A group of people, comprising a number of families or clans, who are united by race or custom under the same leaders.
The two Hebrew words often rendered “tribe” (mat·theʹ and sheʹvet) both mean rod or staff. (Ex. 7:12; Prov. 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 Numbers 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·theʹ] of Gad” or the “tribe [sheʹvet] of the Levites.” (Josh. 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 signifies “a company of people united by kinship or habitation, a clan, tribe.” The word is often used in the Christian Greek Scriptures in regard to the tribes of the nation of Israel. (Acts 13:21; Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5; Heb. 7:13, 14; Rev. 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. (Rev. 5:9) Such expressions, then, are exhaustive, referring to all people, whether viewed according to tribes of interrelated individuals, or as being part of a language group, a large mass or segment of mankind or a political division. (Rev. 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 Matthew 24:30.
TRIBES OF ISRAEL
The tribal arrangement in Israel was based on descent from the twelve sons of Jacob. (Gen. 29:32–30:24; 35:16-18) These “twelve family heads [Gr., doʹde·ka pa·tri·arʹkhas]” produced the “twelve tribes of Israel.” (Gen. 49:1-28; Acts 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.” (Gen. 48:5, 13-20) When the various tribes received their land inheritance in the Promised Land (Josh. chaps. 13-19), there was no “tribe of Joseph.” Instead, “the sons of Joseph,” Manasseh and Ephraim, were counted as distinct tribes in Israel. As Jehovah had arranged, though, this did not increase the tribes of Israel receiving an inheritance to thirteen, because the Levites got no land inheritance. Jehovah had chosen the “tribe of Levi” (Num. 1:49) in place of the firstborn of the other tribes and they became the priestly tribe. (Ex. 13:1, 2; Num. 3:6-13, 41; Deut. 10:8, 9; 18:1; see LEVITES.) Consequently, there were twelve non-Levite tribes in Israel.—Josh. 3:12, 13; Judg. 19:29; 1 Ki. 11:30-32; Acts 26:7.
When Moses blessed the tribes (Deut. 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 twelve tribes, the tribes listed are the same as those who received a land inheritance as given in the book of Joshua. (Ezek. 48:1-8, 23-28) The tribe of Levi was located within the “holy contribution” in Ezekiel’s vision.—Ezek. 48:9-14, 22.
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. (Num. 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.—Num. 36:7-9; Josh. 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. (Num. 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 twelve ‘tribes’ of twelve thousand 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. (Gen. 49:28) The following may be the reason for the difference:
Jacob’s firstborn son Reuben lost his right as firstborn by his misconduct. (Gen. 49:3, 4; 1 Chron. 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. (Gen. 48:21, 22) Joseph’s younger son Ephraim became more prominent in Israel than did Manasseh (Gen. 48:19, 20), and so in the Revelation list “Joseph” evidently stands for Ephraim. And Manasseh represents Joseph’s second portion in spiritual Israel. The tribe of Levi being listed, apparently no tribe of Dan is included in Revelation 7:4-8 in order to make way for Joseph’s second portion as represented by Manasseh. 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.”—1 Pet. 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.” (Matt. 19:28) And he expressed a similar thought when he made a covenant with his faithful apostles for a kingdom. (Luke 22:28-30) It is not reasonable that Jesus meant that they would judge the twelve tribes of spiritual Israel later mentioned in Revelation, for the apostles were to be part of that group. (Eph. 2:19-22; Rev. 3:21) Those “called to be holy ones” are said to judge, not themselves, but “the world.” (1 Cor. 1:1, 2; 6:2) Those reigning with Christ form a kingdom of priests. (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 5:10) Consequently, the “twelve tribes of Israel” mentioned at Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30 evidently refer to “the world” of mankind outside that royal priestly class and whom those sitting on heavenly thrones will judge.—Rev. 20:4.