and govern the Israelites who were now reckoned to be in excess of two million people.

After King Saul died the nation split into two Kingdoms, 10 tribes followed one of Saul’s sons, forming the Northern Kingdom (referred to as Israel). Ephraim was the key tribe, with Samaria becoming their capital city.  The tribes of Judah and Simeon followed David, forming the Southern Kingdom (also called Judah) with the capital city being Jerusalem.  David ruled there for seven years before he became King over the whole, united Israel in 1003 BC (2 Sam 2:4, 5:3-5). Tribal differences and tension continued and within 75 years the Kingdom again divided with Judah and Benjamin forming the Southern Kingdom (1 Kgs 12:20-25).

Because of their unfaithfulness to God, the Northern Kingdom were the first to be taken captive, by Assyria, in 722 BC, then in 586 BC Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom were taken by the Babylonian army. In 537 BC some exiles returned to Jerusalem, yet their homeland continued to be under the control of occupying authorities (including the Romans at the time of Christ), until it was eventually recognised as a legitimate state in 1948.

The names of the twelve tribes of Israel will be written on the gates of the New Jerusalem but there will be people from every tribe or people group in heaven (not just those of Jewish descent), worshipping God because they have been redeemed (Rev 5:9, 7:9, 21:12). 

See also: Assyria, Babylon, David, Egypt, Jacob, Jews, Joseph, Judah (tribe of), lost tribes of Israel, Northern Kingdom, Roman Empire,  Southern Kingdom.


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