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The Twelve Tribes of Israel
by Harold Meij
E.C.S.Leavenworth; Goodnews Christian Ministry.
"In the beginning…."Before we can discuss the 12 tribes, what theories are around to what happened to them, and how they impact Freemasonry, it is first important to have some historical background, which starts with looking at Jacob.
Jacob is thought to have lived sometime around 1700 BC. He was the second son of Isaac (The second patriarch of Israel, the first being his father, Abraham). Jacob also had a twin brother named Esau. Tradition has it that his mother, Rebekah, was already feeling their presence while they were still in her womb, and that the two soon-to-be-born twins often wrestled each other, causing her to have much pain. Seeking an oracle, Rebekah was told that "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided: the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger" (Gen 25:23). Esau was the first to be born, but Jacob followed soon, clasping Esau's heels.
Not much is known about their youths, but one day an important episode takes place, which is also described in the Bible. It is known that while Esau was a skilled hunter, and was stronger, Jacob preferred to stay at home. One day, Esau comes home, exhausted after a hunt, and finds Jacob preparing a pot of lentil soup. Esau asks for some, but Jacob replies "First sell me your birthright" (Gen 25:31). Esau replies "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" (Gen 25:32). Jacob makes Esau swear away his birthright before giving Esau his soup. Later, when death was approaching Jacob's father Isaac, Jacob was able to pretend to be Esau, and was able to receive his father's blessing. This blessing is of enormous significance, as it gave Jacob the right to inherit the lands of Canaan, and to become the third patriarch of the entire nation of Israel. Hearing of the deceit, Esau threatens to kill Jacob, and as a result it was decided that Jacob should go to Haran, an area in northern Mesopotamia, where his mother's brother was living.
It is during the trip to Haran, that an important event takes place. One night, as Jacob sat down in the wilderness from exhaustion, he saw a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder suspended between heaven and earth (a.k.a. Jacob's Ladder). On the top rung stood God himself, who affirmed the promise he made to Jacob's grandfather Abraham by saying "The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendents; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth" (Gen 28:13).
Jacob marries twice, and changes his name to IsraelWhen Jacob neared Haran, he met Rachel, who was working with her father to tend to sheep. Falling in love, he asks for her hand, but Rachel's father tells Jacob that he must first work seven years with him before it will be allowed. After seven years the wedding takes place, but the next morning, Jacob finds out that it was her elder sister Leah who had secretly replaced Rachel during the ceremony. Jacob did not love Leah, and objected. However, Jacob was told that it was tradition for the elder sister to be married first, and that he would have to work another seven years for Rachel's hand. He agreed, and was allowed to marry Rachel in one week. After having served another seven years, Jacob decided to stay on as a shepherd, which he did for a total of 21 years. At God's suggestion, Jacob decides to return to Canaan, and to try to make peace with his brother Esau. One night during this trip back, Jacob finds himself wrestling a mysterious stranger. They struggled for a long time, whereupon the stranger asked Jacob to be released, but Jacob refused unless he first received a blessing. The stranger replied "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (Gen 32:28). Israel means "he who strives with God".
Jacob has 12 sons, and one daughter, together known as "The Children of Israel"
In all, Jacob would have twelve sons, each of which would eventually rule one of the twelve tribes. With Leah he had six sons, Reuben (1), Simeon (2), Levi (3), Judah (4), Zebulun (6), and Issachar (9), and one daughter, named Dinah. He had two sons with Leah's maid (Zilpah), named Gad (7) and Asher (8). He also had two sons with Rachel's maid (Bilhah), named Dan (5) and Naphtali (10). Finally he also had two sons with Rachel, Joseph (11) and Benjamin (12), during the birth of which Rachel died. It is said that Jacob loved his 11th son, Joseph, the most.
However, it was Jacob's favoritism towards Joseph, and Joseph's visions that he would one day lead all his brothers, that left his other brothers conspiring to kill him. One day, according to some accounts around the year 1683 BC, nine of his brothers gather to kill him; "Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him" (Gen 37:19). Reuben alone objected, and suggested they leave him in a dried up well, intending to return later to rescue him. A short time later a company of Ishmaelites was passing by, and taking this opportunity, Judah sold Joseph into slavery. Reuben was shocked, but could do nothing. Instead the brothers dipped a robe in blood, and took it to their father Jacob, who seeing the bloody robe, concluded "It is my son's robe; a wild beast has devoured him" (Gem 37:33). Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites took Joseph to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, Captain of the royal guards of Pharaoh. Joseph's unique talent to be able to see and interpret visions and dreams, soon made him a powerful person, and he was appointed governor, and oversaw the grain distribution of the land, which at the time was the second highest office after Pharaoh. He also marries the daughter of Potiphar, and has two sons of his own, Manasseh and Ephraim, who later are adapted by Jacob as his own, and after Jacob dies, and the tribe of Levi is made in charge of the priesthood, both Manasseh and Ephraim were made tribes (hence making 12 tribes again).
