The list of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in Revelation 7 omits the tribe of Dan and the half tribe of Ephraim but includes the “tribe of Joseph” and the half tribe of Manasseh. What are the implications of this variation of the tribal listings?
Two Distinct People Groups
I am convinced that tedious listings serve an obvious meaning: to clarify that a passage is to be taken literally (and thus within the category of genealogies and numberings found in the Torah and elsewhere). As another case in point, Ezekiel’s Temple measurements are horrendously detailed; therefore, the most reasonable interpretation is that the Temple will actually be rebuilt during the Kingdom Age. Who else would want to tackle the meaning of the text if it were not literal? Who would have time or energy to decode it if it were allegorical? Tedious detail precludes the “easy out” of allegorical or spiritual interpretation.
The context also evidences the concept that the 144,000 Israelites are to be taken in literal fashion. In our text, (7:1-9) we see TWO people groups: 144,000 tediously defined as Israelites and an uncountable multituderepresenting all of the redeemed (vs. 9); these groups are distinct, though the former are a subset of the latter massive group. So we have a modest number of Israelites who are sealed and a second, immense group of the redeemed. To make them the same is to make the logical error of the undistributed middle. (All women are people therefore all people are women.)
Ephraim Included Under the Banner of Joseph
But why is “Joseph” added? In a sense, the tribe of Joseph was only a tribe in theory. As you might recall, Joseph’s two sons were given separate tribal status because Joseph was specially honored with a double portion. Even though he was not born first (chronologically), he was, by Jacob’s decree, given the rights of the firstborn socially (hence receiving the double portion given to the firstborn son). Jacob himself had been in a similar position: even though his twin Esau was born first, Jacob received the honors of the firstborn.
So we can assume that one of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim, who is also Jacob’s grandson, is included under the tribe of “Joseph,” while Joseph’s other son, Manasseh, is listed separately as his own tribe. This idea is treated similarly in Ezekiel 48. Early in the chapter, we have the “typical” list of the 12 Tribes (excluding Levi, whose land is not distributed in a block fashion, but including Dan and Ephraim). But in Ezekiel 48:30-34, where we have the four city exits, we see that Ephraim is omitted while Joseph is included:
These will be the exits of the city: Beginning on the north side, which is 4,500 cubits long, the gates of the city will be named after the tribes of Israel. The three gates on the north side will be the gate of Reuben, the gate of Judah and the gate of Levi.
On the east side, which is 4,500 cubits long, will be three gates: the gate of Joseph, the gate of Benjamin and the gate of Dan.
On the south side, which measures 4,500 cubits, will be three gates: the gate of Simeon, the gate of Issachar and the gate of Zebulun.
On the west side, which is 4,500 cubits long, will be three gates: the gate of Gad, the gate of Asher and the gate of Naphtali.
In this text, we can postulate that the Tribe of Ephraim, being the dominant tribe of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, is included under the banner of the “Tribe of Joseph.” But it is my opinion that the term “Joseph” is used to include MORE than merely Ephraim. I will elaborate on this further below.
Why was Dan omitted?
The Fluidity of the Tribes in the Old Testament
In the above passage (Ezekiel 48), we observe two distinct tribal listings in the same chapter. Do we see any other tribal variations in the Old Testament? Yes!
In Deuteronomy 33, the tribe of Simeon is left out of Moses’ blessing. If we can discover why Simeon was left out there, then that could provide us with the clue to Revelation 7.
A reasonable answer for Simeon’s omission is that the land of Simeon was an island surrounded by the territory of Judah. Note this point: few conservatives challenge that the tribes Moses mentions in Deuteronomy 33 are literal (simply because one is left out). Between the passage mentioned above in Ezekiel and the list of Deuteronomy 33, it is reasonable to conclude that the Jews viewed the 12 Tribes as a fluid expression of their national composition. Whereas the 12 sons of Jacob are absolute and unchanging in nature, the 12 tribes have been fluid since the beginning (when Jacob, by blessing Joseph’s two sons, created 13 tribes).
Perhaps I am cynical, but it seems to me that the reason some theologians point to the omission of Dan in Revelation is because they have an agenda to allegorize the tribes. Since there is no such agenda for Deuteronomy 33, some of the same scholars who defend the literal integrity of Deuteronomy advocate allegorizing Revelation 7.
Also worth noting in our quest is the fact that the tribe of Benjamin is frequently included with Judah throughout the Old Testament. These clues advance our “fluidity” theory.
1 Kings 11:29-32 reads:
About that time Jeroboam was going out of Jerusalem, and Ahijah the prophet of Shiloh met him on the way, wearing a new cloak. The two of them were alone out in the country, and Ahijah took hold of the new cloak he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes. But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe.”
