by Robert Dean
Series:Genesis (2003)
Duration:56 mins 14 secs

The Tribes in History and Prophecy


The sons of Jacob become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. We have looked at them individually in terms of the prophecy related to the tribes and now we look at them as a unit. The twelve tribes are spoken of several times as a unit because it is through these twelve that the promise to Abraham is carried out. It begins with Abraham. God had a promise to Abraham that through his descendants he would bless all people, and specifically he is a promised one descendant, a son, and that was Isaac. Isaac's younger son Jacob is designated heir of the promise and the one who receives blessing, and despite his manipulation as he tried to get it, it was already secured because that was what God's promise had been to his parents: that the older would serve the younger. That prophecy was given while they were yet within the womb. But when we come to Jacob the promise doesn't just go to one son, it is now spread out to his twelve sons. But there are going to be some modifications because one of the sons, Levi, is going to be the head of the priestly tribe, and the priestly tribe will not have its own inheritance. So in order to take care of that there is the replacement of Joseph by the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim. The tribes are viewed as one unit. God's promise to Abraham is equally true for all of the sons of Jacob. They will be viewed historically as a unit even though there are differences as indicated by the prophecies.


The next place there is an emphasis on the twelve as a unit is in Exodus 28 in the garment of the high priest. This is when God gives the regulations for the dress of the high priest and this is what is going to distinguish them as the high priest. First of all we note that the materials that are used for the ephod, the breastplate and the garments of the high priest were extremely expensive. They were in some cases rare and in the ancient Near East the only people who ever wore garments made out of this kind of fabric with this much gold and precious stones were either the highest echelons of royalty or they would sometimes dress the statues of the gods, the idols, in garments woven from gold. The very garments that were worn indicated that this sets the high priest apart from anyone else. The uniform that was worn distinguishes him completely from all other people. Such apparel distinguished the high priest as being set apart.


Exodus 28:2 NASB "You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. [3] You shall speak to all the skilful persons whom I have endowed with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister as priest to Me." We should underline the words "holy garments" and "consecrate him" because the idea in the Hebrew in these words is that these garments set him apart. These are unique garments, distinguishing garments that indicate that he is set apart to the service of God. We might ask how in the world clothes would make one more spiritual, because as soon as we see that word "consecrate" what we think of is some nuance of spirituality. But clothes don't make us spiritual and the lack of clothes or the wrong uniform don't make us unspiritual or carnal. What they do is they set him apart, they indicate his station, his position, his role to serve the people, to serve God by serving the people as the priest. So the garments were to distinguish him and to set him apart visually so that the people would be able to identify who Aaron was.

Along with the makeup of his uniform the high priest also wore a turban. The turban had on it the words Qodesh la Adonai: "Holy to the Lord" or "Set apart to the Lord." The ephod that he wore was made of all blue, according to Exodus 28:31. Exodus 28:33 NASB "You shall make on its hem pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet {material,} all around on its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: [34] a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around on the hem of the robe." This was so that the people could hear the high priest on the day of atonement when he went into the holy of holies.

The breastplate: Exodus 28:17 NASB "You shall mount on it four rows of stones; the first row {shall be} a row of ruby, topaz and emerald; [18] and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and a diamond; [19] and the third row a jacinth, an agate and an amethyst; [20] and the fourth row a beryl and an onyx and a jasper; they shall be set in gold filigree. [21] The stones shall be according to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, according to their names; they shall be {like} the engravings of a seal, each according to his name for the twelve tribes." There are two stones placed in his shoulders and they are made from onyx stones. Each had the names of six tribes inscribed upon it in order of their birth. So that would mean that on the first stone would be engraved Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan and Naphtali, and the other the names of Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. The purpose of these shoulder stones and the breastplate was so that when the high priest entered into the holy of holies he was bringing with him, as he is standing as a representative of the entire nation, these symbols of identification placed upon him. Exodus 28:12 NASB "You shall put the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, {as} stones of memorial for the sons of Israel, and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for a memorial." He was going in and representing those twelve tribes, so there is a substitutionary element here. He is in their place and he is bringing the blood for the mercy seat on the day of atonement in their place. It is a picture of what took place on the cross: Jesus Christ was the substitute for the sins of the world. This was part of His priestly ministry, to be the sacrifice in our place.