Meanwhile, famine spread in the lands where Jacob and his remaining children were living. Jacob sends 10 of his children to Egypt to buy grain. When they arrived in Egypt, they did not recognize their brother Joseph, but he did. The brothers were imprisoned. Learning that his mother had another son, Benjamin, while he was in Egypt, Joseph decides to release his brothers, sell them the grain, and allow them to go if they left one of their brothers as a hostage, and return with Benjamin. Simeon decides to stay.
Returning home, Jacob objects sending Benjamin, saying "You have bereaved me of my children, Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin" (Gen 42:36). Later, after the grain ran out, and the brothers had to return once again to Egypt with Benjamin. This time Joseph reveals his true identity to them, and invites his father and the entire family to Egypt, known as "The Soujourn", which is said to have taken place around the year 1662 BC.
Following The Exodus, the Twelve Tribes Settle in Israel
Following many years of peace, the influence the Jews were having on Egyptian society became too great for Pharaoh Sobekhotep IV, who ordered the Jews to be taken into oppressive slavery, said to have been around the year 1517 BC. The following 70 years are known as "The Bondage" years, until Moses freed the Jews and takes them on the Exodus, which continued for 37 years, until the Jews reached Mount Nebo, near the Dead Sea, being able to see the city of Jericho.
After the city of Jericho was captured (1410 BC), and eventually the whole of Canaan, the twelve tribes split up. For the next 360 years, each tribe is ruled by a series of "Judges", and at times small skirmishes erupted between the tribes. The tribes yearned for re-unification, which they believed could be accomplished by a great king. They asked Samuel, the last of the judges, in 1037 BC to choose such a king. He names Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, to be the first king of Israel. Saul was not up for the job, and God order Samuel to travel to a man called Jesse, of the tribe of Judah in Bethlehem, because as God said "for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." (1 Sam 16:1). Eventually, David, the youngest of Jesse's sons, was chosen.
Israel was united under King David, and followed so during the reign of King Solomon. It is upon the installment of Solomon's son, Reheboam, in 931 BC that Israel split in two, after the 10 northern tribes rebelled after Reheboam said he would impose harsher taxes than even his father had. Israel was now divided, with the Kingdom of Judah, comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (from which it is said that all Jews descend from) staying loyal to Reheboam in the south, and the northern Kingdom of Israel, led by Jeroboam, which was comprised of the remaining 10 tribes.
Biographies of the sons of Jacob (in order of their birth)
1- Reuben - The name means "behold a son". As the eldest son, he was the first in line to be the heir. However, Reuben sinned by having a relationship with Bilhah, Rachel's maid, with whom his father had had two sons. This action forfeited his right to be heir, and caused Jacob to divide his land amongst all his sons. It is said that Reuben had four sons of his own. The flag of the tribe is said to have been red with mandrakes.
2 - Simeon - The name means "hearing". At his birth, his mother Leah, exclaimed "Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also" (Gen 29:33). Simeon is famous for joining with his brother Levi to kill Shechem, a Canaanite prince who raped their sister, Dinah. It was for this reason that Jacob, at his deathbed, took away Simeon's rights and territories. Simeon's flag was said to be green, with the town of Shechem embroidered thereon.
3- Levi - The name means "to be joined". Despite his violent attack together with his brother Simeon on Shechem, a Canaanite prince who raped their sister Dinah, it would be his descendants from which the temple priests would be selected; the first being Aaron. However, Levi would not receive any land, like his brother Simeon. The flag of Levi was said to be Levi's was a third white, a third black, and a third red, with the Urim and Thummim embroidered on it.
4- Judah - Meaning "praise", it was Judah that convinced the other brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. It was during the second encounter with his long lost brother Joseph, that Joseph tested him whether he would sell his brother, Benjamin, to Joseph. He refused, offering himself up instead (Gen 42:6). This convinced Joseph to reveal his true identity to his brothers. Judah had three sons. At Jacob's deathbed, he told Judah that "Judah, your brothers shall praise you……your father's sons shall bow down before you" (Gen 49:8), and gave Judah the leadership position, after Reuben, Simeon and Levi were all discredited due to sins they committed, even though he was fourth in line. Judah's flag was said to be resembling the heavens, with a lion embroidered on it.
