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Numbers 1:4-16 lists the twelve tribes of Israel as:

  1. Reuben
  2. Simeon
  3. Judah
  4. Issachar
  5. Zebulun
  6. Joseph: Ephraim
  7. Joseph: Manasseh
  8. Benjamin
  9. Dan
  10. Asher
  11. Gad
  12. Naphtali

Revelation 7:4-8 instead lists the tribes as:

  1. Judah
  2. Reuben
  3. Gad
  4. Asher
  5. Naphtali
  6. Manasseh
  7. Simeon
  8. Levi
  9. Issachar
  10. Zebulun
  11. Joseph
  12. Benjamin

Why does the list in the Revelation differ from the one in Numbers? The above are not the tribes of natural Israel, because there was never a tribe of Joseph, the tribes of Dan and Ephraim are not included in the list, and the Levites were set aside for service in the temple and where never considered as one of the twelve tribes.

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  • Most lists of the tribes throughout the bible differ, both in count and order; cf. this article. – user2910 Aug 23 '17 at 17:32
  • Mark, the list in numbers is the original list of Moses, it is not only the difference in the list that puzzles me , also the fact that at the time John wrote the book of Revelation, there were no tribes at all. – Ozzie Ozzie Oct 17 '17 at 8:49
  • What is the evidence the list in Numbers is the 'original'? – user2910 Oct 17 '17 at 20:14
  • of course there were tribes, the tribes never ceased to exist, the covenant changed from blood lineage and will of men to that of God’s will through acceptance by faith born by the seed of the Word. If there were no tribes what is James talking about? The Church is a continuation through a new and better covenant of the twelve tribes. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.” ‭‭James‬ ‭1:1‬ – Nihil Sine Deo Mar 15 '19 at 21:35
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Incongruities in lists of the tribes

As brought up in the original question, there is a traditional version of the list of twelve tribes that omits the tribes of Levi and Joseph, while including Manasseh and Ephraim. These ideas are based on Deuteronomy 18.1-2 and Genesis 48.5, respectively.

A survey of the biblical texts, however, shows it's not this simple.

The Song of Deborah in Judges 5, often regarded as one of the oldest parts of the Hebrew bible, lists the tribes of Israel: Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulun, Issachar, Reuben, Gilead, Dan, Asher, Naphtali. Only ten tribes are mentioned, and two of those are not part of the traditional lists at all.

Ezekiel 48, dated by the author to 572 BC, lists the tribes of Israel twice. The first list, when describing their allotment of lands, yields a count of fourteen: Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, Judah, Zadok, Levi, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad. Ezekiel again lists the tribes when describing the 'twelve gates' of the rebuilt Jerusalem, but he makes some changes: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, Naphtali. The first of these two lists notably distinguishes the Zadokites from the Levites. This second list excludes Zadok and Manasseh, but includes Joseph, and Levi is counted as one of the twelve tribe.

In fact, the lists of the tribes differ from each other several times throughout all across the bible. Sometimes this difference is in their order. Sometimes traditionally recognized tribes are excluded from a narrative concerning all of Israel's tribes (as Manasseh is in Ezekiel 48's second list). Some passages even include otherwise unknown tribes (Machir and Gilead in Judges 5).

When we get to Revelation 7, the author had several versions of lists of 'the twelve tribes of Israel' to choose from, and yet none of the lists in the Hebrew bible matches his. Was this accidental or deliberate? Interpretations abound.


Precedent for the Revelation's differences

Revelation 7 includes Levi and Joseph. This may not match Numbers 14, but it is similar to Ezekiel 48's second list, which includes both Levi and Joseph.

Revelation 7 includes Joseph, but also includes one son of Joseph (Manasseh) and not the other (Ephraim). Numbers 13.11 explicitly conflates Joseph and Manasseh. Psalm 78.67 and Ezekiel 37.16,19 each conflate Joseph and Ephraim. It seems there was a loose tradition of equating the tribe of Joseph with either Manasseh or Ephraim. The Revelation has apparently followed Ezekiel again and conflated Joseph with Ephraim, but counts Manasseh to keep his list at twelve tribes, since Dan has been excluded.

The exclusion of Dan is the most unique feature. That I can find, the only instance in the Hebrew bible where Dan is conspicuously absent from a listing of the tribes of Israel is 1 Chronicles 4-8. These chapters carefully list the descendants of all the tribes: Judah, Simeon, Reuben, Gad, Manasseh, Levi, Issachar, Benjamin, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Asher, and Benjamin (a second time). Dan is nowhere to be found.


