Why are we are told that there are 12 tribes of Israel when there are, in fact, 13 tribes!

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh?

NWT Numbers 1:4-16 "Take with you one man from each tribe; each one is to be a head of his paternal house. 5 These are the names of the men who will stand with you: of Reuʹben, E·liʹzur the son of Shedʹe·ur; 6 of Simʹe·on, She·luʹmi·el the son of Zu·ri·shadʹdai; 7 of Judah, Nahʹshon the son of Am·minʹa·dab; 8 of Isʹsa·char, Ne·thanʹel the son of Zuʹar; 9 of Zebʹu·lun, E·liʹab the son of Heʹlon; 10 of the sons of Joseph: from Eʹphra·im, E·lishʹa·ma the son of Am·miʹhud; from Ma·nasʹseh, Ga·maʹli·el the son of Pe·dahʹzur; 11 of Benjamin, Abʹi·dan the son of Gid·e·oʹni; 12 of Dan, A·hi·eʹzer the son of Am·mi·shadʹdai; 13 of Ashʹer, Paʹgi·el the son of Ochʹran; 14 of Gad, E·liʹa·saph the son of Deuʹel; 15 of Naphʹta·li, A·hiʹra the son of Eʹnan. 16 These are the ones summoned from the assembly. They are the chieftains of the tribes of their fathers, the heads of the thousands of Israel.”

NWT 1 Chronicles 6:38 ". . .Leʹvi son of Israel."

  • 1
    You have listed Manasseh as well as Joseph. Manasseh and Ephraim are both of the tribe of Joseph. Just listing Joseph, gives you twelve tribes.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 23, 2018 at 13:46
  • Moreover, from the viewpoint of IEUE, Ephraim was the firstborn instead of Manasseh (the physical firstborn). Then, if you put in the group Manasseh the more you have to put Ephraim in it. But, in this way the tribes amount to 14! Like Nigel have explained, the tribes were 12, (a) counting the tribe of Joseph as a single tribe, or, (b) counting a single tribe composed by two half-tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh (both Joseph's sons). Nov 23, 2018 at 14:37
  • 1
    @Saro Fedle Thanks for that. Who is "IEUE"?
    – user26950
    Nov 23, 2018 at 15:19
  • IEUE is the natural reading of the Tetragrammaton, taking in no account the so-called vocalization of the Masoretes. Nov 23, 2018 at 19:46
  • @Saro Fedele Oh, you mean "Jehovah" as in 'The Way -The Cathloic Living Bible; Psalm 83:18 page 625. Thanks
    – user26950
    Nov 23, 2018 at 19:53

4 Answers 4


The listing of the tribes regardless of the way you read them does give you 13 distinct inheritors. Yet in various listings in scripture 1 tribe is often excluded from the count. Num_1:49  Only thou shalt not number the tribe of Levi, neither take the sum of them among the children of Israel... this is because he was YHWH's /IEUE's to serve the congregation. Num_18:24  But the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer as an heave offering unto the LORD, I have given to the Levites to inherit: therefore I have said unto them, Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.

As well Dan is excluded in the counting of the 144'000 in Rev 7 and Ephraim and Manasseh are counted separate in the listing making the total 12.

It seems that because Israel was a Tribal state based on linear descent from father to son, inheritance which retained the land in succession to the tribe of ones father and his tribal family alone (see Lev 25) is the reason for the wording found throughout the law, "the twelve tribes", it is referencing the inheritors with Levi as 'given the LORD' as his inheritance, and thus excluded from owning a tribal land of his own.


The answer to this revolves around the ancient customs associated with the birthright. The birthright privileges in Jacob's family would have involved three aspects: (a) becoming a family leader (and later, king) and progenitor of Christ, (b) priesthood, (c) a double portion of land inheritance. See Deut 21:15-17, Gen 21:9-13, Judg 11:1, 2. Reuben, as the first-born, would have normally inherited all this but was disqualified (Gen 49:4) because of his incestuous sin. Therefore, the birthright was split between three other brothers.

  • Judah became family leader and progenitor of Christ. King David and his heirs were from the tribe of Judah.
  • Levi inherited the priesthood (not Judah). Ex 40:15. The high priest had to be from the tribe of Levi. This meant that the tribe of Levi did not inherit and were not allocated any land in Israel (Deut 18:1, 2).
  • Joseph inherited the double portion of land and had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were named half-tribes but their land was as large as any other tribe.

Thus, there were 12 tribes, corresponding to the 12 sons of Jacob, but the tribe of Joseph was given a double portion and consisted of the two "half-tribes" (Josh 13:29, 21:6, 25, etc) of Ephraim and Manasseh. Now, the Bible in its various listings of the 12 tribes always has 12 but the list is never consistent as your question ably shows. These lists vary depending on the purpose of the list.


LET'S COMPARE ancient Israel to the United States of America today. How so? There are 50 states but the District of Columbia where the capital is located is not a state. Likewise ancient Israel had 12 states named according to tribes, but the Levites served in the Temple at the capital and they did not have a tribal (state) territory. Nonetheless, they lived in many cities spread out throughout the land. Look up Levitcus 18:20-24. So if someone says "Hey, the USA has 51 states just like Israel has 13 tribes"... Well, now you can reason with them with this comparison. (Yeah, I know, ...there is more involved in a complete historical answer to the issue, but I hope that Leviticus 18:20-24 will get you started.)


The traditionally accepted view is that there are 12 tribes of Israel, matching the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob is the whole of Israel, as God himself chose to rename Jacob into Israel. The 12 tribes match Jacob's 12 sons. Why were there 13 'land apportionments'?

First, the tribe of Levi lived throughout all 'Unified Israel' with all the other tribes in all the cities. If that were the only factor there would be 11 land portions. However, The tribe of Joseph was split into 2 matching his sons (Manasseh & Ephraim) bringing the territory count to 13. (They have been called half tribes in a number of sources.) You either accept the tribe of Joseph, or you accept the two 'half tribes' (of Joseph's sons) Manasseh and Ephraim in place of.

Either there are 12 tribes if you accept the tribes match Jacob's 12 sons; or you accept 13 requiring you to replace Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim as two full tribes. I simply don't accept the land apportionment issues as solving the tribe issues. I accept the direct simple match to the 12 sons of Jacob and 12 tribes without turning into a pretzel having to maneuver around extra details (Levi, Joseph, Manasseh, and Ephraim) to make 13.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I also recommend going through the Help Center's sections on both asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Sep 3, 2023 at 4:09