WHEN I WAS A CHILD IN SUNDAY SCHOOL, I learned the names of the twelve tribes of Israel by singing a simple chorus: “These are the names of Jacob’s sons: Gad and Asher and Simeon, Reuben, Issachar, Levi, Judah, Dan, and Naphtali – Twelve in all, but never a twin – Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.”
But many more years passed before I grasped how important are the twelve tribes in the Bible’s storyline. Many of the dynamics of the rest of Genesis turn on their relationships. The organization of the nation of Israel depends on setting aside one tribe, the Levites, as priests. From another son, Judah, springs the Davidic dynasty that leads to the Messiah. Over the centuries, the tribe of Joseph would be divided into Ephraim and Manasseh; in substantial measure, Benjamin would merge with Judah. By the last book in the Bible, Revelation, the twelve tribes of the old covenant constitute the counterpoint to the twelve apostles of the new covenant: this twelve by twelve matrix (i.e., 144, in the symbolism of this apocalyptic literature) embracing in principle the whole people of God.
But what tawdry beginnings they have in Genesis 30. The deceit of Laban in Genesis 29, which resulted in Jacob’s marrying both Leah and Rachel, now issues in one of the most unhealthy instances of sibling rivalry in holy Scripture. Each of these women from this family is so eager to outshine the other that she gives her handmaid to her husband rather than allow the other to get ahead in the race to bear children. So self-centered and impetuous are the relationships that another time Rachel is prepared to sell her husband’s sex time to her sister Leah for a few mandrakes. Polygamy has taken hold, and with it a mess of distorted relationships.
From these painful and frankly dysfunctional family relationships spring eleven sons and one daughter (the birth of the last son, Benjamin, is reported in chap. 35). Here are the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel, the foundation of the Israelite nation. Their origins are not worse than those of others; they are merely typical. But already it is becoming clear that God does not deal with this family because they are consistently a cut above other families. No, he uses them to keep his covenantal promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He graciously perseveres with them to bring about his grand, redemptive purposes. The tawdry family dynamics, the sort of thing that might generate a B-grade movie, cannot possibly prevent the universe’s Sovereign from keeping his covenantal vows.