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A Whirlwind History of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

As a young woman I sat on the edge of a gathering at a youth camp. We sat on the grass, at the center of this gathering was one of our Patriarch Evangelists. This was a man who liked young people. Some of the young men, who knew more than I did, and were not afraid to ask questions, were asking the Evangelist questions about the twelve tribes of Israel. I listened the best I could, but I could not understand any of it. But still I thought it was fascinating and wondered how these people knew about this at all. Years later, when I finally began reading the scriptures for myself, I found that it was still fascinating, and it was in the stories of the scriptures.

Now, come closer to the center of the gathering and I will try to take you on a whirlwind history of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

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It is possible that you have heard phrases like: the twelve tribes of Israel, the sons of Jacob, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the ten lost tribes, Ephraim and Manesseh, Joseph, sons of Levi, and many more phrases like this. They can be very confusing. We must start with Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve were our first parents. They knew about Jesus Christ. They had many children and they taught their children. But most of their children and grandchildren rebelled against their teachings. Angels came to these people to teach them, but still they rebelled. But there were always some people who worshipped God and knew that Jesus Christ would come in the meridian of time. (Genesis Chapters 1-6)

The generations of Adam and Eve's children came down to the time of Noah. The people of the earth had become so wicked that God sent a flood to drown them. Noah, his wife, Noah's three sons, and their wives were the only people on Noah's Ark. Along with every kind of animal they were saved from the flood. (Genesis Chapters 8-9)

After the flood there began to be many people on the earth again. Most of them did not worship God. They made up their own gods and made statues of them to worship. There was a man who worshipped God, his name was Abram. God commanded Abram to go to a land which God would show him. God told Abram, "And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee shall the families of the earth be blessed." (Genesis 12: 2) God was working with one man and one family to teach all the people of the earth about how God wanted us to live. This is what it means when God said to Abram, "in thee shall the families of the earth be blessed."

God led Abram to Caanan, which we now know as the nation of Israel. God changed Abram's name to Abraham. Abraham had several sons, but one son was his legal heir, born to his first wife. That son's name was Isaac. (Genesis Chapters 11-25)

Isaac married Rebekah and had two sons who were twins, Esau and Jacob. Isaac's favorite twin was Esau, who was the older twin. Rebekah's favorite twin was Jacob. When Isaac was about to die he was almost blind. Rebekah came up with a plan to make sure that Jacob would be Isaac's heir. Jacob dressed up in Esau's clothes so that he would smell like Esau. He even put animal skins on his forearms so that they would feel like Esau's hairy arms. Isaac thought he was giving a blessing to Esau and making him his heir. But it was really Jacob. When Esau found out what had happened he was so angry that he wanted to kill Jacob. Even Isaac was not angry enough to want Jacob dead and have Esau be a murderer. So Isaac and Rebekah sent Jacob away. They sent him to Rebekah's brother, who lived far enough away that Jacob would be safe from Esau. (Genesis Chapters 24-28)

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

These three men, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all believed in God and worshipped Him. As we have just seen, they were not perfect, but God was working with them. You will sometimes hear the phrase, "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". These men were different than most of the people around them. Most of the people worshipped many gods and each house had an idol, or statue of their favorite god.

The Sons of Jacob

Now we are ready to meet the "sons of Jacob". Jacob worked for his uncle Laban. Laban had two daughters, Leah, the older, and Rachel, the younger. They were probably both attractive young women. Jacob fell in love with Rachel and wanted to marry her. The night of the wedding Laban switched Leah and Rachel. So Jacob married Leah without knowing it. Oh, he was angry! But this time it had been Jacob's turn to be tricked. Laban's excuse was that the oldest daughter must be married first. Jacob made a deal with Laban, he would work seven extra years and have Rachel as a wife also. So Jacob ended up with two wives.

Leah had four sons right away, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.

Rachel was jealous of her sister Leah, because she could not have any children. So she complained and complained, she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or else I die." Jacob answered in anger, "Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?"

Rachel came up with a plan to have children. Her maid, Bilhah, would be a surrogate mother. What that means is that Bilhah would have children with Jacob and they would be considered Rachel's children. Bilhah had a son named Dan. Then Bilhah had another son named Naphtali.

Leah had not had children for awhile. She could not let Rachel get away with all this, so Leah gave her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob to have more children. Zilpah's children would be Leah's. Zilpah had a son named Gad. Then Zilpah had another son named Asher.

