The Abrahamic Covenant and the 12 Tribes of Israel

Introduction: We’ve heard people say that since the land of Israel belongs to both the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael and that the solution to the tension in the region is to divide the land between them. But few people realize that the land of the 12 Tribes of Ishmael is the northern part of Saudi Arabia to the very south-eastern part of Assyria (Iraq) — far from the Tribes of Israel! In this article (Part 1 of 2) we outline from Scripture who are the people and where is the land belonging to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.


Any discussion of land inheritance needs to start with Abraham.

In Genesis Chapter 12, God called Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldeans, leave his relatives (Gen.12:1) and go to the land God would show him.

Go out from your land,
your relatives,
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation,
I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
I will curse those who treat you with contempt,
and all the peoples on earth
will be blessed through you”

Genesis 12:1-3

God says that He will bring Abram “to the land that I will show you“, that He will “make Abram into a great nation“. Here God is speaking about a specific nation, but it is not yet revealed who that nation is.

“He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated, and the people he had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the site of Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will give this land to your offspring.”

Genesis 12:5-7

God is speaking about a specific land (i.e. “this” land) and He says that He will give it “to your offspring” (also translated “seed”) לְזַרְעֲךָ — this is a plural singularity. It is a specific land and the use of the plural singularity speaks of many descendants from a single person. This tense is also use in Exodus where it says God will bring a plague of frogs on Egypt. Translated literally it is “God brought a frog on Egypt” when it obviously wasn’t one giant frog — but many frogs on a single land; Egypt.

Abram sets out but makes a detour to Egypt because of the famine and then in Chapter 13 it says that he went up from Egypt to the Negev “he, his wife, and all he had, and Lot with him “.

Things were getting tense. Abram realized that the land couldn’t support both him and Lot (:6) and Lot’s herdsmen were arguing with Abram’s herdsmen (:7), so Abraham comes up with a solution to the problem (verse 8 & 9);

“Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.

Genesis 12:8-9

Verses 10 and 11 say that Lot looked out and saw that the entire Jordan Valley as far as Zoar was well watered everywhere like the Lord’s garden and the land of Egypt…so Lot chose the entire Jordan Valley for himself. Lot journeyed eastward and he and his descendants settled the Jordan valley.

Then it says that after Lot had separated from Abram, God said to Abram to look as far as he could see, looking north, south, east and west for He was going to give Abram and his offspring (“seed”, singular – וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ) all the land that he sees forever.

After Lot had separated from him, the Lord said to Abram, “Look from the place where you are. Look north and south, east and west, for I will give you and your offspring forever all the land that you see. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust of the earth, then your offspring could be counted. Get up and walk around the land, through its length and width, for I will give it to you.”

Genesis 13: 14-17

In Chapter 14, we learn that Lot had been taken prisoner when kings of various areas came against the valley near the dead sea where Lot was living. Abram was sent a message by one of the survivors of the battle and assembled an army of trained men, born in his household to rescue Lot. They brought back (:16) “all the goods and also his relative Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the other people”.

Then, at the beginning of Chapter 15 of Genesis it says “After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision“.

God says to Abram;

Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield;
your reward will be very great.”

Genesis 15:1

This frustrated Abram because anything which God would give him would only be for his lifetime, because he didn’t have a direct heir. Everything he had at that point, or would receive from God in the future would become the property of his head servant, Eliezer. Abram complains to God (:3);

“But Abram said, “Lord God, what can You give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Look, You have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.”

Genesis 15: 2-3

The Lord answered Abram clearly and said that Eliezer will not be his heir but one who comes from his own body will be his heir.

God is quite emphatic that there is a physical inheritor of this land and specifically the inheritor is “one who comes from Abram’s own body“.]

“This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then He said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.”

Genesis 15:4-5

Then God took Abram outside and said to him (:5);

“Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then He said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.”

Genesis 15:5

Abram’s response is interesting.

When it came to having physical descendants, Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (:6) but when God spoke to him about the physical land he would inherit, Abraham wanted proof (:7)!

“Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, “I am Yahweh who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.

”But he said, “Lord God, how can I know that I will possess it?

Genesis 15:6-8

God’s response is not to be missed!

He asks Abram to bring Him specific animals, split them down the middle and lay them opposite one another.

This act is how covenants were made and the term in Hebrew for making a covenant is literally “to cut a covenant” (וַיִּכְרְתוּ בְרִית).

God’s Covenant with Abraham

A covenant is an agreement between at least two parties where the terms of the agreement are set out and both parties accept them.

In this case the covenant is made between YHVH and Abram but looking at another example of the covenant cut between Zedekiah and the people of Judah (Jeremiah 34:8–22) — in both cases at least one animal was killed, cut into two pieces and someone passed between the divided pieces.

Historical sources provide understanding that the killing of an animal in making a covenant signified that those that entered into the covenant could expect the same fate if he violated his oath. The slaughtered animal(s) was both a ratifying sacrifice and symbolic of the curse for violating the covenant. This enactment of the oath made any verbal declaration unnecessary.

God asks Abram to bring Him three specific animals, split them down the middle and lay them opposite one another.

“He said to him, “Bring Me a three-year-old cow, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

So he brought all these to Him, split them down the middle, and laid the pieces opposite each other, but he did not cut up the birds. Birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell on Abram, and suddenly great terror and darkness descended on him.

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be foreigners in a land that does not belong to them; they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions. But you will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a ripe old age. In the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your offspring, from the brook of Egypt to the Euphrates River: the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.”

Genesis 15:9-21

God told Abram that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt but would be delivered after 400 years and leave with many possessions and return to this land God had given them. We know that He was speaking of Israel’s captivity in Egypt (i.e that here He is speaking of the descendants of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel).