Note here that the ten strips plus the one strip of fabric equals only eleven strips. Yet we know that the “one strip” really represented two tribes, Judah and Benjamin.
Conventional interpretation suggests that Benjamin was so small at this time that it was not considered its own tribe. If so, we need to add Levi to get 12 tribes, and, of course, Levi’s land allotments were scattered through all Israel. Although many faithful Jews later migrated to Judah from the Northern Kingdom, Levi, at least initially, probably kept its land scattered within both the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah).
If Benjamin were included, we would have what we normally picture: 13 tribes (11 full tribes and two “half” tribes). If Benjamin indeed is not counted here as its own tribe, why is it unthinkable that Dan should suffer the same fate in Revelation?
In light of all this evidence, it seems logical to conclude the following: The Twelve Tribes of Israel were not as firmly set as many believe. The enumeration of the twelve tribes is a floating enumeration.
New Testament Counterpart
We see something related in Paul’s account of a post-resurrection appearance of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:5we read that Jesus, “appeared to the Twelve.” The problem is that twelve apostles were not present. In His first appearance, He only appeared to ten. Even when Thomas was present a week later, He technically appeared to eleven apostles. (Judas Iscariot was dead). In that case, the term, “The Twelve” is not so much a numerical term as a figure for the apostolic group. The same seems to be true with the twelve tribes of Israel. In this case, we must ask, “which twelve?”
The Targum on Pseudo-Jonathan adds an interesting insight as to the views held by later Jews (perhaps in the eighth century) about the tribe of Dan. This Targum (a paraphrase, interpretation, and expansion of the Torah into Aramaic), in Exodus 17:8, reads:
And Amalek came from the land of the south and leaped on that night a thousand and six hundred miles; and on account of the disagreement which had been between Esau and Jakob, he came and waged war with Israel in Rephidim, and took and killed (some of the) men of the house of Dan; for the cloud did not embrace them, because of the strange worship that was among them.
Contrasting this to the original text, Exodus 17:8, which simply reads: “The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim” gives the reader an impression that the author of the Targum is venting by means of a diatribe against Dan!
For some reason unknown to me, the Jewish people had a negative attitude toward the tribe of Dan, at least at one point in time. I am not saying that this negative attitude was prevalent as far back as the Second Temple period, but it may have been. This may or may not have bearing on the Revelation passage.
The Best Solution: The “Tribe of Joseph” is a Regional, Not Primarily Genetic, Term!
I will eventually bring us back to this point, namely that “Joseph” is a regional term (and provides room for expansion), but I want to “get us there” first.
The Genetic Confusion Between Tribes
Returning to Revelation 7, one solution seems likely to me: both Ephraim and Dan, and perhaps others, are included in the title, “tribe of Joseph.” Although Ephraim and Manasseh were brothers and could therefore logically be called “the tribe of Joseph,” remember that there really was no such Old Testament tribe as “Joseph,” at least not in a practical sense. Instead, Joseph’s line was represented by the phrase “the half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.”
We need to take into account that though many of the northern tribes were “lost” after the Assyrian Conquest (722 B.C.), the godly of the land had previously fled south to Judah (2 Chronicles 15:9, 34:9). But that does not mean all tribal heritages were lost.
In New Testament times, for example, we are introduced to Anna, who was of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36, 38). In addition to the tribes of Levi, Judah and Benjamin (of which Paul was a member), most or all of the other tribes were probably represented within the Jewish community, although probably in small numbers.
Possibility One: Dan and Ephraim Mixed Into the Tribe of Joseph
So here is one possible scenario: After the conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., the godly Israelites from the tribes of Ephraim basically absorbed the remnant from the tribe of Dan, and the people of Dan lost their separate identity perhaps because so few of them were faithful to the Lord and hence not mentioned in the migration of 2 Chronicles 15:9. This combination of Dan, who descended from Rachael’s handmaid, Bilhah, and Joseph who descended from Rachael, are so intertwined that they became known simply as the “Tribe of Joseph” because they really were such a mixture that perhaps their genealogies could no longer be sorted out, as could be done with the other tribes. Since Ephraim bordered the smaller region given to Dan, the groups absorbed each another. It could be that this conglomeration could have happened even before 722 B.C.; if so, the Ephraimites of 2 Chronicles 15:9 might be an Ephraim-Dan mix.
