I am not a Torah scholar or Biblical historian. My expertise is secular Jewish history. My intention in this post is not to “debunk” the wisdom and narrative of the Torah; quite the opposite: I consider the Torah the “origin story” of the Jewish People, similar to how other Indigenous Peoples worldwide have origin stories or mythologies of how they came to be.
I am interested in approaching ancient Jewish history through the lens of archeology and place it within the context of world history. I am trying to understand — from a secular Jewish lens — where I come from and what the lives of my ancestors were like.
If hearing a secular archeological interpretation of Jewish tribal identity will upset you, I recommend skipping this post. I also recommend my recent post, WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS, which delves deeper into some of these topics.
THE TWELVE TRIBES
According to the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), the Twelve Tribes of Israel were named after Jacob’s sons and grandsons. The tribes were as follows: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Benjamin, and Joseph (which later split into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh). Each tribe — save for the Levites, who were not allowed to be landowners (more on this later) — had its own territory within the Land of Israel.
We know for a fact that the Twelve Tribes were mentioned as early as the 7th century BCE. Some historians argue that the number 12 isn’t literal, but rather, that the People of Israel used it in their founding myth because the number 12 was of sacred and symbolic significance for the cultures of the region during that time period.
The story that all of the tribes descended from the same patriarch — Jacob, also known as Israel — is unlikely. One historian argues: “The stories of Jacob and his children, then, are not accounts of historical Bronze Age people. Rather, they tell us how much later Jews and Israelites understood themselves, their origins, and their relationship to the land, within the context of folktales that had evolved over time.” Historians also point out that it was common during the time period to ascribe “human” characteristics and names to entire tribes and clans. For example, the “Benjamin” mentioned in the Torah likely did not refer to a single person but was a metaphor for an entire tribe.
Another theory is that the names of the tribes did not originate from people but rather from the names of geographical regions, local deities, and ethnic origins. For instance, “Asher” was a Phoenician territory, whose name likely originated from the ancient Semitic goddess Asherah. Other tribes bear the names of ancient Canaanite sites, such as the “mountains of Naphtali.” Finally, other historians suggest that the story of the Twelve Tribes might’ve also originated from administrative divisions created under King David (1040 BCE - 970 BCE).
THE KINGDOM OF ISRAEL
According to the Tanakh AND archeological findings, at some point around 3000 years ago, a confederation of Israelite tribes (archeologically-speaking, of unknown number) came together to unite under a single state, known as the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel. Archeological evidence and genetic studies suggest that the Israelites did not take the region by force but actually emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes that had long inhabited the area and came together through the evolution of their spiritual, eventually monotheistic beliefs.
It’s important to note that during that time period, there was no distinction between a group’s tribal, ethnic, national, and/or religious identity. This continues to be true of other Indigenous Peoples today and is something major that Jews have in common with other Indigenous groups around the world.
The Kingdom of Israel was established in 1047 BCE. While there is archeological and historical debate regarding the grandiosity of the United Monarchy as depicted in the Torah, there is enough archeological evidence to assume that a centralized Israelite state existed during this time period.
In 930 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel split into the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. The northern Kingdom of Israel comprised of the territories belonging to the tribes of Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar, Manasseh, Gad, Ephraim, Dan, and Reuben. The southern Kingdom of Judah comprised of the territories belonging to the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. The word “Jew” derives from Judah, as in “a person from Judah.”
THE LOST TRIBES
In the 720s BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled most of its residents, save for those who fled south, toward the Kingdom of Judah. Many Levites, for example, survived the invasion by resettling in the Kingdom of Judah. Samaritans, the closest ethnoreligious cousins to Jews, are descended from the survivors of the Assyrian conquest belonging to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The account of the Neo-Assyrian conquest and exile is supported by both Assyrian and Israelite sources.
For millennia, many religions — including Christianity — have speculated over the whereabouts of the “lost tribes,” meaning the tribes that were exiled from the Kingdom of Israel after the Neo-Assyrian invasion. Most historians, however, believe that these tribes long assimilated into the dominant populations and lost their original tribal identities.
Josephus, the famous Jewish historian from the first century, wrote: “There are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, not to be estimated by numbers.”
Many groups have speculated “lost tribe” origins. For example, some believe that the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia are the descendants of the Tribe of Dan. This position is supported by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. Recent DNA findings indicate that Beta Israel Jews possibly descend from a group of Jews that lived in the fourth or fifth century. This finding neither confirms nor denies the Tribe of Dan theory.
LEVITES & KOHANIM
The tribe of Levi claims descent from Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah. Jewish males who claim patrilineal descent from Levi are known as Levites. A daughter of a Levite is a “Bat Levi.” According to the Tanakh, the tribe of Levi was the only tribe that was not permitted to own land because “the Lord the G-d of Israel Himself is their inheritance.”
Kohanim, meaning “priests” in Hebrew, claim patrilineal descent from Aaron, the first high priest of Israel. Unlike priesthood in Christianity, the position of a kohen is inherited. A rabbi — meaning spiritual leader or teacher — is not the same thing as a kohen.
In the times of the sacred Jewish temples, both Levites and kohanim carried special duties. Non-kohen Levites, for example, were specifically assigned to singing and playing music in the Temple and serving as guards. Kohanim performed the daily and holiday sacrificial offerings.
Today, 2000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, kohanim and Levites still carry special rights and responsibilities. For example, kohanim are called to the Torah first, to be followed by Levites. In the Samaritan community, kohanim, not rabbis, are still the main religious leaders.
Genetic studies on kohanim show that kohanim worldwide form a tight genetic cluster with each other, suggesting that they likely descended from a common ancestor that lived during the First Temple period (957 BCE-586 BCE). About 4 percent of Jews are Levites.
THE WORD “TRIBE”
Just as the word “diaspora” has Jewish origins — see my post LET’S TALK ABOUT THE WORD “DIASPORA” — so does the word “tribe.” In other words, no, Jews are neither appropriating nor misusing it.
In English, the word “tribe” dates to the thirteenth century and came from the Old French word “tribu,” referring to “one of the twelve divisions of the ancient Hebrews.”
The word in Old French comes from the Latin “tribus,” which is how the Romans translated the Greek word “phyle.” Phyle, which means “race or tribe of men, body of men united by ties of blood and descent, a clan,” is how the Greeks described the Twelve Tribes when the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was translated into Greek in the third century BCE.
Tribus also referred to the political and ethnic divisions in the Roman Empire.
It wasn’t until the 1590s that the English word “tribe” acquired a wider meaning. The Century Dictionary defined tribe as (tw: racism) “a division of a barbarous race of people, usually distinguishable in some way from their congeners, united into a community under a recognized head or chief.”
WHICH TRIBE AM I?
If you are Jewish, you likely descend from the tribe of Judah or the tribe of Benjamin; however, after 3000+ years of persecution and exiles, it’s impossible to know for sure. That is, unless you are a Levite or a kohen. As mentioned, kohanim are also from the tribe of Levi. Many Ethiopian Jews claim descent from the tribe of Dan, as well.
Some common Levite surnames include Lev/Levi/Levy, HaLevi, Leviyev, Horowitz, Segal, Zemmel, Levinson, Loeb, Siegel, Lewinsky, and Epstein. Common kohen names include Cohen/Cohn, Katz, Kaplan, Kahane, Sachs, Schiff, and Rappaport. If you have one of these surnames, it’s likely you descend from the tribe of Levi. That said, you could have a different surname and still trace your ancestry to the tribe of Levi.
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