A group of people, comprising a number of families or clans, who are united by race or custom under the same leaders.
The Hebrew words often rendered “tribe” (mat·tehʹ and sheʹvet) both mean “rod” or “staff.” (Ex 7:12; Pr 13:24) Apparently these words came to signify “tribe” in the sense of a group of persons led by a chief or chieftains carrying a scepter or staff. (Compare Nu 17:2-6.) In most cases where the context shows that either word has the thought of “tribe,” it is used in regard to one of the tribes of Israel, such as “the tribe [mat·tehʹ] of Gad” or “the tribe [sheʹvet] of the Levites.” (Jos 13:24, 33) However, the ‘tribe that God redeemed as his inheritance,’ mentioned at Psalm 74:2, evidently refers to the entire nation of Israel, speaking of it as a “tribe” or people distinct from other nations and peoples. And the term “tribe” at Numbers 4:18 seems to be used in a more restrictive sense, as applied to the Kohathites who were a subdivision of the tribe of Levi. The Egyptian “tribes” of Isaiah 19:13 must apply to certain categories of people, whether according to region, caste, or something else.
The Greek term phy·leʹ (rendered “tribe”) refers to a group of people united by common descent and also to a subdivision thereof, that is, a clan or tribe. The word is often used in the Christian Greek Scriptures in regard to the tribes of the nation of Israel. (Ac 13:21; Ro 11:1; Php 3:5; Heb 7:13, 14; Re 5:5) In expressions like “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,” “tribe” seems to mean a group of people related by common descent. (Re 5:9) Such expressions, then, are exhaustive, referring to all people, whether viewed according to tribes of interrelated individuals, language groups, large segments of mankind, or political divisions. (Re 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6) Also, phy·leʹ appears in the expression “all the tribes of the earth” at Revelation 1:7, which evidently means all people on earth, for the verse also says “every eye will see him.”—Compare Mt 24:30.
Tribes of Israel. The tribal arrangement in Israel was based on descent from the 12 sons of Jacob. (Ge 29:32–30:24; 35:16-18) These “twelve family heads [Gr., doʹde·ka pa·tri·arʹkhas]” produced “the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Ge 49:1-28; Ac 7:8) However, Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh the older and Ephraim the younger, and said: “Ephraim and Manasseh will become mine like [his actual sons] Reuben and Simeon.” (Ge 48:5, 13-20) When the various tribes received their land inheritance in the Promised Land (Jos 13-19), there was no “tribe” of Joseph. Instead, “the sons of Joseph,” Manasseh and Ephraim, were counted as distinct tribes in Israel. (See BOUNDARY; MAP, Vol. 1, p. 744.) As Jehovah had arranged, though, this did not increase the tribes of Israel receiving an inheritance to 13, because the Levites got no land inheritance. Jehovah had chosen “the tribe of Levi” (Nu 1:49) in place of the firstborn of the other tribes to minister at the sanctuary. (Ex 13:1, 2; Nu 3:6-13, 41; De 10:8, 9; 18:1; see LEVITES.) Consequently, there were 12 non-Levite tribes in Israel.—Jos 3:12, 13; Jg 19:29; 1Ki 11:30-32; Ac 26:7.
When Moses blessed the tribes (De 33:6-24), Simeon was not mentioned by name, perhaps because the tribe was greatly reduced in size and its land portion was to be enclosed in the territory of Judah. In Ezekiel’s vision of the holy contribution and the 12 tribes, the tribes listed are the same as those who received a land inheritance as given in the book of Joshua. (Eze 48:1-8, 23-28) The tribe of Levi was located within “the holy contribution” in Ezekiel’s vision.—Eze 48:9-14, 22.
Tribal structure. Much of the organization of the Israelites revolved around the tribal structure. Both their order of marching and encampment in the wilderness were according to tribes. (Nu 2:1-31; 10:5, 6, 13-28) The land inheritance was apportioned on the basis of tribes, and special laws were given so that the land would not circulate from tribe to tribe.—Nu 36:7-9; Jos 19:51.
The dividing up of the nation according to family heads was further carried out within each tribe. Though the tribe was the basic and most important division of the nation, each tribe was subdivided into large “families” (with “family” used in a broad sense) based on descent from paternal heads. (Nu 3:20, 24; 34:14) Within each “family” there were many individual households. This arrangement, patterned after the tribal structure, is well illustrated in Joshua 7:16-18 and 1 Samuel 9:21; 10:20, 21.
Tribes of Spiritual Israel. Revelation 7:4-8 divides the 144,000 members of spiritual Israel into 12 ‘tribes’ of 12,000 each. (See ISRAEL OF GOD.) The list differs slightly from the lists of Jacob’s sons (including Levi) who were the tribal heads of natural Israel. (Ge 49:28) The following may be the reason for the difference:
Jacob’s firstborn son Reuben lost his right as firstborn by his misconduct. (Ge 49:3, 4; 1Ch 5:1, 2) Joseph (the firstborn son of Jacob through his second, but favorite, wife Rachel) gained the privileges of firstborn son, including the right to have two parts, or portions, in Israel. (Ge 48:21, 22) In the Revelation list “Joseph” evidently stands for Ephraim. And Manasseh represents Joseph’s second portion in spiritual Israel. The tribe of Levi is listed; to make room for Levi without increasing the number of tribes, no tribe of Dan is included in Revelation 7:4-8, but apparently not because of any unsuitability on Dan’s part. The inclusion of Levi would also serve to show that there is no special priestly tribe in spiritual Israel, the entire spiritual nation being “a royal priesthood.”—1Pe 2:9.
“Judging the Twelve Tribes of Israel.” Jesus told the apostles that in “the re-creation” they would “sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Mt 19:28; see CREATION [Re-Creation].) And he expressed a similar thought when he made a covenant with his faithful apostles for a Kingdom. (Lu 22:28-30) It is not reasonable that Jesus meant that they would judge the 12 tribes of spiritual Israel later mentioned in Revelation, for the apostles were to be part of that group. (Eph 2:19-22; Re 3:21) Those “called to be holy ones” are said to judge, not themselves, but “the world.” (1Co 1:1, 2; 6:2) Those reigning with Christ form a kingdom of priests. (1Pe 2:9; Re 5:10) Consequently, “the twelve tribes of Israel” mentioned at Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 evidently represent “the world” of mankind who are outside that royal priestly class and whom those sitting on heavenly thrones will judge.—Re 20:4.