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Why Were the Sons of Jacob Chosen to Be the 12 Tribes of Israel?

The story of Joseph and his brothers ranks near the top of well-known Bible stories. However, there’s a lot of information around that story that often gets forgotten. How the sons of Jacob grew up, the events leading up to Joseph’s dreams, and what happened to their descendants come together to create a vast and fascinating epic. Let’s take a look at these sons of Jacob and their full family story.

Who Are the Sons of Jacob?

The sons of Jacob are the sons of Jacob, son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham. After marrying two women, Rachel and Leah, Jacob began to have his own family. Genesis 35:21-27 gives a list of Jacob’s sons and the various woman he had them with.

The sons by Leah (Jacob’s first wife) were: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun

The sons by Rachel (Jacob’s second wife) were: Joseph, Benjamin

The sons by Rachel’s servant Bilhal were: Dan, Naphtali

The sons by Leah’s servant Zilpah were: Gad, Asher

Despite being descended from Abraham and a father who was blessed with a vision from heaven, Jacob’s sons didn’t always behave in very holy ways. Reuben had an affair with Bilhal (Genesis 35:21-22), which led to Jacob rebuking Reuben on his deathbed (Genesis 49:2-4).

In one of the most famous Bible stories, conflict came up between Jacob’s son Joseph and his brothers. Jacob clearly favored Joseph and showed it by giving him a many-colored coat (Genesis 37:3-4). To make matters worse, Joseph told his brothers about a series of dreams that showed him ruling over them (Genesis 37:5-11). Their response was to get rid of Joseph by selling him into slavery and telling Jacob they’d found evidence Joseph was killed by a wild animal (Genesis 37:18-36). Joseph ended up in Egypt, and by a strange and surprising route covered in Genesis 39-41, he became second in command of the country.

During this period, Judah had some awkward problems of his own. One of his sons died, leaving a wife who had to marry one of Judah’s other sons so she would have a son and someone to support her (Genesis 38:6-7). That son died and Judah put off marrying Tamar to his third son (Genesis 38:11-12), so Tamar took her own measures. Seducing Judah in disguise, she had a son when Judah realized what had happened, he admitted he had helped created the situation (Genesis 38:26).

When a famine took place, Joseph’s brothers except for Benjamin went to Egypt to buy food and met Joseph without recognizing him. Genesis 42-45 describes how Joseph reacted negatively to his brothers at first, tested them in various ways, and ultimately revealed himself to them.

With Joseph’s position in Egypt, Jacob’s brothers were able to bring their families and Jacob to settle in Egypt (Genesis 45-46). Before leaving Canaan, Jacob received a vision from God telling him that in Egypt his family would become a great nation (Genesis 46:3-4). The sons of Jacob were going to become more than just a family.

What Happened to the Tribes of the Sons of Jacob?

After reuniting with Joseph in Egypt, each of the sons’ families morphed into tribes. Joseph had two sons Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48:1), who created tribes of their own (Numbers 2:18-24). By the start of Exodus 1, these descendants of the sons of Jacob had become a large population, and the Pharoah at that time felt threatened by this and put them into slavery. Moses freed the tribes and brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 5-15). At Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with the tribes (Exodus 19-31), which formally created the nation of Israel.

The formal creation of Israel led to changes in some of the tribes’ roles. The tribe of Levi became priests (Numbers 3), which meant that when the Israelites finally arrived in Canaan, they could not be landowners like the other tribes (Joshua 13:33). Numbers 32 establishes that members of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh did not go into Canaan, staying on the other side of the Jordan River. The tribes were initially ruled by judges, but after Samuel, they asked for a king (1 Samuel 8). Three generations of kings (Saul, David, Solomon) followed. There were some rebellions, but overall, the tribes were pretty united around their king.

That all changed with Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. 1 Kings 12 explains how Rehoboam’s son’s actions led to all the tribes located in the northern side of Israel rebelling. These tribes (now referred to as the nation of Israel) set up Jeroboam as their king, as was prophesied in Solomon’s time (1 Kings 11:26-40). The tribes of Benjamin and Judah were left to Rehoboam and became known as the nation of Judah.

While the nations of Judah and Israel both lasted, they each fell into repeating patterns of sin which led to judgment. Most of 1 and 2 Kings can be described as stories about how during one king’s reign, the people returned to worshipping God and got rid of pagan idols and sinful practices, then the next generation returned to those sins. Many of the Old Testament books of prophets describe prophets whose main job seemed to be calling out this wickedness (and often as not, being ignored or punished for it).

