posted on Jan, 23 2015 @ 05:01 PM
The sons of Jacob fall into two groups, if we follow the narrative in Genesis chs.29-30.
The first group are the tribes associated with Leah; that is, the six sons of Leah and the two sons of Leah’s handmaid.
What this might be telling us about Israel’s history is that the tribes of Leah were the first version of the confederacy of “Israel”.
They would have been the original “sons of Jacob”.
They would have had a common worship at the places which Jacob named in the stories, like Bethel and Mahanaim and Peniel.
The chief tribes at the time will have been the four “eldest sons” of Leah, namely Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah.
Reuben, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is identified as the eldest son.
Evidently the leading tribe in the early days of the confederacy, which may have begun on that side of the river.
The survey of tribes in Genesis ch49 calls Reuben “pre-eminent in pride and pre-eminent in power”. (v3)
Yet the survey in Deuteronomy ch33 is aware that Reuben has declined;
“Let Reuben live, and not die, nor let his men be few.” (v6)
The next two sons are Simeon and Levi, who are identified as “brothers” because they work together closely.
In ch34 they combine to attack Shechem. The survey in ch49 speaks of their violence and their fierce anger.
The implication is that they used to be a formidable power in the central highlands west of the Jordan.
However, the survey also says “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel”. (vv5-7)
In the accounts of the division of the land, Simeon has become a small group of settlements in the south of Judah. They vanish from history, except
that they must be the unnamed eleventh tribe which fails to join the “ten” in breaking away from the house of David.
Levi is no longer a military power, and has become a blanket name covering the priestly families of Israel.
The survey in Deuteronomy dwells on the militant priestly role of Levi, and leaves out Simeon altogether.
So what happened? There may be a clue in the Merneptah Stele.
In a list of his victories, the Pharaoh Merneptah claims to have laid waste Israel (or possibly Jezreel).
This is interesting, for historians, but also a little awkward, because it isn’t easy to match the dates in Egyptian history with the traditional
dates for Israelite occupation of the land.
If “Israel” is the correct reading, my theory is that it refers to the power exercised by Simeon and Levi.
In other words, it was the Pharaoh Merneptah who “scattered them” from their hold on the central highlands.
The fourth son is Judah, but the descriptions in the surveys will come from the time when Judah was dominant under the house of David.
Gad and Asher are included in the confederacy as the sons of Leah’s maid.
Gad shares with Reuben the lands on the eastern side of the Jordan. They are subject to raids from the tribes further east (ch49 v19). Nevertheless,
Deuteronomy thinks that Gad “chose the best of the land for himself” and “has a commander’s portion” (vv20-21).
Asher is another substantial tribe north of the plain of Jezreel.
Issachar and Zebulun are small tribes in the same region, which come later in the birth-story, but they count as fully-fledged “sons of Leah”
rather than allies.
They have a cultic site of their own- the mountain (probably Mt. Tabor) on which they offer “right sacrifices” (Deuteronomy ch33 v19).
These eight tribes between them cover the bulk of the territory of later Israel.
The second group are the tribes associated with Rachel. That is, the two sons of Rachel and the two sons of her handmaid.
Joseph, who was “separate from his brothers” is described as a “fruitful bough” enriched with many blessings (Genesis ch49 vv22-26).
The description in Deuteronomy also reflects the way that Joseph took over the leadership of the confederacy;
“…prince among his brothers…his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall push the peoples to the ends of the earth” (ch33
We can hardly ignore the association of Joseph with Egypt.
At the same time, since Joshua was an Ephraimite, the house of Joseph is closely associated with the westward crossing of the Jordan.
The account in Numbers takes the tribes of Israel from Egypt and Sinai to the eastern side of the Jordan, before getting them across the river.
I suggest there is a core of truth in this plot, except that it is not the story of Israel as a whole; it is the story of the house of Joseph.
The real sequel would be an encounter between Joseph and the original confederacy of Israel, with the ultimate result that Joseph became part of
Israel as the new leading tribe.
Any signs of “violent invasion” in the archaeology might belong to this particular stage in the development.
Manasseh was the “elder son” of Joseph. That is, the dominant partner in the early stages.
However, the supremacy soon passed to Ephraim, and this change is reflected in Genesis by the story of Jacob giving Ephraim his “right-hand”
There is a theory that Benjamin originated as an offshoot of Ephraim.
In the birth narrative, Benjamin is the last of the sons and does not arrive until Jacob is already back in Canaan.
“Benjamin” is interpreted as “son of the right hand”, but can also mean “southerner”.
The theory finds support in the ambiguous way that both places and individuals belonging to Benjamin can also be described as belonging to Ephraim.
Thus Sheba the son of Bichri is later called “a man of the hill country of Ephraim” (2 Samuel ch21 v21). While Shimei son of Gera. of the same
tribe, calls himself “first of all the house of Joseph” to greet David on his return from exile (2 Samuel ch19 v20).
So it’s possible that Benjamin was, at first, simply the southern province of Ephraim.
The last two tribes are Dan and Naphtali, the sons of Rachel’s maid.
Dan originated east of Jordan- “leaps from Bashan” (Deuteronomy ch33 v22).
I would guess that both tribes went west at the same time as Joseph, as part of the same movement.
Dan continued to be restless. One portion of the tribe gave their name to Laish in the north and founded a sanctuary which ultimately became one of
the two chief shrines of Jeroboam’s kingdom.
Genesis says that Dan “will judge his people” (ch49 v16). I would apply this to their dominance of the northernmost group of tribes.
Naphtali remain closely associated. They possess the lake of Galilee and “the south” (that is, the area south of Dan)- Deuteronomy ch49 v23.
The seduction of their mother, Rachel’s maid, is supposed to have been responsible for the downfall of Reuben.
That may be a coded way of disparaging Reuben’s claim on the allegiance of the two tribes, while they were still east of the Jordan.
This would have been a contest which Reuben lost, a crucial event in the transference of power to the house of Joseph.
Signs of friction between the two groups of tribes can still be found in the final version of the story of Joseph in Genesis. Reuben suggests throwing
Joseph into the pit. Judah suggests the sale. Simeon is later made a hostage. Of the four “eldest sons” of Leah, only Levi escapes some kind of
Nevertheless, the final result was a renewed and enlarged confederacy, now united in their worship of the God of Sinai.
If this was really how Israel came together, the implication is that Paul was right.
Even in those early days, the real bond of unity in Israel was not their common blood but their common faith.