Rachel and Leah spent a great deal of time fighting and arguing over Jacob. Finally Leah had another son, Issachar. Then she had Zepulun. She even had a daughter, Dinah. It is possible that Dinah was not Jacob's only daughter. Women are only mentioned in the Bible if they have their own exciting story. Dinah caused some excitement, but that is another story.

Finally, after much heartbreak of not being able to have children of her own, Rachel had Joseph. Several years later Rachel had another son, Benjamin. Rachel died having Benjamin. Rachel had been the woman Jacob chose for a wife. He put a pillar at her grave. She died in the place that we now call Bethlehem.

Let us review the twelve sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah born to Leah. Dan and Naphtali born to Bilhah. Gad and Asher born to Zilpah. Issachar and Zepulun born to Leah. And finally, Joseph and Benjamin born to Rachel.

Before Benjamin was born Jacob and Laban were not getting along very well. As you have seen already, both were capable of tricking others. Jacob decided that it was time go home. He had not been home for many years and he did not know how Esau would act when he saw him. Perhaps Esau would still be angry enough to try to kill Jacob. (Genesis Chapters 29-32).

Jacob's Name Becomes Israel

Jacob was so afraid of what would happen between himself and his brother that he prayed to God for help. He sent presents to Esau and did the best he could to protect his family. Then he spent the night alone from his family. During the night a man came to him and they wrestled the whole night. The other man could not win the fight, so he touched the inside of Jacob's thigh and hurt his thigh. He then said, "Let me go, for it is almost dawn." And Jacob answered, "I will not let you go until you bless me."

It must have been an angel, I don't know why someone would wrestle with an angel, but the angel asked, "What is your name?" Jacob answered, "Jacob." The angel then said, "Your name shall no more be Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed."

When the angel was gone Jacob named the place Peniel, which meant "for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." (Genesis 32:24-31)

The next morning Esau was there to meet Jacob. He had four hundred men with him. But Esau was happy to see Jacob again. First Jacob had bowed seven times in front of his brother as Esau came closer. Then Esau ran to Jacob and hugged him and kissed him and they both cried. Jacob probably also cried with relief, not just the happiness of seeing his twin brother again. And so this particular story had a happy ending. (Genesis Chapters 32-33)

The Sons of Jacob become the Tribes of Israel

Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, was having a good time and a bad time. He was his father's favorite. It says in the Bible that he was his favorite because he was the son of Israel's old age. It was probably also because he was the son of Rachel. Not only that, but Joseph was having dreams that he ruled over all his family, and he told them his dreams. This made his older brothers very angry and jealous. When Joseph was seventeen his brothers sold him to some traders going to Egypt and then told their father that Joseph had been eaten by wild animals.

Sometimes God uses the bad things that we do and can turn them to good. Of course this is not an excuse to do bad things. As Joseph was a slave in Egypt many things happened to him. He came to the notice of the Pharaoh, or king of Egypt. Because God helped Joseph, Joseph became the second most powerful man in Egypt. By Joseph's planning Egypt was saved from starving in a famine. Joseph's entire family was also saved from starving in the same famine. They came to Egypt to buy food and there found their brother Joseph. He still loved them and told them to come to Egypt.

Jacob, or Israel, was an old man. He had lost Joseph and did not want anything to happen to Rachel's other son, Benjamin. When Jacob was told that Joseph was alive you can imagine how happy he was. And Joseph had saved their entire family, a family of seventy men, plus all the women who didn't get counted. (Genesis Chapters 37, 39-48)

Israel, or Jacob, was so grateful to Joseph that he gave both of Joseph's sons a part of his inheritance. Israel said to Joseph "And now, of thy two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, which were born unto thee in the land of Egypt, before I came unto thee into Egypt; behold, they are mine, and the God of my fathers shall bless them; even as Reuben and Simeon they shall be blessed, for they are mine; wherefore they shall be called after my name. (Therefore they were called Israel.)"

"And thy issue which thou begettest after them, shall be thine, and shall be called after the name of their brethren in their inheritance, in the tribes; therefore they were called the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim."

What this means is that Joseph's family had a double inheritance. Instead of one tribe of Joseph, they became two tribes, the tribe of Manasseh and the tribe of Ephraim.

