The nation of Israel was divided into Twelve tribes, recognizably related but each having a specific character dependent on its experience of migration, war, and economic fortunes, eventually coalescing as a variety of elements engaged in pastoral and agricultural work. In the tradition all the tribes were in Egypt and all came out at the Exodus (Gen. 49), though it is possible that in fact certain tribes were not in Egypt at all. Many modern scholars are sceptical about the antiquity of the tribal system itself and hold that the tribal names refer to the geographical areas where they lived, without any necessary family linkage. In their own traditions, the tribes traced their corporate existence to the eponymous ancestor Jacob or Israel (Gen. 32: 28; 35: 10). Six tribes were regarded as descended from Jacob's wife Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon. Two tribes came from Rachel: Joseph (sub-divided into Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin. On the fringe of these tribes were those alleged to be descendants of the concubines Zilpah (Gad and Ashur) and Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali).

The twelve tribes are not identical in each of the OT lists: Levi is omitted in Num. 1: 20–43 and 26: 5–50, but the total of twelve is maintained by regarding Ephraim and Manasseh as separate tribes. Levi possessed no land but members of the tribe were distributed amongst the others. In 722 BCE some inhabitants in the north (called Ephraim or Israel) were taken to Assyria; the southern tribes (called Judah) were exiled to Babylon in the 6th cent.

After the Exile tribal distinctions were lost, but the number twelve retained a symbolic importance: the NT Church claims to be the successor of the Jews by the use of the number twelve—the twelve apostles will judge the twelve tribes (Matt. 19: 28). James addressed Christians as the twelve tribes in the dispersion (Jas. 1: 1); and just as in the OT lists there is a certain discrepancy so that by combining them there become thirteen tribes, so the lists of the apostles as given in the four gospels and the Acts are not identical and could be made into thirteen names.