Sunday, September 19, 2010

Revelation 7:5-8, why are the tribes of Israel in this order?

Chapter seven of the book of Revelation is fascinating. The question of who are the 144,000 chosen from "all the tribes of Israel" is the main focus of most peoples studies, but why John chose the tribes he listed, and why they are in the order he list them is also a fascinating, and frustrating, study.

There are four odd things about the list of the twelve tribes of Israel, as John lists them in Rev. 7.5-8. First, Judah is first in the list even though Reuben was the oldest. Second, Dan is omitted. Third, Joseph is included in place of Ephraim. Fourth the half tribe of Manasseh is listed. Another matter is the order of the tribes. Robert H. Mounce, in his commentary, notes that there are "...some eighteen different orders in the OT, none of which agrees with the order in Revelation" (p. 170), he then states that the list doesn't seem to be in any particular order.

The book of Revelation is a very tightly ordered book. Nils Lund, Studies In The Book Of Revelation, does an outstanding job showing how the book is put together. So, after all the work John did arranging the book I would be amazed that he would just throw together a list without any thought to the order.

First, why is Dan omitted?  In chapter seven of Revelation John is listing the faithful out of the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Dan was not faithful to God.  In chapter 18 of the book of Judges we read that the tribe of Dan was not happy with the area they had been assigned to.  They had not been able to drive-out the Amorites (Jud. 1.34-35), so they decided to move somewhere else.  They sent out spies to find a better location, and the spies found a wonderful location and city about hundred miles further North, a city called Laish.   Also, the spies found a Levite working as a priest for Micah (Jud. 17) and Micah's silver idol.  The whole nation moved and conquered Laish, they killed everyone, rebuilt the city and called it Dan.  They also took Micah's idol and talked his Levite into coming and working as a priest for them.  The tribe of Dan had been involved in idol worship from the very earliest days of their history to the end of their nation.  They were hardly an example of faithful servants of God.

Why is Ephraim omitted?  In 1Kings 11.26-40 Jeroboam led the rebellion of the 10 Northern tribes.  He was worried that when the people went to worship at Jerusalem they might be tempted to return to the rule of the government in Jerusalem, so he made two golden calves and told the people "here are the gods that brought you up out of Egypt" (1Kings 12.25-30).  He put one in Bethel, in the Southern part of the country, and one in Dan.  Jeroboam was from the tribe of Ephraim, and Ephraim was so involved in idol worship that the prophet Hosea wrote "Ephraim is joined to idols, leave him alone!" (Hos. 4.17).  So, even though Ephraim's brother Manasseh is listed John did not include Ephraim.

Why are the tribes in this order?  I think the the list is chiasmus (inverted order) based on the geographical location of the tribes. If you look at a map showing the location of the tribes of Israel you can see that Judah, Reuben and Gad are at the bottom of the country. Asher, Naphtali and Manasseh are at the top. Issachar and Zebulun are at the top, Joseph and Benjamin are at the bottom. The order is bottom, top, top, bottom.

What about Simeon and Levi? They are in the middle of the list and they were scattered in the nation.  Jacob said in his blessing of them "Simeon and Levi are brothers - their swords are weapons of violence.  Let me not join their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.  Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel!  I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel " (Gen. 49.5-7).

Levi wasn't given any land, "The priest, who are Levites - indeed the whole tribe of Levi - are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel.  They shall live on the offerings made to the LORD by fire, for that is their inheritance.  They have no inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is heir inheritance, as he promised them" (Deu. 18.1-2, also Jos. 13.14)

Simeon's allotment was in the middle of Judah and they were eventually absorbed by them (Jos. 19.1).  Simeon's history was one of decline.  When Moses blessed the tribes in Deu. 33 he left Simeon out.  At the 1st census the number of men in the tribe of Simeon, who were 20 years old and able to use a sword, were 59,300 (Num. 1.22).  At the next census there were 22,200 men (Num. 26.14).  In  his book Nehemiah does not name anyone from the tribe of Simeon that returned from the 70 years of captivity.

The arrangement of the tribes is in five groups.  Two groups of three on the top.  The two scattered tribe in the middle and then the two groups of two on the bottom half.  They are arranged geographically: Top, Bottom, Scattered, Bottom, Top.  It is a chiastic arrangement or an inverted repeat.

Reuben  Bottom

Naphtali  Top

Levi     Scattered

Zebulun  Top

Benjamin  Bottom

On a map the arrangement looks like this:

Asher         Naphtali        Manasseh

   Zebulun               Issachar

   Joseph (Ephraim)  Benjamin

Judah          Reuben           Gad

There is nothing random about the way John arranged the book of Revelation.  I will be the first to admit that I often struggle to see it, but this listing of the tribes shows that there is a purpose to even a "minor" detail of this book.


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