Dr. Jerry A. Collins


The Origin of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

The story of the 12 tribes of Israel begins in the book of Genesis with the calling of Abram. There are three important passages that explain the origin of Israel’s tribes in relation to that calling. Each of these passages add significant components of Abram’s calling to faith and that calling’s contribution to the origin of the 12 tribes of Israel.


Genesis 12 The Promise to Abraham

This chapter supplies the foundation of the Abrahamic promises. It formulates the beginning of the nation of Israel and it’s 12 tribes as a worshiping community. Abram’s calling to leave his homeland and found a new nation would become the means of blessing to the world. The 12 tribes would subsequently learn that their very existence as a nation was by God’s election of one man who responded by faith. It would affirm to the 12 tribes that their beginnings were rooted in the will of God.

PT—The 12 tribes have a supernatural beginning just as the church. God is at work to accomplish His plan and purpose, first, through a nation of people called Israel, and then, through a global network of people called the church.


God Calls Abraham

Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, and make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him (Genesis 12:1-4).


Verse 1Now the Lord said to Abram—The starting point of the narrative is the divine word to Abram calling him to leave his homeland and found a new nation that would eventually be comprised of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Lord called Abram while he was in Ur Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31). The record of the Word of the Lord to Abram was placed at the start of the Abraham stories because it is the formal beginning of the account of Abram.

·      "Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father's house—The divine imperative simply instructed Abram to leave. The instruction to leave was very specific—his land, his relatives, and his father’s household. God deals with specificity not approximation.

PT—Gods discipleship of Abram meant moving into his personal space and calling him to go forth from country (geographic cultural move)from relatives (a change of close relations)from father’s house (leaving personal security). God created necessity for Abram by asking him to leave everything that was familiar to establish his own independence.

·      Necessity is what forces us out of the familiar, which can be frightening and difficult, as an essential step to move us toward the unfamiliar where our faith is tested and personal and spiritual growth is possible—Joseph was forced from Potiphar’s house due to the intrigue of Potiphar’s wife. Moses was forced from Pharaoh’s household due to killing the Egyptian. Ruth was forced to follow Naomi due to her husband’s death. Esther was forced into the Persian king Ahasuerus’ palace due to the king’s edict. David was forced into the wilderness due to Saul’s scheming to kill him. Paul was forced into intenerate missionary work due to his vision of Jesus and his conversion. In each case necessity created a situation that made the possible growth in faith through newness. Without newness maturity is not possible. God is a God of newness because His commitment is to our spiritual maturity.

·      To the land which I will show youThe Lord’s word is very specific about what Abram was to leave (the three prepositional phrases narrow to his father’s household), but is not specific at all about where he was to go. He was to go forth to an unknown land, which God would show him. So walking by faith includes leaving the familiar and going into the unfamiliar. God required faith, a point that Hebrews 11:8 notes by faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.

PT—Abram was being discipled by God. Discipleship is moving from the known into the unknown that forever changed the course of his life. Now Abram would need to negotiate the newness God introduced into his life. He would need ingenuity, to develop strategy, and apply creativity as he followed the revealed will of God into the unfamiliar. All the while Abrams faith was being shaped and developed by his new understanding.


Application—Familiarity may be good for us spiritually when it is connected to what we have learned from Gods Word. We should be familiar with prayer, for instance. Familiarity is not good when what we understood was true may need to be changed due to a clearer understanding of the truth. Familiarity is never good just because its familiar. It must be true.


·      When what has been familiar to us is no longer sufficient we must decisively decide to move away from it toward the new unfamiliar we have learned from Gods Word, or a new application from a familiar understanding. For instance, when I became a husband my knowledge about husbanding was insufficient due to my lack of understanding the truth of husbanding. As my understanding of the word of God increased about husbanding, so did my knowledge of the truth about husbanding. That then changed my understanding about husbanding, and then changed my husbanding—or, at least, I hope so.

·      The unfamiliar, in Abram’s case was the unknown land he was to traverse. That which was previously unknown and not understood, must now be ventured into in order to grow and mature. The unfamiliar, the new, is where God is calling us so that we can move on to spiritual maturity.


