The Myth of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

The Myth of the Twelve Tribes of Israel: New Identities Across Time and Space by Andrew Tobolowsky 2022

About the Author
Andrew Tobolowsky is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary. An acknowledged expert on the tradition and on Israelite history, he is the author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles (2017),and numerous articles on the history of the twelve tribes of Israel tradition and the value of thinking through cross-cultural comparisons.

About the Book
The Myth of the Twelve Tribes of Israel is the first study to treat the history of claims to an Israelite identity as an ongoing historical phenomenon from biblical times to the present. By treating the Hebrew Bible’s accounts of Israel as one of many efforts to construct an Israelite history, rather than source material for later legends, Andrew Tobolowsky brings a long-term comparative approach to biblical and nonbiblical “Israelite” histories. In the process, he sheds new light on how the structure of the twelve tribes tradition enables the creation of so many different visions of Israel, and generates new questions: How can we explain the enduring power of the myth of the twelve tribes of Israel? How does “becoming Israel” work, why has it proven so popular, and how did it change over time? Finally, what can the changing shape of Israel itself reveal about those who claimed it?

Summary of Introduction (excerpt)

  1. The Origins of the Twelve Tribes of Israel
  • Jacob, grandson of Abraham, heard his mother’s voice telling him to flee from his brother who wished to kill him
  • He went to Harran and subsequently married twice, becoming the father of one daughter and twelve sons
  • These twelve sons would become the originators of The Twelve Tribes of Israel
  • Moses was then tasked with leading these tribes out into the wilderness towards Canaan
  • The land was eventually conquered by Joshua and divided among the 12 Tribes in seven chapters
  • Four hundred years later all Tribes came together again under King David at Hebron pledging allegiance
  • In Jerusalem a grand ‘Second Temple’ celebration included an offering of 100 bulls, 200 rams for sacrifice.
  1. Becoming Israel: Examining Global Identities Connected to the Twelve Tribes of Israel
  • The Hebrew Bible is not the only body in which the story of the twelve tribes of Israel has been preserved.
  • Peoples from all around the world share a deep connection to this narrative, often claiming an identity as part of it.
  • This book examines and investigates phenomenon known as “becoming Israel”; an art and long term historical practice wherein stories about Israels tribes are told and adapted.
  • It is one of the oldest literary preoccupations in world history still embraced today.

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