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The Bible frequently refers to the twelve tribes of Israel. Which tribes constitute this list? Jacob had twelve sons, but Joseph's two sons each got a land inheritance and Levi got none. So do the twelve tribes refer to those who had territories (thus excluding Levi) or to the sons of Jacob (combining Manasseh and Ephraim)?

When the names of the tribes were written, for example Exodus 28:21, how would the list appear? Would Joseph be written in place of Manasseh and Ephraim or would Levi be omitted?

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From my brief research, it doesn't seem as though there is a unanimous opinion concerning what names were present on the breastplate. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 23 '13 at 7:34
@H3br3wHamm3r81 - I haven't found one either. It seems more likely that Levi wasn't, but I can't find anything that states definitely one way or the other –  SSumner Mar 25 '13 at 19:31

1 Answer 1

Jacob had twelve sons by four women. They are:

  • From Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun
  • From Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin
  • From Bilhah (Rachel's maid): Dan and Naphtali
  • From Zilpah (Leah's maid): Gad and Asher

Joseph, of course, had two sons - Manasseh and Ephraim.

The tribe of Levi was not given an inheritance, as we see in Joshua 13:14:

But to the tribe of Levi he gave no inheritance, since the offerings made by fire to the LORD, the God of Israel, are their inheritance, as he promised them.

We see the separation of the 'House of Joseph' into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh in Joshua 14:4 (and a repetition of the Levite's inheritance)

for the sons of Joseph had become two tribes--Manasseh and Ephraim. The Levites received no share of the land but only towns to live in, with pasturelands for their flocks and herds.

We can read in the rest of Joshua 13 the particular land each tribe was given (note that Manasseh actually became two half-tribes. One half was beyond the Jordan, and eventually disappeared from Israel).

The basis for Ephraim and Manasseh being full tribes is given in Genesis 48:5-6, as Jacob adopts them as if they were his own sons (as Reuben and Simeon):

And now your two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine. Your offspring whom you beget after them shall be yours; they will be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance.

So the twelve tribes can be listed as:

  1. Reuben
  2. Simeon
  3. Judah
  4. Issachar
  5. Zebulun
  6. Ephraim
  7. Manasseh
  8. Benjamin
  9. Dan
  10. Naphtali
  11. Gad
  12. Asher

We see this listing clearly in Numbers 1, and a final note on the separation of the Levites (v47-49):

The ancestral tribe of the Levites, however, was not counted along with the others. The Lord had said to Moses: “You must not count the tribe of Levi or include them in the census of the other Israelites."

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Please read the full question before answering. Why does the list you gave omit Levi? Obviously Levi would be considered one of the twelve tribes. So when the twelve names were written on monuments, etc. Which of the thirteen got omitted? –  parap Mar 23 '13 at 4:24
Levi. The Levites, unlike all the other tribes, did not live in one place. They were dispersed throughout the land of Israel as priests. They were not given an inheritance (land) because they received a living from the rest of the tribes' offerings –  SSumner Mar 23 '13 at 4:27
I didn't ask whether they got an inheritance. I asked whether they were being referred to in the "twelve tribes." For instance, was there a stone for Levi on the breastplate? –  parap Mar 23 '13 at 4:35
As for that, I can't find any confirmation. But the fact that they were not given an inheritance, that they were dispersed, points to why they were likely not considered a separate tribe, as they were most commonly the tribe omitted when a listing was given –  SSumner Mar 23 '13 at 16:32

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