Israel and the 12 Tribes; God's Covenant Nation

Bible History leading to Israel

Although there is no distinction in God's eyes, sin is sin. We are reading through the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis and have come to Chapter six. Things, unfortunately, do get worse. We read story after story of what God expects and how man falls short and sins. God corrects the behavior, time goes on and the pattern repeats itself. We read the story of the first murder, brother against brother in Genesis 4:8. The clincher in this story is Cain was jealous of Abel because his offering to God was found to be more acceptable. Only six chapters in and we see how wicked God's perfect creation has become. Why then would God give free will if it was nothing but misery? It is only through free will that you can reap true and pure love. If you didn't ave a choice to do otherwise, the love would be programmed and robotic. It would not be a fulfilling relationship for either partner.

When you look at a couple who has been married for over 75 years, like my grandparents this spring, why does this make us marvel? Because for 75 years these two very different individuals chose to stick it out with each other during World War II, unemployment, five children and moving from state to state instead of divorcing. Don't you think that in those 75 years there were times when each of them would have like to just throw in the towel? It would have been easy. Do you think that we would celebrate so much if they were forced to stay together instead of choosing to do so?

Here's another example. Let's say your family decided to get a puppy. You had all these plans for the dog; years worth of walks in the park, cuddling at night, playing fetch by day, someone to way their tail and kiss your hand when you walk in the door, perhaps guard the family and give unconditional love. Yet, the dog you bring home ends up being vicious. It bites every family member, destroys your house and yard, runs amok in the neighborhood and barks incessantly. You would feel sorry that you chose to get a dog in the first place and grieve over all those reasons you wanted a dog that will never come to be. God saw that His creation, specifically those who were created in HIs image were instead reflecting the fallen angel Lucifer, whom God had cast out of heaven.

Yet, God did find one righteous man. Genesis 6:8 tells us his name is Noah. Righteous does not mean perfect, if we had details of Noah's life, I am sure we'd find missteps of disobedience. But in his heart, he wanted to do God's will and was actively trying to live that out in his life, so much so that his neighbors in verse 9 called him blameless. It was his obedience to God that would spare him from God's wrath. Noah led his entire household in his faith; his wife, sons and their wives.

Noah's obedience is proved when God tells him to build an ark. He obeys even when the instructions earned him ridicule from his neighbors, cost him economically in materials, time, patience and Noah probably did not understand this plan of God at all. God had Noah gather up animals to ensure that when the discipline was over, life would once again be preserved and go on. Interesting that our Sovereign, creative God didn't just start over. He had the ability to create. Why didn't he? Like the naughty puppy, even though the dog ignored its master, he had a name and was loved by its owner. We seek to train the dog we have, not return it to the pound and get another. Upon stepping onto dry land after the flood ordeal, the first thing Noah did was build an altar to give thanks to God.

Genesis 9:11 "I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." To have man remember this promise of God, he gave us a sign that is still seen today after water meets the sun; a rainbow. This tells us two things. God will not tolerate wickedness, it will be dealt with and yet he still values man as His prized creation and still wants that free will relationship with him.

The second story we have of man's wickedness growing out of control is in Genesis 11. People again focused on themselves and forgot about God When you ask your children "what are you babbling about?" did you realize that it was a Biblical reference? Corporate pride had man building a tower with the goal to "reach to top of heaven to make a name for ourselves." The project pathetically failed for God still had to come "down" to deal with His rebellious children once again. God was not threatened but was displeased with the attitude of their hearts. God have different languages to confuse their progress and make cooperation difficult. So difficult, the tower project was abandoned and people groups moved away, gathering together with people who spoke the same language.

We have been traveling east on the two lane road of God's route 66. The surfers and swimmers in the ocean just off Santa Monica Pier with the tanners and beachcombers that litter the sand against the lights of the Ferris wheel and palm trees, have given way to the Joshua trees. Sand increases and the ocean is left behind us. The desert of sin is quite a quagmire from the bliss of Eden to a world wide flood and a pretentious tower.

Patriarch of Three Religions

Genesis, Chapter 12. God has chosen a man named Abram to be the patriarch of His people. The Bible tells us he was a man of faith (v.4), worship (v.7) and cowardice (v.13) to name a few. God honors a man who exhibits faith in Him and although Abram acted on his cowardice by claiming to Pharoah, the ruler of the area that his wife was actually his sister, God did not deny using Abram for His purpose. It just took longer to accomplish when Abram muddied the waters.