The Urim and the Thummim. The "im" ending in Hebrew is a plural ending. That might suggest that there was more than one of each but we can't be sure. They are simply mentioned in Leviticus 8:8; Deuteronomy 33:8, 10; Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 28:6. We really don't know how they functioned. They were used as some system of divine guidance where the high priest could ask questions of God and in some way these stones were used to communicate God's answered.

As the Jews left Sinai and headed to Kadesh-barnea they were to follow a specific order of march and alignment. When they entered into camp at night they had to camp in a specific order. The tabernacle would be in the centre of the encampment and then it would be surrounded by three different groups of Levitical priests: Merarites to the north, the Gershonites on the west, and the Kohathites to the south. Moses, Aaron and the priests would be stationed on the east which would also be the direction where there would be the entry gate to the tabernacle. The inner area of the encampment would be surrounded by the twelve tribes. On the east in the most prominent position was the tribe of Judah. This would be related to that prophecy that Jacob gave indicating that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah. 

The order of the positioning of the tribes around the tabernacle isn't random. They were connected by birth order and by their mothers, so that on the east Judah, Issachar and Zebulun were all descendants of Leah. Reuben and Simeon and Levi were also from Leah. Then, because Levi was inside the encampment, Gad, who was descendant of Zilpah, Leah's maid moves into the south position. Then on the west there were the three tribes that are descendants of Rachel. Benjamin and Joseph were the only two sons of Rachel and Joseph's two sons are Manasseh and Ephraim. Then on the north side are the three tribes of Dan, a descended of Bilhah, one of Rachel's maids, then Asher in the middle, born to Zilpah, Leah's maid, and Naphtali in the north east, the descendant of Bilhah who was Rachel's maid. So there is an order here in terms of their mothers and their birth order. They are linked to those with whom they are most closely related and each group is led off by the most prominent tribe of that group: Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan. In three of the cases the tribal or group leader was the oldest, except for Ephraim who was the youngest but was given the blessing and the leadership.

As we go through Scripture, during the conquest they began operating as a unity trusting God. They had victory at Jericho, there was a failure because of Achan and sin in the camp. After they had dealt with sin they had victory at Ai, then they defeated the northern confederation of kings and the southern confederation of kings, and this led them to conquer the strong points in the land. But that wasn't enough to give them a full control of the land and as they went into their mopping up operation Judges chapter one tells us that they consistently and increasingly compromised. They fell apart during the period of the judges and no longer functioned as a unit. They fragmented, and that is what arrogance and sin does to any nation or people, it leads to fragmentation, division and discord. Following that there was a genuine revival, the people returned to God, especially under David. There was the united kingdom under the three kings of Saul, David and Solomon. Following Solomon there was a tax revolt that occurred led by Jeroboam who organized the ten northern tribes which became known as Israel. Civil war occurred and the nation was divided. The only place in the Bible where we have the term "ten tribes" is in 1 Kings 11:35ff. Even though it was referred to as the ten tribes it was more of an idiom. In the south Simeon's territory was in the territory of Judah. Benjamin also had territory around Jerusalem. By the time of the united monarchy Simeon had basically been absorbed into Judah. Furthermore there were the Levites who weren't distinct and were scattered throughout all of the tribes. So in the north there were basically eight distinct tribes, but by the time of the division into north and south tribal affiliation becomes less significant than geographical location. There were many people in the north who were believers and who understood the law who moved south after the Jeroboam revolt, because Jeroboam in order to unify the people decided the best thing to do was give them their own religion so they wouldn't have to go south and worship the God of Judah in Jerusalem. As a result of that the kings in the north all followed in Jeroboam's sin. There wasn't one good king in the north, every one of them followed Jeroboam in the sin of idolatry and so God took them out in divine discipline in 722 BC through the Assyrians.

God's statement of why he condemned and wiped out the northern kingdom. 2 Kings 17:22 NASB "The sons of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them. [23] until the LORD removed Israel from His sight, as He spoke through all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away into exile from their own land to Assyria until this day."

