Hebrew Lineage Organization

The Twelve Tribes
Stained glass window by David Ascalon, Ascalon Studios, Inc

The sources of information about ancient Hebrew social organization are almost exclusively derived from the Old Testament. The historical and ethnographic accuracy and adequacy of biblical texts is of course debatable, but they actually contain surprisingly detailed accounts of a complex patrilineal descent structure. The richness of information is perhaps due to the importance of lineage groupings in the political and legal institutions of Hebrew society.

Patrilineal kinship organization evident in Old Testament accounts of social and political process assumed the form of a segmentary lineage system. This arrangement involved the successive branching of large lineage groups into ever smaller ones. Biblical passages, some in the form of lengthy genealogies, document extensive segmentation at several different levels including at least four notable subdivisions

  1. maximal lineages, (tribes),
  2. major lineages, (families),
  3. minor lineages, (fathers' houses) and
  4. minimal lineages, (extended patrilocal households).

In the ancient Hebrew version of the segmentary system, the top level involved the inclusion of all Jews into a single descent group attributing its origin to Jacob. His descendants constituted the Israelites, literally descendants of Israel, a second name that Jacob received in a prophetic revelation. This all encompassing lineage is subdivided into 13 segments, according to the heritage of 11 of Jacob's sons and his twelfth son's, Joseph's, two children, Ephraim and Manasseh. (These grandsons are structurally transformed into Jacob's sons by deathbed adoption. See (Genesis 48))

The Tribes of Israel
Tribes of Israel

The thirteen branches defined through Jacob's progeny constitute the "tribes" of Israel, and by anthropological criteria formed maximal lineage segments, which by the time of the destruction of the Hebrew kingdoms, counted ancestries of important families through more than 20 generations and included tens of thousands of members.

The tribes were in turn subdivided into smaller segments according to the number of sons attributed to each tribal ancestor. For example, Judah was subdivided into three segments: Shelanites, Perazites, and Zerahites.

Note: Zerah and Perez were conceived during an encounter between
Judah and his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamara.

The Hebrew text calls groupings on this level mitzpuchim, families or clans in various biblical translations, which can be understood as major lineage segments in formal anthropological terms. The division of tribes into major segments is uniformly recounted in a number of Old Testament passages, and these units are given further elaboration in the history of the conquest and settlement of Canaan and the rise and fall of the Hebrew kingdoms. Further segmentation on a third level, into smaller units also labeled "families" is apparent in various genealogical enumerations, as indicated above in the division of the Perezites into Hezronites and Hamulites.

This pattern of multiple branching is also apparent in the genealogy of the Levites:

In this case the tribe is divided into three major segments, the Gersonites, Kohathites, and Merarites. (These groups help special ritual statuses and functions, which will be described later.) Further subdivision is applied in the next generation to define eight intermediate segments. The next cohort, that of Moses, Aaron and Korah, is marked by an anomalous lineal structure. The descendants of Aaron and of Korah are established as unique branches with no counterbalancing segments descended from their brothers or other agnates in their generation. These instances constitute restricted lines of succession that are not usually associated with segmentary systems and reflect hierarchical patterns that will be discussed in a subsequent section.

A final subdivision into "fathers' houses" defines units at the very lowest level of the system, minor lineages, above the basic households. Thus in I Chronicles 24, the descendants of two Levite segments, establish by Aaron's sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, are subdivided into 8 and 16 "fathers' houses" respectively.

Indications of the structure of the full system are recounted in Numbers and Joshua.

The Book of Numbers opens with the Israelites assembling in the desert for a census of all males over twenty,

This passage seems to specify a threefold subdivision of the tribes into major and minor lineages and then into "names", which may possibly indicate extended household units whose members took on the name of the household head. Finally an individual count is enumerated "head by head". The text also provides a indication of the presence of written genealogical records compiled through a formal registration process that is apparent in other biblical accounts (see Ezra 2:59).

A later passage, Joshua 7, provides a condensed version of the top to bottom scope of the lineage system. After the battle of Jericho, one of the victorious soldiers appropriates some war booty, leading to divine retribution against the whole army. Joshua must atone by finding the culprit and adopts a standard divination procedure of drawing lots. He first applies this method "tribe by tribe", after which Judah is "taken", then by "families", singling out the Zerahites, then "man by man", identifying the household of Zabdi, who is a living head of a single domestic unit, at the bottom level of the segmentary system. Finally all the members of Zabdi's group are assembled and "Achan, the son of Carmi, son of Zadbi of the tribe of Judah" is apprehended and punished.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995
Last updated: September 2003