Through one promise God set into motion a plan that would birth a great nation. Through the 12 sons of Jacob, that promise became a reality. As we read about the tribes of Israel in Scripture, God’s redemptive plan for His people is shown through the complicated lives of each of these men of promise.
God’s promise to Abraham was the first of its kind. Never had God bestowed such a blessing of honor upon man. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
Over a century later God reiterated this incredible promise to Abraham’s son, Isaac. “I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 26:3-4).
And once again God affirmed His promise to Isaac’s son, Jacob. “I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:14).
But when Jacob received the promise, God included an additional blessing that would extend to the whole world. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” Later, in the same spot where Jacob received this revelation, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel.
Who Are the 12 Sons of Jacob, and What Are They Known For?
Each of Jacob’s 12 sons has a story that builds the framework of their tribe. Together, these tribes form the great nation of Israel. Like most families the stories contain the raw stuff—and sin—of human life. But thank God, His promises always prevail. The whole world’s hope for redemption can be found in God’s plan executed through wayward Israel.
Reuben: Jacob’s firstborn son came through his wife Leah, who was given to Jacob through trickery. Never having felt the love of her husband, Leah strove to win his approval by bearing sons. When Rueben was born, she thought surely this baby would be the son of blessing (Genesis 29:32). But when Reuben grew older, he sinned against his father by sleeping with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah (Genesis 35:22).
Because of this great transgression, Reuben forfeited his birthright. At the end of Jacob’s life, when the time came to bless all his children and prophesy about their futures, Reuben’s portion was an indictment of his sin. “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power. Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed, onto my couch and defiled it” (Genesis 49:3-4).
Simeon and Levi: Still trying to win her husband’s favor, Leah thanked God for the birth of her next son Simeon and then shortly thereafter, Levi. These two brothers are best known for avenging the rape of their sister, Dinah (Genesis 34:25). While Simeon and Levi were justified in wanting to defend Dinah’s honor, their fury led them to extreme and sinful measures of revenge. They slaughtered not only Dinah’s attacker, but every man in the neighboring village. They then claimed all the cattle, women, and children from the village as plunder (Genesis 34).
As a result of Simeon and Levi’s actions, Jacob and his clan became a target of ridicule. Jacob’s proclamation against the violence his two sons had perpetuated came in the form of his prophecy against them at the end of his life. “Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. 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).
Simeon’s tribe was scattered to the territory far west of the Dead Sea. However, out of God’s grace and providence, Levi’s descendants were set apart unto the Lord and became the tribe best known for their spiritual service. In Just Who Were the 12 Tribes of Israel and What Happened to Them? Clarence L. Haynes Jr. explains, “The tribe of Levi, or the Levites, became the tribe that carried the priestly line. They were responsible for the priestly duties and God chose not to number them along with the other tribes.”
Judah: Jacob’s fourth son, also born to Leah, is known for his involvement in his younger brothers’ protection. Although Judah did participate in the collective plot to get rid of Joseph, he convinced his brothers that they should not kill him (Genesis 37). Later, he also protected Benjamin (Genesis 44). But Judah is perhaps best known for his esteemed place in the lineage of the Messiah.
Jacob bestowed a lengthy and significant blessing upon Judah in Genesis 49:8-12. This blessing includes the prophecy about Jesus being born through Judah’s line. “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”
Dan and Nephtali: After Judah’s birth, Jacob’s second wife, Rachel—the woman Jacob truly loved, was distraught over the fact that her sister Leah had given Jacob five sons, yet she was barren. Taking matters into her own hands, Rachel gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob for the purpose of surrogacy, as was the custom of that day (Genesis 30:4-8). Bilhah bore Jacob his next two sons, Dan and Nephtali.
Although very little is mentioned about these men in Scripture, their tribes are far from obscure. Samson is known to come from the line of Dan. And according to some apocryphal works, the early church fathers think the Antichrist will arise from Dan’s lineage. It’s also interesting to discover that the tribe of Dan is not mentioned with the other tribes in the Book of Revelation among the 144,000 that are to be sealed.
Nephtali’s tribe would eventually follow Gideon into battle and help him conquer the Midianites (Judges 7:23). The tribe would also valiantly support King David when he assumed the throne (1 Chronicles 12:34, 40).
Gad and Asher: On the heels of Rachel’s entry into the battle of the babies, Leah decided to give her maid, Zilpah to Jacob (Genesis 30:9-12). Zilpah bore Jacob his seventh and eighth sons, Gad and Asher.
The Gadites would later be described as, “brave warriors, ready for battle and able to handle the shield and spear. Their faces were the faces of lions, and they were as swift as gazelles in the mountains” (1 Chronicles 12:9). While Asher’s tribe made a name for themselves as peacemakers, full of extraordinary wisdom.
Issachar and Zebulon: After Leah struck a bargain with Rachel, and “won” an extra night with Jacob (Genesis 30:15-16) she bore Issachar, then later Zebulon.
“Issachar’s tribe was hard-working, tough, vigorous, and unfaltering, living up to Jacob’s blessing for him,” says Lisa Loraine Baker, in Who Are the Sons of Jacob and Why Is it Important That There Are 12 of Them? This is also evidenced in later Scripture during David’s struggle against Saul (1 Chronicles 12:32). The chiefs of Issachar are who came to David’s aid were described as faithful warriors who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”
The prophetess Deborah sang the tribe of Zebulon’s praises and described them as valiant and brave risk-takers (Judges 5:18).
Joseph and Benjamin: Finally, after many years of infertility God opened Rachel’s womb and she bore Joseph, then Benjamin. Very few seasoned Christians are not familiar with Joseph’s dreams, his dealings with his jealous brothers, and the subsequent tragedy that turned triumph when he was sold into slavery then later rescued all of Israel from death by famine (Genesis 37-43). Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin was Jacob’s last son. His tribe includes some of Israel’s great leaders like King Saul, Queen Esther, and the apostle Paul.
Which of the 12 Sons of Jacob Is Not a Tribe and Why?
Two of Jacob’s sons—Levi and Joseph—are not listed among the tribes of Israel with their brothers. Both sons were set apart because of their faithful and righteous acts before the Lord.
After their exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites made and worshipped a golden calf, the only tribe that did not participate in idolatry was the tribe of Levi. When that happened, the line of Levi was given “the Lord” as their inheritance, instead of a tribe bearing Levi’s name. “At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to serve Him, and to pronounce blessings in His name, as they do to this day. That is why Levi has no portion or inheritance among his brothers; the LORD is his inheritance, as the LORD your God promised him” (Deuteronomy 10:8,9).
Because of his steadfastness in the face of all his sufferings, Joseph received a double blessing. Instead of a single tribe in Joseph’s name, his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh each inherited their own tribe (Genesis 48; Joshua 14:4; Ezekiel 47:13). Jacob also bestowed upon Joseph the richest prophecy of all his sons. “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).
Why Did God Choose the Sons of Jacob?
With our finite human understanding, we can’t comprehend what was going on in God’s mind when He chose Jacob’s sons to form the tribes of Israel. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
But through Scripture, and the advantage of hindsight, we can catch a glimpse of something greater than God’s thought process; we can discern His purpose. God loves His children and keeps His promises to them, not because they deserve His favor, but because God is good, faithful, and true to His word.
“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7,8).
For further reading about Jacob’s sons and Israel, check out Emma Danzey’s What Are Each of the 12 Tribes Known For?
Why Were the Sons of Jacob Chosen to Be the 12 Tribes of Israel?
Who Are the Sons of Jacob and Why Is it Important That There Are 12 of Them?
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Nick Brundle Photography
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.
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