What happened to those ten northern tribes? First of all, many believers in the north saw it coming and left. They moved south. Many of the Levites who wished to remain orthodox also moved to the south. There are four positions when people talk about what happened to the ten tribes. The first view is that they became completely absorbed into all the various nations that the Assyrians transported them to and they lost their identity. Nobody could ever identify anyone in the ten lost tribes because they are lost. The second view, the one stated by Josephus, is that they were removed beyond the Euphrates. The idea was that they were moved so far away that they couldn't return, but they were prosperous, numerous, and some day they would return. A third view is (a strange view) that the ten lost tribes migrated to Europe and became known as the Saxons, and that the Saxons moved to England and the Anglo-Saxons are the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. That is known as British Israelism. Tis is a strange position that has its advocates, but it has no support historically whatsoever. The fourth position and the most accurate position is that only some of the population in the north were actually removed. Most of them stayed in place, others moved south into Judah. 2 Chronicles 30 records Hezekiah's invitation to those in the north and come south and be protected. Furthermore, the annals of Sargon which have been discovered in the 20th century indicate that he transported only 27,290 people and fifty chariots out of the northern kingdom. The population, most believe, was somewhere between 4 and 500,000 in the northern kingdom. Approximately 30,000 are removed. So that still leaves a sizeable number of Israelites in the north. A hundred years after their destruction, in 622, a number of Israelites moved south to help in the repair of the temple under the revival of Josiah. 2 Chronicles 34:9 NASB "They came to Hilkiah the high priest and delivered the money that was brought into the house of God, which the Levites, the doorkeepers, had collected from Manasseh and Ephraim, and from all the remnant of Israel, and from all Judah and Benjamin and the inhabitants of Jerusalem." So at that time they still had a clear identification of northern tribes. Others at that time came south to celebrate the feasts. 2 Chronicles 35:17, 18 NASB "Thus the sons of Israel who were present celebrated the Passover at that time, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days. There had not been celebrated a Passover like it in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet; nor had any of the kings of Israel celebrated such a Passover as Josiah did with the priests, the Levites, all Judah and Israel [northern tribes] who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem." Furthermore, modern archaeological evidence confirms what the Bible teaches, that there was an increase in population in the south after the northern kingdom is destroyed. 2 Chronicles 11:14 NASB "For the Levites left their pasture lands and their property and came to Judah and Jerusalem, for Jeroboam and his sons had excluded them from serving as priests to the LORD… [16] Those from all the tribes of Israel who set their hearts on seeking the LORD God of Israel followed them to Jerusalem, to sacrifice to the LORD God of their fathers."

Following the return from exile after the Babylonian captivity: 1 Chronicles 9:2, 3 NASB "Now the first who lived in their possessions in their cities {were} Israel, the priests, the Levites and the temple servants. Some of the sons of Judah, of the sons of Benjamin and of the sons of Ephraim and Manasseh lived in Jerusalem." So after the return from captivity they knew who was of the ten tribes.

In the New Testament, when Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple for His dedication they ran into a man their called Simeon who had been waiting for the messiah because God had promised him that he wouldn't die until he saw the Messiah, and also a woman named Anna who was stated in the text to be of the tribe of Asher, a northern tribe. Furthermore, in James 1:1 James addresses the twelve tribes scattered, as does Peter. So this indicates that there is still an identification in the first century of all of the twelve tribes. 

In prophecy we know that all twelve tribes will be involved. In Revelation chapter seven there is record that twelve thousand from each of twelve tribes will be sealed as evangelists after the Rapture of the church.

Ezekiel chapters 40-48 describes the role of the tribes and the allotment of land to them in the Millennium where each tribe will receive an equal share in order from north to south; they are all mentioned in the Millennial kingdom.

What does this tell us? When we go through passages like Genesis 49 we realize that God is always going to be faithful to His Word. This is what distinguishes the God of Christianity, the God of the Bible, from all other religious systems. God declares the end from the beginning, He announces exactly what is going to take place centuries ahead of time, and it is fulfilled with incredible precision.