Israel didn't just have sons now, each son was beginning to have a family, and so they became tribes. Israel gave his twelve sons a blessing before he died. But there are thirteen tribes now instead of twelve, and we never say the thirteen tribes of Israel. Even though Manasseh and Ephraim are two tribes, they are still considered the tribe of Joseph. It is a little confusing, and there are more confusing things to come. (Genesis Chapter 48)

The Children of Israel

The tribes of Israel had moved to Egypt in order to have food to eat during the famine. Sometime after Joseph had died a new Pharaoh came to power. He knew nothing about Joseph. This story is told in the Book of Exodus. The twelve tribes of Israel were now being called the children of Israel. They were also called Hebrew. The new Pharaoh turned them into slaves in Egypt. They lived in Egypt for about 430 years. God raised up a man out of the house of Levi to free the children of Israel. His name was Moses.

Moses had gone to the Pharaoh and told him that he must free the slaves. Pharaoh said no, and made life harder and harder for them. But life also became harder and harder for the Egyptians. God sent plagues upon the Egyptians. A river turned to blood, frogs, lice, flies, boils on their bodies, diseased cattle, burning hail, locusts, and darkness for three days would not convince the Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go. The final plague finally convinced him to let them go.

The night before the children of Israel left Egypt, God sent a plague throughout Egypt. The only ones who would not be touched by the plague were those who put the blood of a lamb on the lintel and side posts of their door, what we call the door frame. The children of Israel put the blood on their door frames. In every other house in Egypt the first-born died. That meant the first person born to any woman, and the first-born of the cattle were dead among the Egyptian people.

For the children of Israel this was the first Passover, the night the plague passed over them, but killed the first-born of the Egyptians. Remember the Passover, it will come into our story about the tribes of Israel again soon. (Exodus Chapters 1-12)

Levi and the Firstborn of Israel

When the plague went through the Egyptian houses it killed all the first-born. The plague passed over the houses and cattle of the children of Israel. God said to Moses, "Sanctify unto me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast; it is mine." And what this means is that all the first-born among Israel belonged to God, because He saved their lives. (Exodus Chapter 13)

When the children of Israel left Egypt, God told Moses to count all the males age twenty and above of all the children of Israel by their tribes. Here are the tribes that were counted: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, (which was Ephraim and Manasseh), Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad, and Naphtali. Why wasn't the tribe of Levi counted? God told Moses, "And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the first-born that openeth the matrix among the children of Israel; therefore the Levites shall be mine."

"Because all the first-born are mine; for on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the first-born in Israel, both man and beast; mine they shall be; I am the Lord."

Instead of taking the first-born of each family of every tribe of Israel, God took the entire tribe of Levi. (Numbers Chapters 1-4)

What did this mean?

The Tribe of Levi, or Levites, were put in charge of the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a movable temple. The Bible tells exactly how it was made and what was in it. It was basically a beautiful tent, with all the things that made it a temple to God. The Levites made it, took care of it, and camped around it wherever the children of Israel camped. (Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers) When the children of Israel finally built a permanent temple of stone, the Levites were in charge of that too. They were also in charge of the Ark of the Covenant, which was a beautiful chest that held the tablets with the Ten Commandments. (Deuteronomy Chapter 31:9)

The Children of Israel spent forty years getting to Caanan. They could have gotten there right away, but they did not have enough faith in God to take care of them. So God marched them around until the older generation was gone. When they finally arrived in Caanan the land was divided among the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Pay attention, Manasseh and Ephraim, both sons of Joseph were both counted as tribes. Levi was not counted. (Numbers Chapter 34)

The Levites were given forty-eight cities. They were scattered throughout the tribes. Six of those cities were places of refuge. If someone accidentally killed another person, they were to run to one of these cities to be safe. This was so justice could be done instead of someone's family killing him in anger and revenge. This meant the killer could have a trial. (Numbers Chapter 35)

The twelve tribes supported the tribe of Levi, because the Levites job was to attend to the tabernacle in the service of God. (Deuteronomy Chapter 18)

The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

This is how things were for a long time. The children of Israel went into Caanan and made it their home. They had to do a lot of fighting in order to be able to live there. The tribe of Dan had a hard time getting a place and we think the tribe of Simeon had a hard time too. We don't know exactly where the tribe of Simeon found a home. The tribes of Israel called their nation Israel. Each tribe had an inheritance of land. The Levites were scattered throughout Israel to serve God. And all the people were governed by judges. Judges were people who were respected by the people and made decisions for the people. You could say that the people chose them to govern.

