Listing the Twelve Tribes of Israel is a bit of a tricky exercise. There are a number of key lists of the tribes of Israel scattered throughout the Scriptures, and each of them is different. At first it is confusing, but soon you realise how each of them teach us profound lessons about God’s dealings with His chosen people throughout the Old Testament and extending to the End Times.
In Genesis 29–30, 35, and 41, the birth accounts of Jacob’s sons are given. Then, in Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his sons and lists them all by name. Already, though, it is important to take note of the blessings given to Joseph’s (the eleventh son) two sons in the preceding chapter.
When the nation of Israel entered the Promised Land, Levi and Joseph are not mentioned. This is because Levi would be the worship leaders (Deut 10:8-9), and because Joseph would receive a double portion named after his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim.
The next prominent list is in 1 Chronicles 2:1-2 where we read “These are the sons of Israel: …”. There are twelve names, matching the twelve sons of Jacob. However, in the chronologies that follow in 1 Chronicles chapters 2 to 8, only eleven names are listed, and number of other anomalies occur. Judah born fourth, is listed first, reminding us that Judah was the kingly tribe. Joseph is again replaced by his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim. Dan is not mentioned at all, presumably because of its infamous relocation and idolatry centuries before (Judges 18). Zebulun is also excluded, although we are not told why.
Then again, in Revelation 7:4-8 the twelve tribes of Israel are listed with 12,000 from each tribe to make up the 144,000 “sealed servants of our God”. There are twelve names included. Dan is again excluded, Joseph is himself named with one of his sons, Manasseh.
So, who are the twelve tribes of Israel? The answer needs to go something like this: They are the twelve sons of Jacob, with Joseph often replaced by his two sons because of the double portion of the blessing of the favoured son. Judah rises to prominence as the kingly tribe; Levi is set apart as the priestly tribe. Dan eventually disappears altogether, and Zebulun (son of Jacob) and Ephraim (son of Joseph) are sometimes not mentioned.
What is important for us to realise through all this is that this is not some strange confusion in the Scriptures. Instead, these variations all testify to the same unchanging God and His dealings with mankind. The lessons to us in all of this should not be missed.
The first lesson is that sin is serious. Hebrews 3:12 warns us against the ways of the tribe of Dan who received all the wonderful blessings of God, but worshipped idols instead.
The second lesson is that God is gracious. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 reminds us how we too, like Judah, Levi, and Joseph, are chosen by God even if we are not the first or more notable.
The third lesson is that God never changes as we do. Hebrews 6:17-28 affirm that God always keeps His promises. God made promises to Israel, and no matter all the changes throughout history, no matter all the sin and rebellion at times, no matter the exiles and rejections, God is going to keep His promises to Israel and redeem from each tribe people for Himself at the End.
The Twelve Tribes of Israel play an important part in God’s plan for mankind, as promised to Abraham already. They also stands as testimonies to us as Christians that sin is serious, God is gracious, and God never alters as we do.
For a more detailed explanation, here is a fuller article: