I have this theory about the twelve tribes of Israel. But before I explain it, I ought to start by telling you what I mean when I use the word myth.
I am a Christian; I believe in God and in Jesus Christ. I believe that there is an abundance of truth found in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. And I also believe that most of the stories found there are myths. At first glance, that might sound contradictory. A myth is a false story, right? A story that isn’t true? That’s one definition of it. The way I use the word myth, it means, “a story that contains or reveals deep truth, and whose historical accuracy is irrelevant.” That is, a myth is a story that is true on a deep level, but that level has nothing to do with whether or not it “really happened.” Take an American myth: George Washington said, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.” Whether or not Washington ever cut down such a tree and fessed to it is irrelevant. What is relevant is that Washington was as honest as coconuts. The myth of the cherry tree is true, whether or not it historically happened.
To me, much of the Bible is in the same category. Did God historically, literally create the world in six days, as the story in Genesis 1 says? I don’t know. Probably not. But there is deep truth in that chapter. God is the creator. God creates through speaking the Word. God brings order out of chaos. And so forth. Those things are true, and they can be conveyed best in the form of a story, which may or may not be historically true. Call them parables, if you like. The parabolic stories Jesus told about a good Samaritan and a prodigal son were never intended to be a journalistic description of something that happened. They’re stories that speak a deeper truth than history ever could. I believe that most of the stories told in scripture are like that.
Which brings me back to the twelve tribes of Israel. Genesis tells us that each tribe was descended from one of Jacob’s sons. The tribe of Levi, the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe of Judah, and so forth. Genesis tells us the story of the twelve sons of Jacob (who was later renamed Israel), with all their sibling rivalry and attempted fratricide. Not every brother really gets a personality, but a few do. Judah is wiser than the rest, and tries to curb their worst impulses. Joseph is faithful yet arrogant. Benjamin is the youngest, and is protected by all the others. Genesis also goes to great lengths to tell us which of these brothers were borne by which mother: there were four mothers in total, Jacob’s two wives and their respective maids. This sets Joseph and Benjamin in a special place, being the only sons born of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. It also sets Gad, Asher, Dan, and Naphtali in rather a secondary place, being born of the maids (or concubines).
The Hebrew Bible assumes that each of these twelve became the father of a tribe, almost a sub-nation. The tribes are referred to many, many times throughout the Torah, and the books of history, and the prophets as well. Often, the tribes are simply referred to by the name of their forebear. The tribe of Simeon is just called “Simeon,” and so forth. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell the stories of how these tribes formed one kingdom, how they shortly broke into two kingdoms (Israel or Ephraim in the north, and Judah in the south), and how both kingdoms were eventually destroyed. The southern kingdom, composed of Judah and Benjamin (and also some of the non-geographic tribe of Levi), eventually returned and presumably became the ancestors of the Jews of today. The northern kingdom was assimilated throughout the Assyrian Empire, and were never heard from again. (This has led to theories about the “ten lost tribes.”)
ANYWAY, I find the interplay between and among the tribes to be fascinating. And I wonder if the story of Jacob and his twelve sons is a myth to give depth and narrative to that interplay. I have a theory that there never was a Jacob (historically), but there were in fact twelve (or so) tribes who lived in the land of Canaan. These tribes eventually decided to band together for defense, or because of a shared religion, or some other reason. And when they did, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were formed. This theory is complete speculation. I have no basis for it other than knowing that some myths form in ways like this, and also just kind of thinking it’s a fascinating story. I would love to read a book that delved into this, but I’ve never been able to find one. If you know of one, let me know! I would love to know more about those tribes, and what moved them to do what they did, and what led them to believe (or at least to proclaim) that they shared one ancestor, and that they shared one God.