After many, many years the people decided that they wanted a king. The other nations around them had kings and they thought this would be good. God warned them that it was not a good idea, but He let them have their king. (I Samuel Chapter 8)

Israel had three kings, Saul, David, and then Solomon. (I Samuel Chapter 10 through all of II Samuel and I Kings through Chapter 11) God had warned the children of Israel that having a king was not a good idea. When Rehoboam became king after Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two parts. A man named Jeroboam became king over the part of the kingdom that would not accept Rehoboam as king. So now they became two nations. (I Kings Chapter 12)

The kingdom in the south was now called Judah, with Jerusalem as the capitol. Rehoboam was king in Jerusalem. In Judah lived two tribes, Judah and Benjamin The Levites left their cities throughout Israel and went to Judah, because Jeroboam had set up idols in the land and would not let the Levites do their service to God. Other people throughout the tribes came to Judah also to worship God. (II Chronicles Chapter 11:12-17)

Jeroboam became king of the other tribes which lived in the north. These tribes were Reuben, Simeon, (Simeon originally was in the south, we are not sure where they lived), Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Ephraim, and Manasseh. They were known as the nation of Israel.

The nation of Judah and the nation of Israel had kings of their own for a long time. The Bible says, "and he was a good king", and "he was a bad king". Sometimes the people worshipped God and sometimes they worshipped idols as their neighbors did.

By about 721 B.C., a little over seven hundred years before Jesus Christ was born, the northern kingdom of Israel was attacked and conquered by Assyria, a neighbor to the east. The people were scattered and dragged away into slavery. Because they were destroyed as a nation no one knows for sure where these people went. That is why they are called "the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel". But God knows where His people are, and many people believe that the Ten Lost Tribes will be together again with the rest of the children of Israel. (Kings Chapter 17)

The Jews

The northern kingdom of Israel was gone. But the southern kingdom of Judah still existed. They became known to the rest of the world as Jews. Judah was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and many of the tribe of Levi. And as some of the people left the northern kingdom to worship God there were probably a few people from all of the tribes still living in Judah.

Lehi's Family

In about 587 B.C. Jerusalem, in the nation of Judah, fell to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. At this time in history there were prophets in Jerusalem begging the people to repent. One prophet of this time was Jeremiah. Another prophet was Lehi. The people did not want to hear what the prophets had to say and they threatened their lives. Lehi had been faithful in his ministry and God let him know that he and his family should leave Jerusalem before it was destroyed. God was saving a part of His people and leading them to a land of promise. That land we now call the American continent.

We know from the Book of Mormon that Lehi lived in Jerusalem and was from the tribe of Manasseh. (Alma 8:3) Soon after Lehi and his family arrived on the land of promise Lehi died. His sons divided themselves on the land by two groups. The Lamanites followed Laman, the oldest brother. The Nephites followed Nephi, a younger brother. The reason these people divided was because the Lamanites rebelled against the teachings of their father, Lehi. (Book of Mormon, I Nephi and II Nephi Chapters 1-4)

Another group of people from Jerusalem had also migrated. At the defeat of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar captured Zedekiah, the king of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar had Zedekiah's children killed in front of him. Then Zedekiah's eyes were put out and he was dragged away to Babylon. They were cruel, cruel in those days, and yes, there is still great cruelty in the world. But a group of people escaped and followed a man named Mulek. He and a group of people migrated to the land of promise. Many years later the Nephites found their descendants, heard their story and they became friends. They became part of the Nephite nation. (II Kings Chapters 24-25, Book of Jeremiah, the Book of Mormon, Omni Chapter 1, Mosiah Chapter 11)

The Nephites and the Lamanites were at war for most of their history. The Nephites worshipped God and followed the law of Moses, or the laws of the children of Israel. But sometimes the Lamanites were more righteous than the Nephites.

After the death of Jesus Christ, Jesus came to the land of promise and spent time with the people there. These were children of Israel and God had not forgotten them. For two hundred years the people did not call themselves Nephites, or Lamanites, or any other name. They were all one nation and lived together and worshipped God and served Jesus Christ. (Book of Mormon, III Nephi Chapters 5-14)

But about 200 A.D. the people began to forget the teachings of Jesus Christ and divided themselves again. They fought for two hundred years until finally the Lamanite nation destroyed the Nephite nation. Probably many Nephites survived, but they were absorbed into the Lamanite nation. (IV Nephi, Mormon, Moroni)

When Europeans began to arrive on the land of promise they named it America. The people who were already living here were the descendants of the Lamanites, part of the tribe of Manasseh, of the children of Israel.

