“Now, these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt; (…) 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; 4 Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. 5 All those [a]who were descendants of Jacob were seventy persons (for Joseph was in Egypt already). 7 But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.”
The writer of the book of Exodus begins the first chapter by talking about the twelve sons of Israel.
The number ‘twelve‘ is considered to be highly symbolic in the Bible.
Based on various verses and stories in scripture, we notice that in some religious groups of twelve people, one person disappears or someone is added to the group, thus the number twelve is affected.
We read in Genesis 29 to 30 that Jacob fathered thirteen children of two wives and their servants, and that among the thirteen, twelve sons were born. So, the family of Jacob had twelve sons.
Nevertheless, we see in Genesis 35:22 that Reuben betrayed his father by sleeping with his concubine. Then, he did not repent nor he asked for his father’s forgiveness. So Israel cursed him even though he was his firstborn. And although he did not deprive him of his inheritance, he deprived him of the blessing of the promise. Yet, Reuben was not the only son who deserved the curses of his father at the end of his life. Simon and Levi also received their fair share. It is worth mentioning that the curse of Jacob was bearing prophecy. He who gave him this prophecy was bigger and stronger than him. He said:” I will divide them among the tribes of Jacob, I will scatter them in Israel.”
If so, why do we then find Reuben, Simon and Levi among the twelve tribes of Israel?
Furthermore, Israel adopted two sons of Joseph; that is Ephraim and Manasseh and gave them a double share of their father’s inheritance.
So, how did this not affect the number of children of Jacob?
Jacob’s natural children:
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, then Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah (from Leah) –
Dan and Naphtali, (from Rachel’s made: Bilhah)
Gad and Asher (from Leah’s made: Zilpah)
Joseph and Benjamin (from Rachel)
The number of the sons of Israel changed after Jacob adopted Joseph’s two children; Ephraim and Manasseh. The real number became thirteen.
However, the number of the tribes of Israel remained, formally, twelve tribes thanks to a special method of counting.
On an economic level, and after the Jews left Egypt, the Levites became priests and were prohibited from inheriting lands. Joseph, on the other hand, received a double portion for his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. So when they arrived in Israel, part of the land was dedicated to Ephraim, and another to Manasseh while the Levites dispersed among the cities because they did not inherit any land.
On a religious level, this was different. Levy is counted as an independent tribe whereas Manasseh and Ephraim are discounted and Joseph, their father, is counted instead of them.
To sum up, on a spiritual level, Levy is considered as an independent tribe whereas Manasseh and Ephraim are counted as one tribe, thus the total sum of the tribes of Israel remains twelve. Whereas on an economic level, Levi is not considered as a tribe, while Joseph is counted as two tribes, thus the number 12 stays intact.
In the end, we are not sure how many spiritual children Jacob proclaimed, to be the chosen people of God.
In the beginning, the number of children of Israel was clear and blessed, but in the end, it became a number that is obscured by ambiguity and uncertainty.
This uncertainty was reinforced later in history when ten of the tribes of Israel disappeared forever. Judah and Benjamin were the only tribes who inherited the land. The other tribes were divided. And after the schism, many tribesmen moved to the Kingdom of Judah, but lost their identity and merged with the ‘Judean’ population. Thus, they are all considered the “Ten Lost Tribes”.
What happened to these tribes was not too far from what Jacob had prophesied before his death.
In the New Testament, we also see that Judas the Iscariot was one of the twelve apostles, but he betrayed Christ and so the number 12 became 11 until the apostle Peter decided to complete it.
Peter, who still thought he knew the interest of Christ more than Christ himself (Matthew 16: 22-23) ordered everyone who was with him in the upper room to appoint a successor to Judas Iscariot. So Matthias was chosen to replace him.
However, as soon as he was appointed as the successor of the twelfth apostle, his name disappeared completely from the Bible and, from then on, no one knew what he did for Christ or what became of him.
So, what does all this mean?
As we know, the number twelve is the perfect number in the Scriptures. It is the number that symbolises the will of God and his perfect purpose on Earth.
But we find that the realisation of the will of God on Earth is almost impossible. If it were possible, Jesus’ sacrifice would not have been necessary.
Humanity, led by the nation of Israel, was unable to meet the Lord’s call and to act according to His will, so it failed to keep the number twelve, whole.
Only the Grace of God – Jesus Himself – manifested itself in order to fill the gap caused by the shortcomings of people.
With God’s Mercy, we do not need to achieve perfection by ourselves, because Jesus is with us step by step, holding us whenever we stumble, and we rely on him when we fall short of the Glory of God.
Jesus is number twelve. He is the number of perfection because He is the Mercy of God that complements the deficiency of all.