The 12 tribes of Israel originate from the Biblical tradition that originally divided the ancient Jewish people.
The twelve tribes were those descended from Jacob, to whom God gave the name "Israel." They are Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Isachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, and Manasseh.
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The 12 sons came from Jacob’s two marriages, as well as relationships he had with his wives’ maidservants. Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Isachar and Zebulun were born to Jacob and his first wife, Leah. Gad and Asher were sons with Leah’s maidservant, Zilpah. Joseph and Benjamin were the sons of Jacob and his second wife, Rachel. Dan and Naphtali were sons of Jacob and Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant.
The two remaining tribes were Manasseh and Ephraim, who were the sons of Joseph, who died.
According to Jewish biblical tradition, the Israelite nation was given the Torah, its laws and regulations, at Mount Sinai. After wandering for 40 years in the desert with Moses, the tribes entered Canaan led by Joshua.
The Israelites conquered the land and each of the 12 tribes took a territory there. Saul was crowned as ruler over the tribes; when he died, Saul’s son became king of all the tribes except for Judah and Simeon, both of which preferred David as their ruler.
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“David's struggle with the house of Saul ended in victory for him and all the elders turned to David for royal leadership,” says the Jewish Virtual Library
. “He ruled from Hebron and later Jerusalem over all the tribes of Israel and following his death was succeeded by his son, Solomon. After the death of Solomon, the tribes once again split along territorial and political lines, with Judah and Benjamin in the south loyal to the Davidic house and the rest of the tribes in the north ruled by a succession of dynasties.”
The Jewish Virtual Library said modern scholars have explored the relationship of the tribes and “does not generally accept the biblical notion that the twelve tribes are simply divisions of a larger unit which developed naturally from patriarchal roots.”
It is, instead, believed to have developed from the organization of independent tribes, or groups, “forced together for historical reasons,” the library said.
“Scholars differ as to when this union of twelve took place and when the tribes of Israel became one nation,” the library said.
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