Verse 2—And I will make you a great nation—God’s call included not only a new literal land or territory, but also for Abram to become a great nation there. Here is the beginning of a general description of descendants that will eventually coalesce into a nation. This is a nascent reference to the origin and ultimate existence of the 12 tribes of Israel.

·      And I will bless you—In addition to a national promise, God also gave Abram a personal promise. Essentially, God promised to convey spiritual and physical enrichment to Abram. The blessing God would give Abram was material in nature—fame and fertility.

·      And make your name great—Abram’s influence would be such, that Abram would become famous. Consider the testimony of the apostle Paul some 2000 years later without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief [about the deadness of his body and Sarah’s womb hindering God from acting] but grew strong in faith [in spite of the deadness that would make it impossible to conceive], giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform [that the womb could not conceive without God’s intervention]. Therefore, it was also credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:19-22).

PT—Faith is understanding God’s Word to be true. Abram understood God’s promise of a child from a dead womb to be truth. That understanding was his faith that God honored as righteousness.

·      And so you shall be a blessing—Abram would become such a blessing that nations would hold Abram up as a paradigm of divine blessing in their own blessings to one another. Abram would be responsible for opening the blessing of the Lord, enrichment in life, to the families of the earth. Abram would share the knowledge of God and so others would know from where the blessing came.


Verse 3—And I will bless those who bless you—The Lord would send blessing (fame and fertility) in order that Abram himself might be a blessing. God bound himself to Abram so that those who enrich Abram share in that blessing. That is, those supporting and endorsing Abram in his faith in God would find enrichment too.

·      And the one who curses you I will curse—Since God is binding himself to Abram, the statement would read like this “but the one who treats you with contempt I must curse.” Whoever treated Abram and his faith with disrespect, took his faith lightly, or the covenant as worthless, God would banish from the blessing.

·      And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed."—God’s blessing of Abram extended beyond the personal and national to the universal. The middle voice is expressed as “they may consider themselves blessed through you,” or “all the families of the earth will bless themselves” (depending upon how they treat Abram, his faith and seed). The logical outcome is that those who bless Abraham receive blessing and thus will be blessed and that anyone on the earth may be part of that category. No one would find divine blessing apart from the prosperitygiven through Abram and his seed.

PT—The difference in Abrams prosperity and Christ’s prosperity is the content of that prosperity. There may be no bigger difference between the Old and New Testament than the concept of being blessed by God. In the Old Testament, the blessings of God were physical, earthly, and temporal, usually in the land of Israel. In the New Testament, the blessings of God were spiritual, heavenly, and eternal, not earthly prosperity. If you are a Christian, following the instructions of Jesus Christ and the apostles, you should never understand that God blesses people by making them prosperous this side of heaven.


True, God blesses people now. But that blessing is a hope of future reward, never present physical earthly prosperity (Matthew 5:5-9; Luke 6:20-26). True, God makes some people prosperous. But that’s a burden of stewardship not a blessing (Luke 12:48). True, God helps people now and answers prayer. But all that is to conform us to the image of Christ, not to make us physically prosperous (Romans 8:26-29). True, godliness is profitable for all things ... for the present life and also the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8). But the profit of godliness is spiritual peace while ministering under the persecutions of the world, not numerical, physical, or earthly prosperity (2 Timothy 6:6-12).


So what does it mean to be a blessing to nations? Individuals in the church enter into the promises of blessing given to those in Christ and to this extent are the spiritual children of Abraham. This is expressly stated in Scripture: “Know therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:7). The basis for this statement in Galatians, however, is not on any promise given to Israel—and this is very significant “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, in thee shall all the nations be blessed. So then they that are of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham” (Gal 3:7-9). In other words, the portion of the covenant specifically given to Israel is not transferred to the church. Only the portion of the covenant dealing with universal blessing such as extended beyond Israel is applicable to the church.


It is in the millennium that all nations will literally as nations be blessed due to the promise to Abraham The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; 26 and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it (Revelation 21:24-26). Nations and leaders will give homage to Christ who reigns in Israel and whom the nations will acknowledge receiving Gods favor.  


Application—All of God’s activity in relation to the promise given to Abram is not limited to just Abram or his posterity, but extends to and reaches its climax when it includes all of the families of the earth. Of course, this includes the global blessing of salvation that would go to the world through Abram’s seed, Jesus Christ. But universal blessing is still destined to come for the nations when Jesus Christ returns to reign then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever" (Revelation 11:15).