Ultimately, this sin led to God removing his favor and subsequent invasions for both nations. During the reign of Hoshea, Assyria invaded the nation of Israel and demanded tribute (2 Kings 17:3). After Hoshea tried to fight back with help from Egypt, Assyria invaded Israel and had all its citizens deported to Assyria (2 Kings 17:5-6). The writer goes at length to describe how this terrible fate happened because the people of Israel “worshipped other gods” (2 Kings 17:7), rejected God, and various warnings. The section ends by saying the people of Israel were still in Assyria “to this day” (2 Kings 17:23), which may indicate they never returned home. Over the years, various religious groups and researchers have discussed what happened to these 10 tribes and where their descendants are today.

2 Kings 24 describes how in the reign of Jehoiachin, Babylon gave a similar treatment to the nation of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, Jehoiachin’s uncle Mattaniah was renamed Zedekiah and put on the throne. Zedekiah rebelled, which led to another attack where the temple was destroyed, everyone in Jerusalem was removed (2 Kings 25). Jeremiah 34-40 covers the same story with more detail about how the kings in that period responded to prophecies. The Book of Daniel describes the aftermath, what happened to some of those exiles in Babylon. The book of Haggai describes how the nation of Judah returned to rebuild Jerusalem in the time of King Darius.

Why Is the Number 12 so Important in the Bible? 

In the Bible, certain numbers come up repeatedly and are believed to have special meanings. Three (three members of the trinity, three patriarchs, Jesus telling Peter three times to feed his sheep) and seven (seven days of creation) are both associated with completion, something good and holy.

12 also recurs throughout the Bible. There are 12 sons of Jacob, 12 minor prophet books, 12 disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. The number also features heavily in Revelation, from a tree of life with 12 branches (Revelation 22) to a city with 12 gates (Revelation 21). Like seven and three, there’s a sense of completion here, but also one of holy authority and perfection.

What Can We Learn from the Sons of Jacob?

We must take up our own faith. It’s clear from the stories that although Jacob’s sons came from a particularly blessed family, they made exceptionally sinful choices. Some of this may be due to Jacob not always being the best father—he did go out of his way to favor Joseph, and having multiple children by women (including several concubines) seems like a recipe for infighting. Still, other than Joseph and Judah becoming wiser and more repentant as they aged, there’s little evidence that the sons followed God as closely as their father or ancestors had. Families may receive blessings because of a person’s service to God, but ultimately every family member has to decide whether they will follow God or not. Familial blessing is no guarantee that we’ll get a free pass for our poor choices.

Be careful how you treat your children. As noted above, Jacob’s parenting choices were not always wise. Several scholars who specialize in Middle Eastern cultures have noted how Jacob giving Joseph a many-colored coat wasn’t just a nice gesture: it indicated succession. He was making a public statement that Joseph (his second youngest son by his second marriage) would inherit his estate. This meant Joseph would get Reuben’s firstborn inheritance and his brothers would have to follow Joseph as the patriarch of their collective family. While selling Joseph into slavery wasn’t an appropriate response, the sibling rivalry was prompted by Jacob flaunting his favoritism.

Be wary of arrogance. In light of how his father was clearly favoring him, Joseph’s choice to tell his brothers about his dreams wasn’t wise. The fact he told his brothers first before getting his father’s reaction and advice (Genesis 37:10-11) suggests he was flaunting the information at them. A haughty spirit does in fact go before a fall.

There is still time to change. It’s interesting that when Joseph tricks his brothers in Egypt and threatens to keep Benjamin there as a captive, Judah is the one who seeks mercy (Genesis 44:18-34). Given that Judah had made some foolish and selfish choices with Tamar, this suggests growth. Joseph himself, after initially being angry, forgave his brothers and reiterated his forgiveness years later (Genesis 50:14-21). Choices do have consequences and it may take time to heal from the wounds, but even when it seems impossible, there is room to reconcile.

Related Resource: Check out our FREE Bible Study podcast, How to Study the Bible! Available at LifeAudio.com. Listen to the first episode here by clicking the play button below:

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages

Connor SalterG. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.


This article is part of our People from the Bible Series featuring the most well-known historical names and figures from Scripture. We have compiled these articles to help you study those whom God chose to set before us as examples in His Word. May their lives and walks with God strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.

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