Interpretations for the differences

Genesis 49.17 identifies Dan with 'the serpent' and 'the viper'. The Revelation's primary antagonist, the satan, is symbolized as 'the serpent' or 'the dragon'. Hence, a common interpretation is that John excludes Dan because of his association with the serpent which symbolizes the chief enemy of God.

Many commentators also note that John places Judah at the top of his list, contrary to nearly all such lists in the Hebrew bible, with the common suggestion that John does this because Jesus is identified as the 'lion of the tribe of Judah' in Revelation 5.5. Some scholars further suggest this arrangement may shed light on why Dan is excluded from the list.

David Chilton (Days of Vengeance, page 92), borrowing from Austin Farrer, believes Revelation 7's list and order is directly related to Revelation 21's vision of the new Jerusalem. Like Ezekiel 48, Revelation 21 portrays its idealized Jerusalem as having twelve gates, each with a name of the twelve tribes of Israel. Chilton's argument is that the first six tribes must be placed out from East to West around the North side of the city, followed by the other six tribes from East to West around the South side of the city. The result is that the tribes are organized according to their mothers:

Revelation's twelve tribes and the new Jerusalem's gates

Placing Judah first, including Levi, and excluding Dan are necessary for this (impressive, though admittedly speculative) explanation to work.

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The Tribe of Dan has a Very powerful and Specific blessing. its found among the others in Genesis 49..May we ponder that this tribe does it's work before the end battle? their job os to get people Back To YHWH, before the end.they are subtle, serpents( Is that what YHWH really said) and biting the "horses" never the riders...Blesssings

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I wouldn't say that the Levites were never considered to be apart of the Twelve tribes (as the writer above stated) but rather just the opposite. Simply because they were not numbered (in Numbers) does not exclude them from the tribe.

They had (in my opinion) one of the most important jobs with the highest honor which was protecting and caring for the ark, the tabernacle, and all that went with it, including setting it up and taking it down as they traveled through the wilderness. They were placed in the middle of their Giant Caravan and protected on each side by 3 tribes, all strategically placed around them on the North, South, West & East, making a total of 12 tribes. God used both of Joseph's sons to substitute for Joseph & the Levites (making it fair to each son to be included & balanced) and to complete his pattern of three tribes in each group (as we see this number used time and time again throughout the bible. For our God is a God of perfection using mathematical numbers for patterns and symbolic meaning. Knowing this how could we even concider that the Levites would be excluded from Jacob's children).

The Levites job was not to "go to war" like the other tribes (Numbers 1: 2,3 says " take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers houses, according to the number of the names, every male individually, from 20 years old and above, all who are able to go to war in Israel. You and Aaron shall know them by their armies. The Levites job was to be appointed over the Tabernacle of the testimony. Num 1;47 but the Levites were not numbered among them by "their Father's Tribe" ; 48 for the Lord has spoken to Moses, saying ; 49 only the "TRIBE" of Levi you shall not number nor take a census of them among the children of Israel; 50 but you shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the testimony, over all its furnishings, and over all the things that belong to it, they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its Furnishings, they shall attend to it and Camp around the Tabernacle. 51 And when the Tabernacle is to go forward the levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle is to be set up, the levites shall set it up. That outsider who comes near shall be put to death. 53 The children of Israel shall pitch their tents, Everyone by his own camp, everyone by his own standard, according to their armies; but the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the Testimony, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the children of Israel; and the Levites shall keep charge of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. Thus the children of Israel did, according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they did

We see in Numbers 1; 47& 49 that God himself refers to the Levites as the "Tribe ".

I believe that the original tribes are "All" the sons of Jacob and that Joseph Sons were substituted/used to complete the pattern needed to set up perimeter of safety and protection for the Community (when not traveling) and for the caravan (when traveling). Perhaps other writings in Revelations,etc were simple mistakes, over sites by the authors.

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  • Welcome to BH. Please see the Tour and the Help as to the purpose and the functioning of the site. This does not answer the question which is about the difference in tribes-list between Numbers and Revelation. Your only comment in this regard is to suppose that the writer of Revelation (one of the most important documents in history) made a 'simple mistake' due (you suggest) to an 'over site' [sic]. I presume you mean 'oversight'. – Nigel J Jul 23 '20 at 8:23

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