Since Ephraim and Dan had lost track of their genealogies by the first century A.D., they could not confidently call themselves Ephraimites or Danites, so they chose a term to explain this genetic uncertainty, the tribe of Joseph. This would also make it clear that their Ephraimitic line was the dominant strain and that they were all connected somewhere to Joseph but were not clearly legal heirs to the title “tribe of Ephraim.”
Possibility Two: Dan “Reduced”
Another possibility is that all those from the tribe of Dan are reduced in number in comparison to the other tribes. This might mean that there are still many descendents of Dan, but not enough to muster 12,000 virgin men (implied by Revelation 14:4) during the Tribulation period.
If the invasion of 2 Chronicles 16:4 depleted Dan, then the invasion of the Assyrians (2 Kings 15:29) may have depleted them further to the point that they virtually disappeared. If so, the term “Joseph” may refer to miscellaneous, minority or uncategorized Israelites.
Possibility Three: Joseph Used of A Region, Not A Specific Genetic Heritage
In Zechariah 10:6, we read: “I will strengthen the house of Judah and save the house of Joseph. I will restore them because I have compassion on them. They will be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the LORDtheir God and I will answer them.”
In these and other verses, the entire block of northern tribes is sometimes called “Joseph.” So perhaps the tribe of Joseph refers to descendents of Israel who are so mixed that they cannot be categorized into any other tribe, with the tribe of Dan being completely mixed and beyond sorting.
Possibility Four: The Samaritans and Gentile Converts
Yet another intriguing possibility that provides an even simpler solution is this: the tribe of Joseph refers to the Samaritans! When the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom, (aka, “Samaria,” “Ephraim,” or “Joseph,”) they left some of the peoples behind while deporting the majority and dispersing them throughout their kingdom. Perhaps the majority of those left behind were from Dan and Ephraim. The Assyrians then imported a variety of gentile peoples into the land, and these people intermarried, creating the Samaritan race, a race the Jews despised. These were the troublemakers mentioned in Nehemiah: the early Samaritans.
Modern Jews (who have often done some intermarrying themselves) recognize the Samaritans–who have never left the land and still sacrifice Passover lambs on Mt. Gerizim–as fully Jewish! The Samaritan Jews today are more observant than modern Orthodox Jews. So perhaps the Samaritans are considered the tribe of Joseph because the term Joseph is used for the Northern Kingdom.
While we are at it, we might even suggest that the term Joseph includes gentiles who have converted to Judaism. We know, for example, that when the Hebrews left Egypt, some gentile peoples (called a “mixed multitude” in Exodus 12:38) were amalgamated into the nation.
Another obscure passage from Ezekiel 47:21-23 helps to “bust the case wide open”:
You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD.
This passage alone shows us a case of divine precedent: tribal identity is not merely genetic. Thus, the concept of “The Tribe of Joseph” leaves room for all kinds of converts to Judaism, mixed Jews, and Samaritans.
How Hard to Find 144,000 Jews?
Although there may not be enough virgin men to supply the 12,000 required for the Tribe of Dan, the world is filled with people who have genetic connections to Israel. Perhaps most people of European, Middle-Eastern, or North African descent are genetically connected to Israel somewhere–very likely to the many children of Solomon who married royalty throughout the region (and then the grandchildren who likewise married royalty moving the genetic connection in all directions, including westward). Since the progeny of royal families tended to be large and healthy, many of us have a touch of royal blood somewhere, and thus probably a Jewish connection.
Note that God not only promises to make a great nation from Jacob in Genesis 35:11, but also suggests that Jacob will father God’s special nation, Israel, but also that a “community of nations” will arise from Jacob.
The text reads, “And God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty ; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body.'”
This could refer to the each of the tribes as a “nation,” and thus Israel is a “community of nations,” or it could refer to the idea that Jacob’s genes would be spread throughout the world, which has very likely happened (as mentioned above, many of Solomon’s thousands of children would have married foreign royalty, thus moving Jacob’s genes in all geographical directions; the rulers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel would also marry off their children born to concubines and lesser wives to foreign royalty, thus propagating Israelites from non-Judean stock as well).
“Even without a documented connection to a notable forebear, experts say the odds are virtually 100 percent that every person on Earth is descended from one royal personage or another.” (Quoted from Genealogist: Almost Everyone on Earth Descended From Royalty, an Associated Press article dated July 5, 2006.)
Although I disagree with the various theories of “British Israelism,” the actual truth is that many people in the world have some genetic link to not only Abraham–but also to Jacob.
Although modern Jews determine whether one is born a Jew or not by whether one’s mother was a Jewess, the ancient Biblical criteria seems oriented toward the heritage of the father. What criteria God will use to determine who belongs and does not belong to Israel are unrevealed.