Israel (Jacob) had twelve sons, and those sons were the biological pillars for Israel’s twelve tribes. As 1 Chronicles recounts the genealogies for the twelve sons, I have always found it helpful to remember that each tribe had specific places attached to their names in the promised land. (Note: the Levites lived amongst all the tribes, and Manasseh and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph, had elevated status.) These tribes represent not only family names and genealogies but also the regions within the land of Israel, and this helps us to make sense of divisions that occur between the northern and southern kingdoms as well as other conflicts along the way. It might be helpful to equate these tribes to “Iowa”, “Ohio”, or “Illinois”, or truer to scale, “Cook”, “Lake”, “Dupage” and so on.
To better visualize the implications, let me give an example from our reading. When we are told that the Assyrians captured Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, we get a sense of how Assyria attacked (1 Chronicles 5:26). Though all of these tribes lived north of Judah, their most important connection is that they are the three tribes that settled east of the Jordan river. Sadly, at the writing of 1 Chronicles, these tribes were still exiled in a foreign land.
Understanding the geographical connection between tribes and their lives helps to see what is at stake in these brief genealogies. People are forced from homes, settlements are destroyed, and places families have called home for hundreds of years are left behind. The Bible tells the story of a world that is our own, and we do well to pay attention to all the ways this world is unveiled that we may dive into the dramatic story scripture is telling.