Abram had a nephew named Lot that he took with him in his travels and it soon became apparent that these families got on each other's nerves and needed to separate. Lot chose with his eyes, what he saw. Genesis 13:11 says he picked for himself "the Jordan valley" for it was green and inviting. Abram decided that if God went with him, he would prosper wherever. He would bloom where God plants him. This perspective and principal is still true today. God also changed Abram's name to Abraham in Genesis 17:5. In our modern language, this name change doesn'tseem too significant. It you were to study the original Hebrew alphabet, you would learn that they have a character for God that is thought to be so sacred, they rarely mention it. It is interesting to note the "ha" addition to Abraham's name is the Hebrew character representing God. God has given a new name; His own name, to the man that would carry out His purpose.

Abraham and his wife Sarai were behone the childbearing years. God promised Abraham not only an heir, but descendants so numerous, that they would be like to stars in the sky. Abraham and Sarai had their doubts, and as the years passed, they took matters into their own hands to produce that heir God had promised.

It was the custom in those days for men to have multiple wives and concubines. Since Sarai was barrn, she agreed to let her husband Abraham to take her maid named Hagar so she could get pregnant in her place. Instead of producing the promised heir, it created jealousy in Sarai and she grew to hate both Hagar and her son she had with Abraham, named Ishmael. By not trusting in God's timing, and stepping outside his standards for marriage, they invited strife to come upon them and division which is going on between these descendants to this very day. Issac, who would be born to Sarai and Abraham was the promised descendant God blessed. (Genesis 15:4) Muslims believe that as the firstborn, it is Ishmael that is favored.

Those who have struggled with the agony of infertility can imagine the joy Abraham and Sarai must have felt to finally have Isaac in their old age. It comes as quite a shock to Abraham when God decides to use this very blessing to test Abraham's resolve to obey God. Please note this is a one time test for a specific person in history and it used to foreshadow what God did through Jesus Christ. Leviticus 18:21 strictly instructs that God forbids human sacrifice. You can read the entire account in Genesis 22. God rewards Abraham's obedience before any harm comes to Isaac.

Twelve Tribes of Israel

Characteristic / Role
Mother of Tribe
First born. Mighty. Powerful. "One who has seen my misery"
Violent with weapons. "One who hears"
Quarrelsome. Priests. "Attached"
Lion. Jesus' line. "Praise"
Judge. Serpent. "Vindication"
Bilah; Rachel's maid
Deer. Freedom. "My struggle"
Bilah; Rachel's maid
Raider. "Good Fortune"
Zilpah; Leah's maid
Abundant harvest. "Happy."
Zilpah; Leah's maid
Donkey. Labor slave. "Reward"
Ship Harbor. "Honor"
Fruitful Bough. "That He May Add"
Wolf. Ravenously devouring. "Son of My Right Hand."
The dysfunctional offspring of Jacob, his wives and maids that became the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph's tribe would later be known by his son, Manasseh.

Branches of Israel's Family Tree

Abraham and his wife Sarah (who also went through a name change from Sarai) had Isaac. The promised heir that God had promised them would come a great nation. Isaac married Rebekah and they had twin sons. These two were fighting in the womb. Genesis 25: 22-26 tells us that the Lord God (covenant title) told Rebekah that the older child would serve the younger one which is contrary to how it worked in their culture. The eldest children would inherit the lion's share of his father's weath. The fathr ceremoniously bestowed the "birthright" to the eldest son but God has a different plan. You may think "that's not fair!" God's plans do not need our approval or understanding.

Isaiah 55:8 "My thoughts are not your thoughts and neither are your ways my ways' declares the Lord."

In this example, we see Esau, the eldest twin, is not the most charming, honorable of men. He does not have a heart that seeks the things of God. Short minded Esau is willing to trade his coveted birthright for a bit of stew one night for dinner! This rebellious son also purposely set out to marry a wife outside of their nationality which at the time was forbidden. He was angry at his brother Jacob, the younger twin who had tricked him a second time out of his birthright.