Meanwhile, Back in Judah

Many of the Jews, or the people of Judah, had been dragged away to Babylon. But after about 50 years they were allowed to go back and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. (Book of Ezra) After that they were ruled by the Greeks, and then the Romans. Jesus Christ was born and lived during the time that the Romans ruled them. Their nation was called Palestine by the rest of the world. Jesus Christ was born in the tribe of Judah.

Jesus Christ was crucified when He was about 33 years old (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). This had been prophesied from the beginning, from the days of Adam. For those of us who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, this is the most important event in history. It is also the whole reason why God worked with the children of Israel. That reason is so all the families of the earth might be blessed. We would not have the Bible if it were not for the children of Israel. We would not have the Book of Mormon if it were not for the tribe of Manasseh who came to the land of promise, the American continent. God has spent all of history patiently teaching the children of Israel about how He wants everyone to live.

The first Christians were Jews. Jesus Christ was from the tribe of Judah. All his disciples and all his first followers were Jews. But as a nation, the Jews did not accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Soon Jesus' teachings went to the countries around Palestine. (The Acts)

About 40 years after Jesus' death, or as we say 70 A.D. (Anno Domini, that is Latin for "the year of our Lord), the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and knocked down the temple. The Jewish people were scattered all over the known world. They had a terrible time, because they were still a group of people, but they had no country of their own. In the countries where they lived, many people hated and distrusted them. Things became so bad that Hitler murdered six million Jews in World War II, in the 1930's and 1940's. In 1948 some surviving Jews officially declared that they were a nation again. They called their nation Israel. It is in the same place that God first brought Abraham. It has been called many names, Caanan, Israel, Judah, Palestine, and Israel again. Many of the world's Jews live in Israel. Many more live scattered in the nations of the world.

Let's Summarize

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshipped God while most of their neighbors worshipped many gods and idols. We sometimes say "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" when we talk about the God we worship.

God changed Jacob's name to Israel. Israel had twelve sons. Their names were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zepulun, Joseph and Benjamin.

Joseph became a ruler in Egypt. He had his whole family come to Egypt during a famine. There was food in Egypt and so his family was saved. Because he had saved his whole family, Jacob, or Israel, gave Joseph a double inheritance. Manasseh and Ephraim were Joseph's sons and were made tribes of Israel.

When the children of Israel left Egypt God killed all the first-born Egyptians. He saved the first-born of the children of Israel. Because God did this God set aside the entire tribe of Levi to serve Him in the tabernacle or temple. Levi did not have an inheritance of land in Canaan, but was given forty-eight cities throughout the lands of the rest of the tribes.

After King Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two separate nations. In the north, which was called Israel, lived ten tribes. In the south, which was called Judah, lived the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The tribe of Levi and some people from all over Israel also left Israel and went south to Judah.

In about 721 B.C. the northern nation of Israel was destroyed. The ten tribes of Israel which lived there were scattered and lost. They became known as the ten lost tribes of Israel. God knows where they are.

In about 587 B.C. a man named Lehi, and his family left Jerusalem and migrated to what is now the American continent. Another group, who followed a man named Mulek, also migrated from Jerusalem. These two groups joined together on the Land of Promise. Lehi was from the tribe of Manasseh.

In about 70 A.D. the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the people who lived there were scattered all over the world. These people were mostly from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. They became known as Jews, or Jewish people.

Where are the Twelve Tribes of Israel Now?

We know where some of the twelve tribes of Israel are right now.

Many Jewish people, of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi, live in Israel and many others live in nations around the world. Some of them still have a hard time in the countries in which they live. The small nation of Israel has had war from its neighbors ever since 1948.

On the entire American continent live many people of the tribe of Manasseh. These people are descendants of the Lamanites, also called Indians or Native Americans.

We do not know where the ten lost tribes are. There are many interesting theories about where they might be, but this story only tells what we know from the scriptures and common history that we all learn in school.

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This has become a long story. It starts at the beginning of time and includes you and me. God has made many promises to the Children of Israel, or the Twelve Tribes of Israel. That is another important story. We will come together in our circle again sometime to talk about the promises that God has made that "in thee shall the families of the earth be blessed."

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Adapted for children by Lois M. Anderson
from the Inspired Version of the Bible and the Book of Mormon

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Copyright 2001 Lois M. Anderson: All Rights Reserved
Last revised: October 22, 2001