Genesis 46:8–27—Why does the Bible speak about the twelve tribes of Israel when actually there were fourteen?
Problem: The Bible often states that there were twelve tribes of Israel. Yet, in three different passages, the lists are different. In fact, there are 14 different tribes listed as one of the 12 tribes.
Were there twelve tribes of Israel or fourteen?
Solution: In response, it must be noted that Jacob had only twelve sons. Their descendants comprised the original twelve tribes. However, for various reasons these same descendants are rearranged at different times into somewhat different groups of twelve. For example, in Genesis 48:22, Jacob grants to Joseph a double portion of the inheritance. In the list in Numbers, Manasseh and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph, are substituted for the tribe of Joseph. Also, Levi was not given a portion of the land as an inheritance because the Levites functioned as priests. Scattered among all the tribes in 48 Levitical cities, they taught the tribes the statutes of the Lord (Deut. 33:10). Consequently, Joseph’s double portion is divided between Manasseh and Ephraim, his two sons in order to fill the space left by Levi.
In the Revelation passage, Joseph and Manasseh are counted separately, possibly indicating that Joseph and Ephraim (Joseph’s son) are counted as one tribe. Dan is omitted from that list, possibly because the Danites took their own allotment by force in an area north of Asher, effectively separating themselves from their original inheritance in the south. Further, the Danites were the first tribe to go into idolatry. Levi is listed here as a separate tribe, possibly because, after the cross, the Levites no longer function in the priestly office for all the tribes and, thus, could be given a specific land inheritance of their own. In each case, the biblical author is careful to preserve the original number 12, with its spiritual significance indicating heavenly perfection (cf. the gates and foundations of the heavenly City, Rev. 21).
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.