Like Abraham and Sarah who had engaged Hagar in hurrying up the descendant process and creating the conflict with Ishmael, Jacob and his mother took matters into their own hands and jumped the gun in going after the birthright that God had promised to Jacob. Did they think God couldn't accomplish His purpose without the meddling intervention from mortal humans? It is ludicrous to think so. Instead of waiting on God's timing, Jacob and his mother manipulated the weakened physical state of an elderly Issac to secure the birthright. Genesis 27 explains the whole betrayal and I encourage you to read the whole story.

It is no surprise that his brother Esau was angry at the deceit and vowed to get revenge. Because of this, Jacob had to flee to his mother's brother, Laban in another town. Mother and son would never see each other again because of their dishonesty. Jacob will also be victim to the same type of trickery he bestowed on his father and brother. Genesis 29 explains how his Uncle Laban does a bait a switch with marrying off his daughters to Jacob. Jacob had fallen for pretty Rachel and agreed to work for Laban for seven years. At the end of that time, after the wedding, where tradition dictates that the bride wear a veil to hide her face, Jacob discovers that he had been given the older sister, Leah. After another seven years of service, he is permitted to marry Rachel as well.

Genesis Chapter 30 describes how man's scheming outside of God's will only produces strife that God never intended him to carry. Rachel was jealous that she was barren when her sister was Fertile Myrtle. Leah was jealous of Rachel because Jacob loved her more. These feuding sisters each gave their husband Jacob a maidservant to have children with. Can you say poster family for disfunction? Can you imagine the dynamics that was happeneing within that polygamous family between wives, between their relationship with Jacob and between the brothers? Even the brother's names indicate the sibling war between their mothers. This is noted on the graph below.

It is important to note that the Lamb of God, Jesus, God's ultimate plan for the salvation of man is from the lineage of Judah. Judah is number four on the inheritance ladder, but again, God chooses whom He wills, and searches the ulterior motives of the heart. The conditions that disqualified the three brothers ahead of his in succession is found in Genesis 34 & 35. Judah is also from the first and some would argue "true" wife. Jacob had a total of thirteen children with four women, but the daughter born to Leah is often forgotten when we speak of the "twelve tribes of Israel."

The Center of the World

Joseph & His Amazing Technicolor Coat

There is a famous Broadway play that depicts this famous portion of Scripture. In Genesis 32:38, Jacob's name is changed to be called "Israel" which will also be the name of the nation. Jacob played favorites with his sons, a parental no-no. Because Joseph was the firstborn from his beloved wife, Rachel, he lavished extraordinary love upon him; a fact that was not missed by his jealous brothers. The "straw that broke the camel's back" was a beautiful coat that Israel gave him. Bible commentries mention that this coat was an indication that Jacob was planning to make Joseph the heir. Because of this, verse 5 says "they hated him all the more." God had a very specific purpose for Joseph and he was going to use him to save the entire family.

The story goes that Joseph began to have these amazing dreams, sent by God telling him of what was to come, although he couldn't understand the meaning of the dreams at the time. In his youthful arrogance, Joseph blabbed these visions to his brothers, personally handing them more annumnition to fuel their hatred toward him. The dreams told of Joseph being higher in position that his older brothers. Finally, the brothers had enough and decided to be rid of "the dreamer" once and for all. So they sold him to some passing traders one afternoon while they were away from home tending their father's animal herds. Not only did they pocket a nice monetary reward, they were free of the brother that had become a bane in their existence. The only thing left to do was come up with a plausable lie to tell their father as to why Joseph would never be coming home.

The brother's took his colorful coat, ripped it and dipped it in animal's blood. They told Jacob that Joseph had been attacked by a wild beast. The deceit that Jacob and his mother had with this father had come back to haunt him with is own sons deceiving him over Joseph's demise. Meanwhile, Joseph was taken to Egypt as a slave. Things got worse, however, when Joseph caught the eye of his master's wife to tried to seduce him in Genesis 39:11-18. When he denied her, she had him thrown in prison for attempted rape. Innocent Joseph would soon be forgotten for a time by man, but never by God.

Genesis 39:21 "But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison."

During this time, God tempered Joseph's impulsive arrogance from his youth and matured him into a man of integrity even in prison. He was given the ability to interpret dreams and this got him out of prison when he was able to interpret dreams of Pharoah's butler and baker who put in a good word for him with the Egyptian ruler. When Pharoah had a dream that required interpretation, Joseph was called upon. By God's wisdom, Joseph foretold of a famine that was to strike the land for seven years, following a season for seven years of plenty. He was made second in command over Egypt to rule and govern using this God given wisdom during the famine.

