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Answering The Atheist
September 16, 2007 / Volume 7, Issue 37

What were the twelve tribes of Israel? Genesis 49 includes Dan and excludes Manasseh, but Revelation 7 includes Manasseh and excludes Dan. Is there a contradiction?

The twelve tribes of Israel are listed several times in Scripture, and not always the same twelve. The most common listing is that of

GENESIS 49:3-27
Reuben (3)
Simeon (5)
Levi (5)
Judah (8)
Zebulun (13)
Issachar (14)
Dan (16)
Gad (19)
Asher (20)
Naphtali (21)
Joseph (22)
Benjamin (27)
Reuben (5)
Simeon (7)
Levi (7)
Judah (5)
Zebulun (8)
Issachar (7)
Manasseh (6)
Gad (5)
Asher (6)
Naphtali (6)
Joseph (8)
Benjamin (8)
the twelve sons of Jacob (as seen under Genesis 49:3-27 above). This list is used of those blessed by Jacob (Genesis 49:3-27), of those who came to Egypt (Exodus 1:1-5), of the ordering of the people for the blessings and curses by Moses (Deuteronomy 27:12-13), in the genealogy of Israel (1 Chronicles 2:1-2), and the names of the gates of the city (Ezekiel 48:30-34).

Different listings of the tribes of Israel include:
  • the armies of Israel (Numbers 1:5-16), excludes Levi (the priests) and Joseph. Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh are included.
  • likewise, the tribes represented by the spies who went into the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:4-15) have Ephraim and Manasseh in place of Joseph and Levi.
  • the blessing of Moses upon the people (Deuteronomy 33:6-29) sets Ephraim and Manasseh in the place of Joseph. In the Alexandrian copy of the Septuagint, which is counted as "one of the most ancient and most authentic copies of the Spetuagint" (Adam Clarke's Commentary), Simeon appears in the midst of verse 6. If this is son, then there are not twelve, but thirteen tribes listed in Deuteronomy 33.
  • Ezekiel 48:1-29 gives the division of the land among the children of Israel. Ephraim and Manasseh are given in the place of Joseph. The tribe of Levi is also included, who dwelt in "...the district that you shall set apart for the LORD..." (v 9). Thus, thirteen, not twelve tribes are here listed.
  • Revelation 7 lists the number of the children of Israel who were sealed, 144,000 (12,000 x 12 tribes). Included is the tribe of Levi, excluded are Ephraim and Dan. No reason is given for the exlusion of either, but it is believed by commentators that it is related to the idolatrous tendencies of these tribes (Judges 18:30; Hosea 4:17). Joseph is included, perhaps as representative of those from Ephraim who were faithful.
What is the point? There is no absolute listing of the twelve tribes. Dependent upon circumstance or context, who was included and who was not changed. Factors such as faithfulness, military status, receipt of land inheritance, etc. determined whether a tribe would be included or excluded from the various listings. Ezekiel 48 demonstrates effectively that there is no exclusive list, as from verse 1-29, they are listed according to the divison of the land (ie. Ephraim and Manasseh included, Levi excluded), and then beginning in the next verse, listed again, according to the naming of the gates of te city (ie. Levi and Joseph included, Ephraim and Manasseh excluded.

Though there are differences, there is no contradiction.

This article is a response to Skeptic's Annotated Bible