It is well-known that the nation of Yisra’el was fathered by Ya’aqov ben Yitzhaq, and that he had 12 sons, each of which would prosper and flourish into a people of their own.  It is documented in scripture that these twelve clans grew together to form the sovereign nation of Yisra’el, that they as a people were ruled in unity for generations until the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, when the kingdom divided between the lands of the North (thereafter known as the kingdom of Yisra’el) and the lands of the South (thereafter known as the kingdom of Yehudah).

The twelve Yisra’eli tribes are named after their fathers, the sons of Ya’aqov/Yisra’el.  Depending on what part of scripture one consults, these twelve tribes are listed differently.  In the order of their birth, they are as follows:

By the time we reach the end of the book of Berashith (Genesis), we find that Yisra’el has reorganised in his own mind the order of precedence of his sons, as given in his final blessing:

Reuven, Shimeon, and Levi were actually named here before Yehudah, but Yisra’el removed them from precedence with his final “blessing” to them, actually paternal remarks regarding their despicable deeds and rebellious nature (a father’s final blessing need not be magnanimous, but as is apparent, can also be critical).  To Yehudah, he says, “[Y]ou, your brothers shall acknowledge... ” (Berashith 49:8).  He continues Yehudah’s blessing, lavishing upon Yehudah’s house the mantle of rulership over his brothers, which develops later into the notion of kingship over the Hebrew nation.

Later, during the Exodus from Egypt, Mosheh received instructions from YHWH to erect camp with respect to a given order, which is outlined in the book of Ba-Midbar (Numbers), chapter 2.  The organisational structure given for the encampments of the twelve tribes is based on the four cardinal directions:

This new arrangement seems to entirely disregard the orders of the sons of Yisra’el as given earlier in Berashith.  One will notice, with careful scrutiny, that the tribe of Levi is absent from the roll above, as is that of Yosef, while included are the two sons of Yosef:  Menashe and Efra'im, to replace the two missing names.  Notice as well that Efra'im, the younger of the two, takes the seat of precedence over his brother on the West encampment (pursuant to Yisra’el’s blessing of Yosef’s sons).  Levi’s clan was removed from the tribal roster, because of their actions at the incident of the Golden Calf, when they all rallied around Mosheh.  For this act of faithfulness to YHWH, they were taken in lieu of the firstborn of all Yisra’el to serve as kohanim (priests) in the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple in Yerushalayim.  Additionally, their change in status also meant that the Sons of Levi would not inherit land in Eretz Yisra’el as would their cousins from the other tribes, since YHWH became their heritage.  Mysteries regarding this new arrangement and its esoteric significance are the topic of many a debate in philosophical circles, and this section includes a short essay on this topic as well.

It is the name of the nation of Yehudah which lent itself to the cultural identification of Hebrews as Yehudim, or Jews, for at the time, the other tribes had been exiled from Eretz Yisra’el.  These other tribes comprised the nation of Yisra’el (the Northern Kingdom) and were dispersed by the king of Assyria during the reign of Hoshea, King of Yisra’el, estimated at around the Hebrew year 2964 (around 800bce).