This turn of events, brought Joseph's brothers to Egypt in search of food. Joseph's dreams from long ago were unfolding; the older brothers were in face bowing down to him. Through a series of tests, Joseph ahd to discover if his brother's hearts had changed and come to love and protect his father. Why in the world is this story so important? Not only can we learn something from the characters about listening to God and trusting both his plan and timing, not the circumstances around us but it brought the children of Israel to Egypt for a season. This foreshadows in New Testament when once again, Egypt would be a nation of protection for Jesus as an infant fleeing from a murderous King Herod.

How do the twelve tribes turn out? In Deuteronomy 27:12-13 we read that half the tribes were blessed. This included Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. The tribes called cursed were Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali. In later books, there are a few changes. Joseph's portion is listed under his son, Manasseh. Dan is omited in Revelation due to his violent and treacherous lifestyle as listed in Judges 18. These tribes give the nation of Israel a smaller sense of individuality and purpose, much like our states do in the United States of America. The book of Beginnings now draws to a close with the Jewish nation flourishing in Egypt but Joseph giving strict instructions to take his bones back to Israel for burial. Why? Because Joseph knew that pagan Egypt was not their home. It had saved the family from starvation during a famine for a season, but the Jewish people should not get too comfortable there. The story of their departure is told in the next Old Testament book, Exodus.

Genesis 49:10 "The scepter shall not depart from Juday, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until He comes to whom it belongs and to Him shall be the obedience of the peoples." This speaks of the waited Messiah that is born generations later and recorded in the New Testament. His name is Jesus Christ.

Joseph's coat of many colors, given to him by his father, Jacob.
Joseph's coat of many colors, given to him by his father, Jacob.

How did the Tribes End Up?

Genesis 49: 2-29 describes the tribes as they spread out over the land of Israel for generations to come. (This is taken in part from Bible Comentary, Nelson KJV)

Reuben - Jacob's first born, traditionally should have both the birthright (given to Judah) and the blessing (given to Joseph). But he had an affair with his father's mistress, Rachel's handmaiden Bilhah, mother of his half-brothers Dan and Naphtali. Reuben is described as "unstable as water" meaning he usually let his emotions dictate and his tribe never did amount to anything significant. No prophet, judge or hero came from his tribe.

Simeon and Levi are dealt with together for their revenge on their sister Tamar's rape in Genesis, chapter 34. Their decendants were divided and scattered. Simeon is often referred to as the weakest of the tribes. Levi is given the priestly duties and therefore is dependant on the other tribes because he received no inheritance of his own. On maps, you will notice that Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh hold the inheritances for Levi and Joseph.

Judah would rise as a leader among his brothers. It would be from his tribe that Jesus would emerge generations later. The scepter was a symbol of law and power and was to not leave his tribe.

Zebulun was to dwell by the sea. Although he never actually made it near a body of water, his tribe is positioned on a trade route that would have them constantly dealing with the sea merchants.

Issachar was limited to domestic responsibilities. This tribe is known more for their agricultural persuits and more materially minded than political. They were also known as brave warriors.

Dan was to be a judge for his people. The fact that the writer of Genesis uses a serpent to describe him alludes to the tribe's lack of moral commitment and spiritual stability.

Gad's tribe was to be constantly attacked and harassed, vulenerable to attacks.

Asher settled in the estern Galilean hill country giving strength to Israel's northern border.

Naphtali's tribe is a free mountain people recognized for their heroism in a great battle described in Judges chapter 5.

Joseph is a "fruitful bough" which alludes to his younger son Ephraim whose name means 'fruitful.' Joshua, Deborah and Samuel all come from Ephraim's tribe. Gideon and Jephthah come from the tribe of Manasseh, (Joseph's older son). Following the reign of King Solomon, Ephraim's tribe would be the leader of the Northern Israel when the kingdom divided.

Benjamin's tribe is compared to a wolf because of it's warlike character of distinguished archers and slingers. They were successful in war, but cruel.

Jewish priest wore this breastplate with precious stones that symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jewish priest wore this breastplate with precious stones that symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel.

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