Tribe of Joseph

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Synagogue in Bnei Brak with the name of Joseph and his symbol, a sheaf of wheat.

The Tribe of Joseph is one of the Tribes of Israel in biblical tradition. Since Ephraim and Manasseh (often called the "two half-tribes of Joseph") together traditionally constituted the tribe of Joseph, it was often not listed as one of the tribes, in favour of Ephraim and Manasseh being listed in its place; consequently it was often termed the House of Joseph (Beit Yoseph, בית יוסף), to avoid the use of the term tribe. According to the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, the ensign of both the House of Joseph and the Tribe of Benjamin was the figure of a boy, with the inscription: the cloud of the Lord rested on them until they went forth out of the camp (a reference to events in the Exodus). There were obvious linguistic differences between at least one portion of Joseph and the other Israelite tribes. At the time when Ephraim were at war with the Israelites of Gilead, under the leadership of Jephthah, the pronunciation of shibboleth as sibboleth was considered sufficient evidence to single out individuals from Ephraim, so that they could be subjected to immediate death by the Israelites of Gilead.

At its height, the territory of Joseph spanned the Jordan River, the eastern portion being almost entirely discontiguous from the western portion, only slightly touching at one corner—northeast of the western portion and southwest of the eastern portion. The western portion was at the centre of Canaan, west of the Jordan, between the Tribe of Issachar on the north, and the Tribe of Benjamin on the south; the region which was later named Samaria (as distinguished from Judea or Galilee) mostly consisted of the western portion of Joseph. The eastern portion of Joseph was the northernmost Israelite group on the east of the Jordan, occupying the land north of the tribe of Gad, extending from the Mahanaim in the south to Mount Hermon in the north, and including within it the whole of Bashan. These territories abounded in water, a precious commodity in Canaan, and the mountainous portions not only afforded protection, but happened to be highly fertile;[1][2][3][4] early centres of Israelite religion—Shechem and Shiloh—were additionally situated in the region.[5] The territory of Joseph was thus one of the most valuable parts of the country, and the House of Joseph became the most dominant group in the Kingdom of Israel.[5]


According to the Torah, the tribe consisted of descendants of Joseph, a son of Jacob and Rachel, from whom it took its name;[6] however, some Biblical scholars view this also as postdiction, an eponymous metaphor providing an aetiology of the connectedness of the tribe to others in the Israelite confederation.[7] In the Biblical account, Joseph was the brother to Benjamin, the other son of Rachel and Jacob, and the eponym of the Tribe of Benjamin, which was located to the immediate south of the tribe of Joseph. The birth of Benjamin does not appear in the passage[6] in which the births of the other sons of Jacob occur, but instead appears elsewhere, with Benjamin being born only once Jacob had returned to Canaan. According to several biblical scholars, Benjamin was originally part of the house of Joseph, but the biblical account of this became lost;[7][8] the account of the birth of the other sons of Jacob is regarded by textual scholars as a complex mixture of Elohist and Yahwist texts, and very corrupt. They have concluded that parts of the corresponding Elohist text, and parts of the corresponding Yahwist text, are missing.[7][8] The aetiological explanation of Benjamin being born in Canaan is that the tribe of Benjamin broke off from the Joseph group once it had settled in Canaan,[8] by joining the Kingdom of Judah rather than that of Israel.[7]

Though the biblical descriptions of the geographic boundary of the House of Joseph are fairly consistent, the descriptions of the boundaries between Manasseh and Ephraim are not, and each is portrayed as having exclaves within the territory of the other.[8] In the Blessing of Jacob, and elsewhere ascribed by textual scholars to a similar or earlier time period,[9] a single tribe of Joseph appears where passages written later place separate tribes of Ephraim and of Manasseh. From this scholars believe that Joseph was originally considered a single tribe, and only split into Ephraim and Manasseh later.[8]

A number of biblical scholars suspect that the Joseph tribes (including Benjamin) represent a second migration of Israelites to Israel, later than the main tribes;[7] and that it was only the Joseph tribes who went to Egypt and returned, while the main Israelite tribes simply emerged as a subculture from the Canaanites and had remained in Canaan throughout.[7] In the narrative in the Book of Joshua, which concerns the arrival in (and conquest of) Canaan by the Israelites from Egypt, the leader is Joshua, who was a member of the Ephraim tribe.

