The Hebrew Bible in its final form takes it for granted that the Israelite people is descended from the twelve sons of Jacob, each being the ancestor of the tribe named after him (1 Kings 18.31). This tradition has persisted into later times. The book of Genesis records the births of Jacob's twelve sons (chaps. 29–35), and then provides a list of them arranged under the names of their mothers: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were the sons of Leah; Joseph and Benjamin the sons of Rachel; Dan and Naphtali the sons of Jacob's concubine Bilhah; Gad and Asher the sons of his concubine Zilpah (35.22–26). After Joseph, in Egypt, brought his family from Canaan (Gen. 46–47), the twelve brothers and their families continued to reside in Egypt and there increased in numbers, becoming the people of Israel, literally the “sons of Israel” (Exod. 1.1–7), Jacob's name having been changed by God to Israel (Gen. 32.28; 35.10). This united people, after many vicissitudes, took possession of the land of Canaan and established their home there, with each tribe assigned its own territory (Josh. 13–19; Map 3).

The Bible is, however, not consistent with regard to either the number or the names of the tribes. In the numerous tribal lists found in the various books of the Bible, the number varies from eleven to thirteen. These variations are mainly due to the appearance in some lists of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48.8–20) as separate tribes, and to the omission of Simeon or Levi from others. In the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5), which is not necessarily a complete roll call of the tribes, Judah and Gad are missing, while Machir, the son of Manasseh (Josh. 17.1) appears to take the place of his “father.” The variations are presumed to reflect fluctuations in the constitution and history of the tribes and their relative size and importance.

Very little is known of the early history of the tribes. The “blessing of Jacob” (Gen. 49) and the “blessing of Moses” (Deut. 33) contain some very ancient, but also very cryptic, allusions to early tribal events and characteristics, but these passages have also undergone later expansions and editing, especially in the blessing of Judah (Gen. 49.8–12), which is a “prophecy” of the kingdom of David, and that of Joseph (Deut. 33.13–17), which reflects the special prominence at some time of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Parts of the books of Joshua and Judges preserve traditions of the early history of some of the tribes during and after their settlement in Canaan. Some of these passages (especially Judg. 1) suggest that the tribes, rather than conquering and settling the entire country as a united people (the impression given by the book of Joshua in its present form), possessed no military or political unity at the time of the settlement, but were independent units each making its way into the country, in some cases encountering opposition from the local population. (See Conquest of Canaan; Social Sciences and the Bible, article on Cultural Anthropology and the Hebrew Bible.)

There can be little doubt that the concept of Israel as a close‐knit family of twelve tribes acting in concert before, during, and after the settlement in Canaan is an elaboration of a later period. Although the tribes probably entered the country from outside, they did so for the most part in a piecemeal way, over a long period of time; the people of Israel was in fact constituted for the first time on Canaanite soil. Indeed, some of the tribes, such as Ephraim and Judah, appear to have acquired their names after their arrival in Canaan.

Little is known of the lives of the tribes after their arrival in Canaan, and of the process by which they may have moved toward some kind of national consciousness before the institution of the monarchy; scholarly opinions differ widely. Two groups, Judah (which seems to have been composed of several originally distinct elements) in the south, and the “house of Joseph” (which at some point constituted two distinct tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh) in the central highlands, seem to have been especially prominent. Less is known of the history of the other tribes further north and to the east of the Jordan, with the exception of Dan, which moved, probably under Philistine pressure, from its original territory to the extreme north of the country (Judg. 18; compare chaps. 13–16). The tribe of Levi is an enigma. According to some traditions (Num. 1.47–54; Deut. 10.8–9; 18.1–2; 33.8–11; Josh. 13.14, 33) it was distinguished from all other tribes in that it was given no territorial rights but had special sacerdotal functions that entitled it to material support from the other tribes, among whom its members moved. In other passages (Gen. 34.25–31 and 49.5–7), however, it is portrayed as being on the same footing as the other tribes. (See Levites.)

It is important to realize that the word “tribe” does not necessarily suggest a nomadic or seminomadic existence or origin: in the ancient Near East and elsewhere, it frequently denotes a territorial group of settled agricultural or even urban people who claim a common ancestry. Moreover, despite the impression given by many passages in the Bible, the tribe was not the basic social or economic unit in Israel in either premonarchic or later times; the basic units were the family and the village, which were bound together by local agricultural and other common concerns. The larger body, the tribe, was a much looser unit whose main function was apparently, in the period before the monarchy, to provide a militia in times of danger. With the advent of the monarchy, the tribes lost this function and were henceforth little more than a means of genealogical identification. The division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon was a political rather than a tribal matter.See Israel, History of.

R. N. Whybray