TRIBES, THE TWELVE:
By: Emil G. Hirsch
The individual tribes having been treated under their respective captions, it is proposed to discuss in the present article the theories concerning the nature, number, and origin of the tribes of Israel. The uncritical or precritical theory accepts as data of personal histories the Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs' lives. Accordingly, the tribes are regarded as having been formed in the main by the natural increase of the offspring of Jacob. The descendants of each of his sons are believed to have held together and thus constituted a social entity, though foreign wives and slaves were at times admitted and their offspring absorbed. The difficulties which have led to the rejection of this theory by most Biblical scholars are of a twofold nature. In the first place, such natural origin could by no means account for the numbers given in the Biblical books as the census of the various tribes. Anthropology furnishes no other example of a nation having arisen by natural descent from one ancestral family. In the second place, the study and comparison of the various (and only in one instance perfectly concordant) lists of the tribes, as preserved in the Biblical records, suggest that considerations other than the fact of common descent underlie the different groupings and discordant order of these tribal tables, and the common origin is thus shown to be only theoretical. The tribes are arranged in twenty different orders, only one of which (Num. ii., vii., x. 14-29) recurs.
Various principles are readily detected to be worked out in the tables. (1) A certain number of tribal lists (e.g., those in Gen. xxix.-xxxv., xlvi., xlix.; Ex. i.; Num. i., ii., vii., x., xiii., xxvi.; I Chron. ii., xxvii.) trace descent from Jacob, but through his various wives and concubines, grouping those always together that have a common mother, thus: (a) tribes of Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun; (b) tribes of Zilpah (Leah's slave): Gad, Asher; (c) tribes of Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin; (d) tribes of Bilhah (Rachel's slave): Dan and Naphtali. (2) Other lists are arranged according to geographical position (Num. xxxiv.; Deut. xxxiii.; Josh. xiii.; Judges v.; I Chron. ii. 3-viii.). (3) Tradition concerning both affinity and geographical position (Deut. xxvii.). But even here the relative importance of the tribes decides whether they are to receive a blessing or a curse. Ezekiel's list (Ezek. xlviii.) reflects the prophet's ideal conceptions. It is thus plain that the records do not give simple and indubitable facts, but disclose certain theories and reflect certain post-patriarchal conditions.
As anthropology presents no warrant for assuming that nations are formed through natural descent from one ancestor, so the process of a tribe's origin must be the reverse of that underlying the presentation of Biblical patriarchal tradition. Tribes result from combinations of various septs or clans. The tribe (Hebr. "maṭṭeh" or "shebeṭ") was a confederation of "mishpaḥot" (R. V. "families") and septs; and these again were composed of various households ("battim" or "batte abot"). Community of worship is the characteristic and constitutive element of this ascending and enlarging order of tribal society (comp. I Sam. xx. 6). The names of the tribes probably represent, therefore, former eponymous deities whose "sons"—even in a physical sense—the members of the tribe felt themselves to be. The tribal denominations therefore do not represent historical and personal progenitors, but mythical figures, former divinities, or heroes.Modern View.
This is the theory now held by most of the modern scholars, modified by the recognition that many of the subclans' names point to localities—the numen of the place being believed to be the father of the inhabitants. This fact suggests a similar original meaning of the names of some of Jacob's sons (e.g., Asher, Benjamin [the southern]); and it is evident that in the patriarchal cycles later history is projected into earlier centuries, so that tribal rankings as expressed in patriarchal family events correspond to subsequent historical relations. For example, Joseph and Judah typify two distinct lines of descent, Judah in all likelihood being a non-Israelitish mixed tribe. In the quarrels of Leah and Rachel are mirrored the struggles for the hegemony waged by these two sets of tribes.
That some of these tribes are descended through a concubine, the bondwoman of a legitimate wife, expresses the historical fact that they were deemed to be of less pure blood or of less importance than others, and were held to a certain extent in vassalage by the more powerful tribes. In like manner later territorial relations are worked out in the tribal genealogies, which accounts for the omission of some of the tribes (e.g., Simeon and Levi) from the lists or from the blessings (Deut. xxxiii., for instance).Historical Kernel.
The historical kernel involved in all the tribal catalogues and the patriarchal legends would appear to be this: In the Sinaitic Peninsula a number of pastoral tribes had for centuries been pasturing their flocks; and at times, when food was scarce, were driven to take refuge in Egypt, in the border district of which country some (e.g., Joseph) of their number found settled habitations. These tribes were loosely conscious of their common religious affinity, regarding as their progenitor Israel, whose sons they were called ("Beni Israel"). This loose consciousness gave way to a deeper national sense of unity under Moses, though in the conquest of Palestine the tribes still acted without coherence. Judah seems to have stood aloof from the tribe of Joseph and its vassals, and to have joined its fortunes with theirs only after the Joseph group had finally gained a foothold across the Jordan. Geographical considerations after this replaced the traditional memories of relations that prevailed in the trans-Jordanic districts, Judah and Benjamin in the south gaining for a time the ascendency over Joseph in the north.
With the establishment of the kingdom and the later division of the realm the force of tribal association gradually waned. In fact, the premonarchical period of tribal dissensions and intertribal feuds had reduced many of the tribes to a state of weakness which resulted in their absorption by their stronger and more numerous neighbors. This process of tribal disintegration was accelerated by the Syrian and Assyrian wars leading up to deportation and exile, the "ten" tribes constituting the Northern Kingdom being "lost" through natural decimation in consequence of war and famine at home and through absorption by the "people of the land," the Syrians north of them and the colonists settled in their territory by the Assyrian conquerors.
The artificiality of the number twelve is apparent. The subdivisions of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) intrude into the duodecimal notation, while, on the other hand, omissions as frequently reduce the number. Manasseh at times is treated as two, which again interferes with the theory. That twelve is a favorite conventional number, even in connection with non-Jacobean tribes, appears from Gen. xvii. 20; xxii. 20-24; xxv. 13-16; xxxvi. 15-19, 40-43. It probably is of mythological character, having some connection with the twelve months of the year and the twelve signs of the zodiac. According to B. Luther (in Stade's "Zeitschrift" , xxi.), this number recalls the twelve departments into which Solomon divided the land of Israel, which division, however, attests the sacred nature of the number, twelve being used as a round figure. Other reckonings, as ten and eleven, are indicated in II Sam. xix. 43; I Kings xi. 31.
- G. B. Gray, The Lists of the Twelve Tribes, in Expositor, March, 1902;
- Charles, Book of Jubilees, 1902, pp. 170 et seq.;
- Wellhausen, I. J. G. pp. 11-13;
- idem, Prolegomena, etc., 4th ed., pp. 322-329;
- Stade, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, 3d ed., i. 519 et seq.;
- Stade's Zeitschrift, i.;
- Steuernagel, Die Einwanderung der Israelitischen Stämme in Kanaan, 1901;
- Gunkel, Genesis, 2d ed., p. 285;
- C. Matthes, Israels Nederzetting in Kanaan, in Theologisch Tijdschrift (1902), xxxvi.