The 12 tribes of Israel are introduced in the book of Genesishome to all of the famous origin stories from the Hebrew Bible (the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, etc.). One of those stories concerns Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel, and sires children with both women (as well as with two of their servants, Zilpah and Bilhah).

According to Genesis, here are the names of Jacob’s sons from oldest to youngest:

  1. Reuben (with Leah)
  2. Simeon (with Leah)
  3. Levi (with Leah)
  4. Judah (with Leah)
  5. Dan (with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid)
  6. Naphtali (with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid)
  7. Gad (with Zilpah, Leah’s maid)
  8. Asher (with Zilpah, Leah’s maid)
  9. Issachar (with Leah)
  10. Zebulun (with Leah)
  11. Joseph (with Rachel)
  12. Benjamin (with Rachel)

In Genesis 32Jacob wrestles with God (or an angel) and is blessed with a new name: Israel (meaning “he struggles with God”). From that time forward, the sons of Jacob become the “sons of Israel,” and all of Jacob’s posterity become known as the “children of Israel” or “Israelites.”

But when are the sons of Israel (Jacob) first called the 12 tribes of Israel? In Genesis 49Jacob has grown old and is about to die, so he gathers all of his sons to give them individual blessings. While Jacob only explicitly blesses Dan to become a “tribe of Israel,” after all the blessings are pronounced, the text says, “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel.”

To confuse matters, Tobolowsky says there are more than 20 tribal lists in the Hebrew Bible and not all of them are the same. In some, for example, two tribes named after Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, replace the tribe of Joseph (yes, replacing one tribe with others named for the two sons makes 13 tribes). One explanation in the book of Numbers is that God only allotted land in Canaan to 12 of the 13 tribes. The tribe of Levi was set apart as the priestly tribe, and instead of receiving land they received offerings from the other tribes.

In the biblical narrative, the 12 sons and their families have to leave Canann and settle in Egypt to avoid a famine. Over a 400-year period, the Egyptians enslave them, but eventually, a man named Moses leads their descendants back to Canaan after they fight many battles. The area that was Canaan encompasses the modern state of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, and the southern portions of Syria and Lebanon, according to the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

If you continue to follow the chronology of the Hebrew Bible, the identity of the 12 tribes of Israel isn’t stable. Some tribes are shuffled around by internal political divides and others are “lost” to outside invasions.

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