Twelve Tribes of Israel

In the Hebrew Bible, the Twelve Tribes of Israel or Tribes of Israel descended from the 12 sons of the patriarch Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah.

Biblical (Torah) narrative

The tribes of Israel are described in the books of the Torah, accounts written in the 8th–6th centuries BCE in Hebrew.


The Israelites were the twelve sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob. Jacob also had one daughter, Dinah, whose descendants were not recognized as a separate tribe.
The sons of Jacob were born in Padan-aram from different mothers, as follows:
Dan: Scales of justice
Judah: Kinnor, cithara and crown, symbolising King David
Reuben: Mandrake
Joseph: Palm tree and sheaves of wheat, symbolizing his time in Egypt
Naphtali: gazelle
Issachar: Sun, moon and stars
Simeon: towers and walls of the city of Shechem
Benjamin: jug, ladle and fork
Gad: tents, symbolizing their itinerancy as cattle-herders
Zebulun: ship, due to their bordering the Sea of Galilee and Mediterranean
Levi: Priestly breastplate
lists the twelve tribes:
Jacob elevated the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh to the status of full tribes in their own right due to Joseph receiving a double portion after Reuben lost his birth right because of his transgression with Bilhah.
In the biblical narrative, the period from the conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel, passed with the tribes forming a loose confederation, described in the Book of Judges. Modern scholarship has called into question the beginning, middle, and end of this picture and the account of the conquest under Joshua has largely been abandoned. The Bible's depiction of the 'period of the Judges' is widely considered doubtful. The extent to which a united Kingdom of Israel ever existed is also a matter of ongoing dispute.
Living in exile in the sixth century BCE, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision for the restoration of Israel, of a future utopia in which the twelve tribes of Israel are living in their land again.

Land allotment

The Land of Israel was divided into twelve sections corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. However, the tribes receiving land differed from the biblical tribes. The Tribe of Levi had no land appropriation but had six Cities of Refuge under their administration as well as the Temple in Jerusalem. There was no land allotment for the Tribe of Joseph, but Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received their father's land portion.

Thus the tribes receiving an allotment were:
In the Christian New Testament, the twelve tribes of Israel are referred to twice in the gospels and twice in the Book of Revelation. In Matthew, paralleled by Luke, Jesus anticipates that in the Kingdom of God, his followers will "sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel". The Epistle of James is addressed to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.
In the vision of the writer of the Book of lists the twelve tribes:
In his vision of the New or Heavenly Jerusalem, the tribes' names were written on the city gates:

In Islam

The Quran states that the people of Moses were split into twelve tribes. Surah 7 verse 160 says:

"We split them up into twelve tribal communities, and We revealed to Moses, when his people asked him for water, , ‘Strike the rock with your staff,’ whereat twelve fountains gushed forth from it. Every tribe came to know its drinking-place. And We shaded them with clouds, and We sent down to them manna and quails: ‘Eat of the good things We have provided you.’ And they did not wrong Us, but they used to wrong themselves."


For thousands of years, Christians and Jews accepted as fact the history of the twelve tribes. Since the 20th century, however, historical criticism has examined the veracity of the historical account; whether the twelve tribes ever existed as described, the historicity of the eponymous ancestors, and even whether the earliest version of this tradition assumes the existence of twelve tribes. The idea of twelve tribes has been described as "late Judahite". For example:
Similarly, the notion that all twelve tribes are descended from the twelve sons of Jacob appears to have emerged late: according to Dr. Andrew Tobolowsky, "almost no tribal lists, and virtually none outside of the books of Genesis and Chronicles, mention Jacob or present him as the literal ancestor of the tribes." As Paul Davidson puts it, "The stories of Jacob and his children, then, are not accounts of historical Bronze Age people. Rather, they tell us how much later Jews and Israelites understood themselves, their origins, and their relationship to the land, within the context of folktales that had evolved over time. One need look no further than the names themselves to see that most of them are not personal names, but the names of ethnic groups, geographical regions, and local deities. E.g. Benjamin, meaning “son of the south”, or Asher, a Phoenician territory whose name may be an allusion to the goddess Asherah."
Immanuel Lewy in Commentary mentions "the Biblical habit of representing clans as persons. In the Bible, the twelve tribes of Israel are sons of a man called Jacob or Israel, as Edom or Esau is the brother of Jacob, and Ishmael and Isaac are the sons of Abraham. Elam and Ashur, names of two ancient nations, are sons of a man called Shem. Sidon, a Phoenician town, is the first-born of Canaan; the lands of Egypt and Abyssinia are the sons of Ham. This kind of mythological geography is widely known among all ancient peoples. Archaeology has found that many of these personal names of ancestors originally were the names of clans, tribes, localities, or nations. if the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are those of mythological ancestors and not of historical persons, then many stories of the patriarchal and Mosaic age lose their historic validity. They may indeed partly reflect dim reminiscences of the Hebrews’ tribal past, but in their specific detail they are fiction." On the same subject, Gijsbert J.B. Sulman wrote that the myth of common ancestry should be seen as "an expression of solidarity of different ethnic groups, who merged over time to form one nation," and that the practice of inventing common ancestry is also known among the Bedouin.
Additionally, the Mesha Stele mentions Omri as King of Israel and also mentions "the men of Gad", without any suggestion that Gad was considered a subgroup or province of Israel.

Attributed coats of arms

Attributed arms are Western European coats of arms given retrospectively to persons real or fictitious who died before the start of the age of heraldry in the latter half of the 12th century.
Attributed arms of the Twelve Tribes by Thesouro de Nobreza, 1675