According to the genealogical records of the Old
Testament, the Israelites trace their lineage back to one
founding father, Abraham. He was
famously called by God, who promised to make his
descendants as numerous as the stars. Abraham had a son
called Isaac, who in turn had a son
named Jacob (also known as Israel).
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are traditionally called the 'Patriarchs'.
It was Jacob who became the father of twelve sons:
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher,
Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin, as well as one
daughter, Dinah. Jacob's twelve sons were the
eponymous ancestors of the Twelve Tribes
(that is, they gave their names to their descendants),
and so for example the name 'Reuben' can refer either to
the man Reuben or the tribe Reuben that he founded.
Many modern biblical scholars do not believe that these
'founding fathers' were actual individuals, and instead
suggest that the whole story is an aetiology
(that is, a tale that explains the origin or cause of
some current situation, phenomenon, custom, or ritual).
Some people have suggested that the number twelve was
chosen specifically to correspond with the twelve signs
of the zodiac, or the twelve months of the year. Numbers
in ancient religion were often symbolic.
Twelve recurs in many key biblical passages, notably in Revelation
7:4 and 14:1-3;
here, the number is squared by itself and multiplied by
ten, which seems to have been the ultimate form of
symbolic emphasis, to give a total of 144,000.
In religious tradition (especially outside of Judaism),
the historical reality of the origins of the Twelve
Tribes is usually of little consequence. The original
paradigm of twelve blood-related kinship groups has been
adapted in some interesting figuritive ways.
The notion that Jesus' sacrificial death opened up God's
salvation (previously limited to the Jews) to all nations
implied that every Christian could claim to be part of
Israel in a wider spiritual sense, and
so the Christian Church has become known as the 'Spiritual
Israel'. Hence, the 144,000 people (12,000 from
each of the twelve tribes) who are 'sealed' for heaven in
7:4 are often
interpreted in terms of the 'spiritual Israel'. Indeed,
some Christian theologians have claimed that God has
actually rejected his original 'Chosen
People', the literal Israel, in favour of the
More recently, the story of the twelve tribes became the
inspiration behind one of the more structured branches of
the Rastafarian movement. Founded by the
'Prophet Gad' (also known as Dr.
Vernon Carrington) in Jamaica in 1968, the Twelve
Tribes of Israel (often abbreviated to TTOI)
similarly is based on an extended spiritual rather than
literal meaning of the term 'Israel'. The symbolism is
strengthened by the parallel between the Jewish Diaspora
and the Black African Diaspora, though today many members
of TTOI are neither Black nor African. The establishment
of TTOI may therefore be seen to correspond to the
prophecied restoration of Israel.
Characteristics of the TTOI usually include an emphasis
on reading the Bible 'a chapter a day',
a close adherence to scripture, a denial of the worship
of Haile Selassie, and the symbolic number twelve. Each
member is named and classified as belonging to one of the
twelve tribes, depending on his or her month of
birth; hence, there are close links with the
ancient practice and science of astronomy-astrology, and
different character traits may be attributed to different
Some of the best known and loved reggae artists and
groups have been members of the Twelve Tribes: Dennis
Brown, Bob Marley and Israel Vibration
to name but a few.
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