Verse 4So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him—When Abram heard the call and the promises, he obeyed. The point is that Abram went as an act of obedience to the Word of the Lord, not as a natural migration. This simple act of faith set in motion a destiny with ramifications yet into the future for the nation and the tribes.


ApplicationAll believers are called of God. The call of God is our salvation in Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote ... whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:29-30). So the call of God is the predetermination of our salvation. The call of God deals with our salvation, not our service. The question is, “How can I walk worthy of that calling?” Here are 12 ideas:

·      A worthy walk will always be in a direction which conforms us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). For example, a worthy walk will never include sex outside of marriage, divorce, cheating on your taxes, being a woman elder or homosexuality.

·      A worthy walk will always be in the direction of building the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). For example, a worthy walk will not build something which is based upon pride.

·      A worthy walk is framed by our physical situation (1 Samuel 2:6-8). That includes things like our race, parental background, physical size, strength, age, culture, and wealth.

·      A worthy walk is blooming where we are planted (1 Corinthians 8:20, 24). Not that we will always stay where we currently live, but our walk begins in our own Jerusalem, then extends to our Judea, Samaria, and remotest part of our world (Acts 1:8).

·      A worthy walk is tuned to our personality (Daniel 1:3-4). That means our intellect, emotions, and will. Your worthy walk might be a salesman, surgeon, or actor, but these may not don’t fit my personality. Personalities can be developed, but they also have real limits. We are defined, in part, by our limitations.

·      A worthy walk considers our talents (Exodus 36:1-2). We all have certain natural abilities we were born with. These assets are usually determined by (a) what comes easiest to us and (b) what motivates us. For example, I am a teacher, not a musician.

·      A worthy walk considers our spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8). All believers also have spiritual abilities we receive at our spiritual rebirth. These are not always obvious to a new believer and cannot be located with some personality test. These become evident as we walk worthy of our call to salvation (Ephesians 4:1; Romans 12:1-2).

·      A worthy walk includes our Godly desires (1 Corinthians 9:23). Don’t overlook the crucial question, “What do you want to do?” Even the apostles were men who did what they wanted to do (John 21:15-17; Acts 15:35-37; 16:3).

·      A worthy walk is outlined by our opportunities (Genesis 41:39-44; 50:20).  God gave each of us certain life situations, not available to others.

·      A worthy walk is expanded by our convictions (Nehemiah 1:4-11). This develops our walk beyond “blooming where we are planted.” This takes us from our personal Jerusalem to the remotest parts of our earth. As we observe the state of the church around us, we feel convicted to address certain issues.

·      A worthy walk is sensitive to what is going on in our own generation (Acts 13:36). Each generation is to focus on reaching its own. We can learn from the past. When we die, we hand off the baton to the next generation. But neither of those are our assignment. We are called to be used of Christ as He builds His church now.

·      A worthy walk looks for opportunities to serve God (Isaiah 6:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-8; 3 John 5-6). We should not be waiting around for God to call us into service. We should look for ways to serve God in our present roles and life situations.


Implications for the 12 Tribes  

·      The promises the 12 tribes would live for were truly from God—the promises of a great nation, a land, God’s protection, and future blessings of enrichment and fertility.

·      The Lord’s appearance and confirmation proved to the tribes that the land of Canaan specifically was their land of promised destiny.

·      Abram’s pilgrimage of faith would also become theirs. Abram came to Shechem, Bethel, Ai, and the Negev, and so the tribes would come into the land from the Negev, to Bethel, Ai and Shechem where they would then enact the covenant. The people said to Joshua, "No, but we will serve the Lord." Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the Lord, to serve Him." And they said, "We are witnesses" (Joshua 24:21-22).

·      The tribes would understand (even though they rebelled) that God required faith for successive generations of Israelite tribes to share in those promised blessings.

·      The tribes shared in the same call as that of their founding ancestor –to go on a pilgrimage by faith to the Land of Promise to worship, proclaim, and serve the Lord. Belief in the promises would be required in order to go and serve as evidence of their faith. You do what you believe.