What Is the Significance of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in the Bible?

The twelve tribes individually bore the names of Jacob’s sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. Each blessing reveals significant meaning in the time they were given, as well as for us today.

Dolores Smyth
Bless plaque on a fireplace

The Bible tells us that as the patriarch Jacob lay dying, he bestowed blessings on each of his twelve sons (Genesis 49:1-28). These blessings also included prophecies as to the fate of each son’s tribe in Canaan.

These tribes were known as the twelve tribes of Israel, named in honor of Jacob, whose name was also Israel (Genesis 32:28).

The twelve tribes individually bore the names of Jacob’s sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Below is a discussion of each tribe’s blessings and the lessons we can learn from them.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Reuben?

To his firstborn son, Reuben, Jacob said:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn…excelling in honor [and] power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed [and] defiled it” (Genesis 49:3-4).

As the firstborn male, Reuben was entitled to a double inheritance, the royal kingdom, and the priesthood. However, Reuben lost all of this when he committed adultery with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22).

As a consequence of Reuben’s sin, Jacob adopted Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim as his own, effectively transferring Reuben’s firstborn right to a double inheritance to his younger brother Joseph (Genesis 48:5).

Jacob further skipped over Reuben by giving the kingdom to his son Judah and the priesthood to his son Levi.

Thus, although Reuben wasn’t disinherited outright, he and his tribe lost their prominence because of his sin.

The story of Reuben’s tribe stands as a testament to the ruinous consequences that result when we don’t control our desires. Jacob described Reuben as “turbulent as water.”

Water is unpredictable and can either sustain life or destroy it. Likewise, a person’s level of self-control can bring that person’s life success or destruction.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Simeon?

Jacob combined the blessing of his second son, Simeon, with that of his third son Levi:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers — their swords are weapons of violence…for they have killed men in their anger…Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7).

Jacob cursed Simeon and Levi for their anger, due, in part, to their vicious destruction of the Shechemites, who had attacked their sister Dinah (Genesis 34:24-30). Simeon and Levi’s anger was characterized by acts of fierce cruelty, not by deeds of righteous indignation.

As punishment for their cruelty, Jacob cursed the tribes of Simeon and Levi to be scattered throughout Israel.

This prophecy came true for the tribe of Simeon in that the tribe was so small that it had to share its territory with the larger and more powerful tribe of Judah (Numbers 26:14; Joshua 19:1-9).

The lesson from the tribe of Simeon is that vicious anger prevents us from separating the sinner from the sin, which can cause us to engage in sinful acts ourselves.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Levi?

Unlike the fate of Simeon’s tribe, the fate of Levi’s tribe is a lesson in punishment as well as grace.

Specifically, Levi’s tribe was, indeed, punished by not receiving any land of its own and having to live scattered in lands owned by its brother tribes (Joshua 13:14; Numbers 35:2).

However, the tribe of Levi was also shown grace in that God ordained the Levites to be priests, and only God’s grace could transform the vicious Levi into the founder of a priestly tribe!

As Christians, this teaches us that even those afflicted with a brutal nature can receive grace if they devote their lives to humility and service.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Judah?

Any discussion on the tribe of Judah must begin with its most notable descendant — Jesus Christ. Jacob’s blessing for his fourth son, Judah, was prophetic indeed:

“Judah, your brothers will praise you…your father’s sons will bow down to you...Like a lion he crouches and lies down…The scepter will not depart from Judah [until] the obedience of the nations shall be his” (Genesis 49:8-10).

We learn from this blessing that Judah would be a powerful nation, worthy of praise. Jacob’s blessing also compares the tribe of Judah to a lion, the king of all beasts who fears no other animal despite having enemies who wish to kill it.

In comparison, Scripture calls Jesus “the King of kings” (Revelation 17:14), who also fears no one and yet has enemies who wish to obliterate His name from the Earth.

The prophecy that the scepter “will not depart from Judah” testifies to Jesus’ supremacy and eternal rule.

The lesson here is that, despite the world’s contempt for Christ, we, as Christians, are to remain faithful to Him.

As Jacob’s prophecy and the gospels make clear, Jesus’ rule shall be eternal and at His name, every knee will bow (Philippians 2:10-11).

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Dan?

In blessing his fifth son, Dan, Jacob foretold that:

“Dan will provide justice for his people as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a snake by the roadside…that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider tumbles backward” (Genesis 49:16-17).

That Dan is called a “snake” by his father sheds light on the future dark dealings of this tribe. In particular, the tribe of Dan was allotted fertile land in Canaan but failed to conquer the area.

Although God promised that the tribe would ultimately possess the land, the tribe took matters into its own hands and invaded a peaceful nation to take that land instead (Judges 18:1-31).

Moreover, the tribe began worshipping idols. Notably, the tribe of Dan is omitted from the tribes of Israel mentioned in the Tribulation (Revelation 7:4-8).

As Christians, the story of Dan reminds us of how easily we can compromise our faith when we follow our own will and not God’s.

During trying times, it’s important to remember that God’s plans are always in our best interests (Jeremiah 29:11).