5 - Dan - Meaning "he judged", no traditions about Dan himself have been preserved. Dan's flag was said to have been blue, with a serpent embroidered on it.
6 - Zebulun - Meaning "honor", The Bible does not mention much about Zebulun as well, only that he had three sons, and inhereted the land around Nazareth. Zebulun’s flag was said to be white, with a ship embroidered on it.
7 - Gad - Meaning "fortune", his name derives from when Leah heard that her maid Zilpah had given birth to a son, she exclaimed "Good Fortune" and gave the son his name (Gen 30:11). Not much is known about Gad himself, only that he himself had seven sons. The tribe of Gad inhereted the land east of the Jordan River. It's flag was said to be a blend of black and white, with a camp embroidered on it.
8 - Asher - Meaning "the happy one", the name is said to have been given by his Leah, who hearing that her maid Zilpah gave birth to a second son said "Happy am I! For the women will call me happy" (Gen 30:13). Asher had four sons, and his tribe inherited the western part of Galilee. Asher's flag was said to be beryl with an olive tree embroidered on it.
9 - Issachar - Meaning "man of reward", the name derives from the fact that his mother, Leah, saw it as a divine favor. His tribe eventually settled in around the valley of the Jezreel River. It is said that he had four sons. Issachar's flag was said to be blue, with a sun and moon embroidered on it.10 - Naphtali - Meaning "wrestling", it was the second son born to Rachel's maid Bilhah. Rachel is said to have named him as a result of all the struggles she had had with Leah. His tribe settled in northwest of the Sea of Galilee. He is said to have had four sons. Naphtali's flag was said to be light red, with a hind embroidered on it 11 - Joseph - Meaning "may He add other sons", much has already been discussed about the role Joseph played. As Jacob's favorite son, he is eventually bestowed as the fourth patriarch of Israel. As mentioned he had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. At Joseph's father, Jacob, on his deathbed, gave the second son, Ephraim, a stronger blessing that the traditional first son, Manasseh, saying "Manasseh also shall be great; nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations" (Gen 48:19). Joseph's flag was said to be black, with an onyx on it.
As Joseph's two sons also played an important role, their brief biographies will be listed here:
Manasseh - Meaning "God has made me forget", not much is known about the man who will eventually led the tribe of Manasseh. A wild ox was said to adorn his flag.
Ephraim - Meaning "fruitful", his tribe eventually settled around the furtile land that is today Tel Aviv. A bullock was embroidered on his flag.
12 - Benjamin - Meaning "son of the right hand", he became Jacob's favorite son after Joseph was sold into slavery and thought to be dead by Jacob.
Theories of what happened to the twelve tribes of Israel
Several theories exist as to what happened to the 12 tribes. It is generally accepted that the two tribes that remained loyal to Reheboam, are the two tribes from which it is said that all Jews descended from. As a result, the remaining 10 tribes, are referred to as being "lost". However, some point to a prophecy by Ezekiel as proof that these ten tribes are not lost; "Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land, and I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all; and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms" (Ezekiel 37:21-22).
So what theories abound as to what happened to these 10 tribes? Many exist, and I have just highlighted a few to give a flavor of the wide-ranging theories that abound.
In addition to the examples mentioned above, numerous other theories exist, too numerous to present in this paper. However, suffice it to say that no one theory seems to be able to explain, convincingly, the whereabouts of all the tribes. It shall therefore remain a true mystery.
The Twelve Original Points in FreemasonryIn old Masonic lectures, which were used in England until 1813, it is mentioned that "There are in Freemasonry 12 original points, which form the basis of the system, and comprehend the whole ceremony of initiation. Without the existence of these points, no man ever was, or can be, legally and essentially received into the Order. Every person who is made a Mason must go through these 12 forms and ceremonies, not only in the first degree, but in every subsequent one."
These 12 original points, as mentioned in the old lecture, assigned one of the 12 tribes to each of the important parts of the ceremonies held within a lodge. Specifically,
It is interesting to note, that these twelve original points of Freemasonry are not discussed much in Masonic circles, indicating that they have lost perhaps their relevance, or that modern Freemasons no longer bother to look into "old" lectures to better understand esoteric parts of Masonry.
Who's Who in the Bible, by Reader's Digest Association
Who Are the Northern Ten Tribes of Israel Today?, Associates for Scriptural Knowledge
Lost Tribes of Israel, WGBH Educational Foundation
Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, by Albert Mackey
The Virtual Jewish History Tour, Afghanistan The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise
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Last modified: March 22, 2014