According to this view, the story of Jacob's visit to Laban to obtain a wife began as a metaphor for the second migration, with Jacob's new family, possessions, and livestock, obtained from Laban, being representations of the new wave of migrants.[7] According to textual scholars, the Jahwist version of the story is notable as having only the Joseph tribes among these migrants, since it recounts only Jacob as having met Rachel, and the matriarchs of the other Israelite tribes - Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah - do not appear.[7][10]


As part of the Kingdom of Israel, the territories of Manasseh and Ephraim were conquered by the Assyrian Empire, and the tribe was exiled; the manner of their exile led to their further history being lost. But, despite an ethnic connection to Ephraim, Benjamin associated with the southern tribes and became part of the Kingdom of Judah. As a result, its people were subjected to the Babylonian captivity; when the captivity ended, the distinction between Benjamin and the other tribes in the kingdom of Judah were lost in favour of a common identity as Jews.

Despite the loss of the additional history of Manasseh and Ephraim, several modern-day groups claim descent from them, with varying levels of academic and rabbinical support. The Yusufzai tribe (literal translation The Sons of Joseph) of the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, who collectively refer to themselves as the "Bani Israel", have a long tradition connecting them to the exiled Kingdom of Israel. The Samaritans claim that some of their adherents are descended from these tribes, and many Persian Jews claim to be descendants of Ephraim. Many Samaritans claim descent from the grandchildren of Joseph under four main septs, his grandsons Danfi, Tsedakah, Mafraj and Sarawi Samaritans Museum In northeast India, the Mizo Jews claim descent from Manasseh, and call themselves Bnei Menashe; in 2005 Shlomo Amar, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, announced that he regarded this claim to be true, which under the Law of Return allows them to migrate to Israel, as long as they formally convert to Israel's Orthodox form of Judaism. Similar traditions are held by the Telugu Jews, in South India, who claim descent from Ephraim, and call themselves Bene Ephraim.

Considered less plausible by academic and Jewish authorities are the claims of several western Christian and related groups, in particular those of the Church of God in Christ. It claims that the whole UK is the direct descendant of Ephraim, and that the whole United States is the direct descendant of Manasseh, based on the interpretation that Jacob had said these two tribes would become the most supreme nations in the world. Many followers of the Latter Day Saint movement believe in the literal fulfillment of the biblical prophesy, in the Blessing of Jacob, which states that Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall,[11] with the interpretation that the wall is the ocean, as recorded in the Book of Mormon, where group of refugees flee Jerusalem shortly before the Babylonian siege, and are lead to the Americas by a prophet from the tribe of Joseph (Manasseh) named Lehi (Alma 10:3) Some members also identify as being descended from Manasseh or Ephraim through their patriarchal blessings (revelation of ancestry) or by being "grafted in" (see Jacob 5/Romans 11) believing that the lost tribes are being restored in the latter days (meaning now) as prophesied by Isaiah. Some adherents of Messianic Judaism also identify as part of Joseph on the basis that, regardless of any genetic connection which may or may not exist, they observe the Torah and interpret parts of the Tanakh in certain ways.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hosea 9:13
  2. ^ Genesis 49:22
  3. ^ Deuteronomy 33:13-16
  4. ^ Isaiah 28:1
  5. ^ a b  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Ephraim". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  6. ^ a b Genesis 30
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Peake's Commentary on the Bible
  8. ^ a b c d e Jewish Encyclopedia
  9. ^ e.g. Joshua 17:14-18
  10. ^ Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Harper San Francisco) (1987) ISBN 0-06-063035-3
  11. ^ King James translation, Genesis 49:22