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Naphtali?

Jacob’s sixth son, Naphtali, received this short but hopeful blessing:

Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns (Genesis 49:21).

Moses went on to add that Naphtali was “abounding with the favor of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 33:23).

Despite these blessings, the tribe of Naphtali disobeyed God by living among the Canaanites (Judges 1:33), and by doubting God when God chose them to fight against the Canaanites (Judges 4:6-9).

However, the tribe did later support the newly crowned King David, and also played a pivotal role in building King Solomon’s Temple (1 Chronicles 12:34; 1 Kings 7:13-47).

This tribe teaches us that human nature is often contradictory, filled with moments of courage and cowardice, obedience and disregard. Most importantly, this tribe proves that God ultimately blesses the least.

We see this, here, because this tribe lived in Galilee which, despite its lowly status at the time, would be the first area to hear Jesus preach of the Kingdom of God.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Gad?

In blessing his seventh son, Gad, Jacob touted Gad’s military prowess:

Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders, but he will attack them at their heels (Genesis 49:19).

The tribe of Gad received the best of the newly conquered Promised Land as a reward for its faithful obedience to God during the conquest and for the role it played in helping its brother tribes secure their territories (Deuteronomy 33:20-21; Numbers 32:18).

The lesson learned from the tribe of Gad is that we will reap the rewards of steadfastly obeying God. This tribe also teaches us to look beyond the fulfillment of our own needs and help others reach their goals.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Asher?

Jacob’s blessing of his eighth son, Asher, foretold material prosperity:

Asher’s food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king (Genesis 49:20).

Moses also blesses Asher, saying, “Let him be favored by his brothers” (Deuteronomy 33:24).

The Bible tells us that there were times when the tribe of Asher did what God wanted it to do, such as helping Gideon defeat Israel’s enemies (Judges 6:35), and other times when the tribe did what it wanted to do instead, such as refusing to help their fellow Israelites fight against the Canaanites (Judges 5:17).

Like the tribe of Asher, many Christians, today, are richly blessed and yet often toggle between doing what they know they should do versus doing what they want to do.

However, based on this tribe’s many blessings, we can find comfort in presuming that the tribe of Asher’s sincere attempts to live godly lives outweighed their human flaws.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Issachar?

Jacob said to his ninth son, Issachar:

“Issachar is a rawboned donkey lying down among the sheep pens. When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor” (Genesis 49:14-15).

Scholars disagree as to the meaning of Jacob’s blessing of Issachar. However, we know that being called a “donkey” in biblical times was a good thing, as kings rode on donkeys (Matthew 21:1-11; 1 Kings 1:33).

Further, this blessing tells us that Issachar received fertile land and, upon realizing the importance of that, dedicated itself to working the soil.

Perhaps the takeaway from the prophecy of Issachar is that those who submit to their work reap the benefits of their labor.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Zebulun?

To his tenth son, Zebulun, Jacob briefly prophesied:

“Zebulun will live by the seashore and become a haven for ships; his border will extend toward Sidon” (Genesis 49:13).

While we know little about Zebulun the man, we do know that his tribe, as prophesied, lived by the sea (Deuteronomy 33:19), and was known for its brave, loyal warriors (1 Chronicles 12:33).

Perhaps the lesson to draw from this tribe’s reputation is that there are blessings to be had in living close to nature and practicing valor and loyalty.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Joseph?

Jacob blessed his eleventh — and favorite — son, Joseph, saying:

“Joseph is a fruitful vine…with bitterness archers attacked him…but his bow remained steady…because of your father’s God [who] blesses you with blessings of the skies above (Genesis 49:22-26).

For Joseph’s steadfast faithfulness, Jacob rewarded Joseph with a double portion of land by adopting Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh as his own (Genesis 48:5).

Although this adoption technically split the tribe of Joseph in two, for purposes of this article, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh are collectively referred to as the tribe of Joseph.

In the story of Joseph, we learn that Joseph’s faith and humility won him favor with his father and ensured a prosperous future for his sons Ephraim and Manasseh.

Moreover, Joseph’s willingness to forgive his brothers despite their severe mistreatment of him saved all of Israel during a famine (Genesis 42).

This teaches us that our choices today often resonate throughout generations of our family and community.

What Can We Learn from the Tribe of Benjamin?

Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, received the final blessing:

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder” (Genesis 49:27).

As Jacob predicted, this tribe adopted its founder Benjamin’s inclination toward war despite being the smallest of the tribes (1 Chronicles 8:40; 2 Chronicles 17:17).

Yet the second half of Jacob’s blessing predicts a division of riches after the battle. This is important when we consider that a notable member of the tribe of Benjamin is the Apostle Paul.

As seen through the life of Paul, this tribe teaches us that, despite hostility toward God early in our lives, if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, God can spread His message of salvation far and wide through us.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/jhc


Dolores Smyth is a nationally published faith and parenting writer. She draws inspiration for her writing from everyday life. Connect with her @LolaWordSmyth.


Originally published October 23, 2020.