The identity of Israel in the Bible is closely linked to the notion that the ancient nation was an alliance of twelve distinct tribes, each with its own territory. Reading the Old Testament in its canonical order, we encounter tales about Jacob the patriarch and his twelve sons who all moved to Egypt. Their descendants are depicted as remaining divided into distinct clans, which would later journey to Palestine, carve up the land, and then conquer their allotted portions.
History is not so simple, however, and neither are the traditions we find in the Bible itself. Not all biblical authors were aware of this storybook picture of Israel’s tribes, and many of the text’s later claims are rooted as much — or more so — in theology and politics as in history. Themes that have captured the imagination of exegetes for millennia, like the myth of the “lost tribes of Israel”, take on new significance when examined closely. Continue reading “The Twelve (or So) Tribes of Israel”