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Tribal lists and geography


The early parts of the Old Testament contain a number of lists of tribes - in Genesis these are usually presented as itemising the sons of Jacob, and in later books as represntative of the tribes bearing those names. Some of the lists are in poetic sections (for example Deborah's Song), while others are in narrative blocks (for example Numbers 1, the list of assistants to help Moses with the census). This page shows that from the listing in Numbers 34 onwards, the names are presented in a broadly south-to-north order as regards their occupation of the land, whereas the earlier lists do not show this pattern. Moreover, taking this south-to-north pattern to be valid, one of the lists (Numbers 34, the list of assistants to help Moses allocate the land) assumes Dan is in the original position in the coastal plains, whereas others (Moses' and Deborah's Songs) assume the northerly position adopted later.


The approximate locations of the tribes in terms of geography are as follows:

Geographical distribution of tribes

By comparing this with the lists in the section below, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. The following lists have no match with geography:
    • Genesis 35:23-26, Genesis 29-35, Genesis 49, Numbers 1 (both lists), Numbers 2, Numbers 7, Numbers 13, Numbers 26, Joshua 13-19. For example, the Numbers 7 list is as follows: Tribal list order - Numbers 7

  2. The following list is described in a generally south-to-north order, with Dan assumed to be in the original southern location:
    • Numbers 34 Tribal list order - Numbers 34

  3. The following lists are described in a generally south-to-north order, with Dan assumed to be in the later northern location:
    • Deuteronomy 33 Tribal list order - Deuteronomy 33
    • Judges 5 runs south-to-north for each category in turn Tribal list order - Judges 5
Now, the Numbers 34 list is the first place at which tribal distribution within the wider land is discussed. It is therefore reasonable that this list should begin to use a pattern of names that is connected with this distribution. The south-to-north listing fits with a right-to-left list, given that geographic orientation is routinely given on the assumption that the person is facing east with their back to the sea. Where two tribes are at approximately the same location given this first order, the one furthest east - ie furthest away from the hypothetical viewer - is given first.

Furthermore, the fact that this first list presupposes Dan in its early position suggests that it was constructed according to an idealised view, early in the history of Israel within the land. The different arrangement of Moses' Blessing and Deborah's Song suggests, conversely, that the ordering was chosen according to the compromise final distribution. Now, Moses' Blessing (see separate notes on the translation) contains what appear to be authentically early portions, but also material that was apparently added later. This would suggest that the Song in its present form was assembled from pre-existing material but using some conventions that arose later in the Judges era or perhaps early monarchy.

Although the description of the Danites migrating north is placed towards the end of Judges, it is not given any time markers that would help fix its place in the overall timeline. Other evidence, such as the comments towards the end of Joshua and start of Judges, suggest that Dan's failure to seize the coastal plain area was recognised quickly, so the movement to Laish may well have been early on in Judges, perhaps before Deborah.

Alternatively, the northern placement here may be a poetic convention, as an echo of the stock phrase "Dan to Be'ersheba'" to indicate the whole land.

The lists

Genesis 35:23-26, listed according to mother
Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issakhar, Zebulun
Rachel: Joseph, Benjamin
Bilhah: Dan, Naphtali
Zilpah: Gad, Asher
Genesis 29-35, listed according to birth order
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issakhar, Zebulun, (Dinah), Joseph, Benjamin
Genesis 49, The blessing of Ya'aqob
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issakhar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, Benjamin
Numbers 1, Assistants to aid in census
Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issakhar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad, Naphtali
Numbers 1, First tribal census
Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issakhar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali
Numbers 2, Marching order
East: Judah, Issakhar, Zebulun
South: Reuben, Simeon, Gad
West: Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin
North: Dan, Asher, Naphtali
Numbers 7, list of offerings
Judah, Issakhar, Zebulun, Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali
Numbers 13, Spies
Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issakhar, Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Manasseh, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Gad
Numbers 26, Second tribal census
Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Judah, Issakhar, Zebulun, Manasseh, Ephraim, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali
Numbers 34, Assistants to aid in assignment of land
Judah, Simeon, Benjamin, Dan, Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Issakhar, Asher, Naphtali
(TransJordan tribes not listed)
Deuteronomy 33, Song of Moses
Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, Zebulun, Issakhar, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, Asher
(Simeon not listed)
Joshua 13-19, apportionment of land
TransJordan tribes: Reuben, Gad, Manasseh,
Other tribes with first claim: Judah, Ephraim, Manasseh
Other tribes with later claim chosen by lot: Benjamin, Simeon, Zebulun, Issakhar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan
Judges 5, Deborah's Song
Tribes who came: Ephraim, Benjamin, Makir (Manasseh), Zebulun, Issakhar
Tribes who did not come: Reuben, Gad (Gilead), Dan, Asher
Tribes specially highlighted: Zebulun, Naphtali
Tribes not mentioned: Judah, Simeon, Levi

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