Then get this…God alone ratified the covenant!

Abram did not have to walk through the cut pieces of animals, as is normally the case with “cutting a covenant” — God alone did and He alone ratified it. By doing so, God was saying, that if He broke this covenant with Abram He Himself would die!

God’s presence here was “a smoking firepot and burning torch” which passed between the cut pieces of animals. His choice of symbols made sense since God was just telling Abram that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt and in Exodus 13:21–22, when God leads the people out, He leads them by means of the cloud and pillar of fire.

This was God’s unconditional promise, ratified by Him alone;

Most of us know what happened next.

Abraham was getting old and Sarai was resolved it wasn’t going to happen, so she tells Abram to sleep with her handmaiden, Hagar so that he would have an heir to the promise of ‘the land’ and to bring forth ‘a great nation’ (Genesis 16:1-4).

Hagar conceives and bears a son, named Ishmael [see next post on the 12 Tribes of Ishmael], yet after Ishmael’s birth, at the very beginning of Genesis 17, God appears to Abram when he was 99 years old and reiterates the everlasting covenant he made with him when He passed through the animal parts — including the certainly of the Land as an eternal possession that He was giving to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac (and then through Jacob, Isaac’s son).

“I am God Almighty. Live in My presence and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you greatly.”

Then Abram fell face-down and God spoke with him: “As for Me, My covenant is with you: you will become the father of many nations. Your name will no longer be Abram, but your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as an eternal possession, and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17:1-8

Then God does exactly what He said He would do from the beginning and provides Abraham a son through Sarai, his wife (whose name He also renames Sarah).

God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, do not call her Sarai, for Sarah will be her name. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

Abraham fell face-down. Then he laughed and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? Can Sarah, a ninety-year-old woman, give birth?” So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!”

But God said, “No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.” When He finished talking with him, God withdrew from Abraham.

Genesis 17:15-22

Abraham was hoping God would simply recognize Ishmael as the heir to the covenant and the son of promise, saying to God “If only Ishmael were acceptable to you”.

God answers Abram saying “No, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac but I will confirm My covenant with him [Isaac] — that is, the everlasting covenant, including the everlasting possession of the Land, as an inheritance.

Then God adds what will be Ishmael’s;

As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac“.

Genesis 17:20


Abrahamic Covenant Confirmed to Isaac

God said He would confirm the covenant He made with Abraham to Isaac and He did;

Just as Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Issac on Mount Moriah, the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven telling him not to lay a hand on Isaac or do anything to him (Genesis 22:12). The He adds;

“Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By Myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed My command.”

Genesis 22:15-18

A few things to note here, as mentioned above, the Angel of the Lord is not just any angel (term here is מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה — using the unspeakable Name of God (YHVH).

Secondly, God swears by Himself to give Isaac the land and to make his descendants into a great nation. When God made the covenant with Abraham, He alone ratified it when He passed between the cut part and here He is swearing by Himself to uphold that covenant with Isaac.

Later, God reaffirms the covenant He made with Abraham to Isaac, himself;

“There was another famine in the land in addition to the one that had occurred in Abraham’s time. And Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, at Gerar. The Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt. Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land as a foreigner, and I will be with you and bless you. For I will give all these lands to you and your offspring, and I will confirm the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky, I will give your offspring all these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring, because Abraham listened to My voice and kept My mandate, My commands, My statutes, and My instructions.”

Genesis 26:1-5


Abrahamic Covenant Confirmed to Jacob

God also reconfirmed the covenant He made with Abraham to Jacob, Isaac’s heir;

I am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your offspring the land that you are now sleeping on. Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out toward the west, the east, the north, and the south. All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Look, I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Genesis 28 13-15

God also reconfirmed the covenant to Jacob as second time, when He renamed him “Israel“, saying He will give the land to Jacob and his future descendants.

“God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him:

Your name is Jacob;
you will no longer be named Jacob,
but your name will be Israel.
So He named him Israel. God also said to him:

I am God Almighty.
Be fruitful and multiply.
A nation, indeed an assembly of nations,
will come from you,
and kings will descend from you.
I will give to you the land
that I gave to Abraham and Isaac.
And I will give the land
to your future descendants.

Genesis 35:9-12


Jacob’s sons – the 12 Tribes of Israel

Jacob (renamed “Israel” by God) had 12 sons and each became the patriarch of the 12 Tribes of Israel, named after them. The sons of Jacob were;

  1. Reuben
  2. Simeon
  3. Levi
  4. Judah
  5. Dan
  6. Naphtali
  7. Gad
  8. Asher
  9. Issachar
  10. Zebulun
  11. Joseph
  12. Benjamin

In Genesis 48, Jacob tells his son Joseph that the two sons born to Joseph while he was in Egypt (Ephraim and Manasseh) are now his and as such, will share in the inheritance of the land and will become a people i.e. will become two tribes, just as Jacob’s other 11 sons. So instead of Joseph becoming a tribe, his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh became two tribes. This is what is called receiving a “double portion“. Normally, Jacob would have given that double portion to his firstborn son, Reuben but instead he gave the double portion to his second-to-youngest son, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Further, Jacob gives the larger portion to Ephraim, the younger of Joseph’s two sons, with the larger portion — again, giving the blessing to the younger instead of the older.

We see much later in the biblical history of Israel, that the tribe of Ephraim became the dominant tribe in Israel after the tribe of Judah. When the kingdom split, the Northern Kingdom of ten tribes are referred to in Scripture as either Israel or Ephraim and the Southern Kingdom is referred to as Judah.

Twelve Tribes o f Israel
  1. Ephraim– – Joseph’s sons
  2. Manasseh – Joseph’s sons
  3. Reuben
  4. Simeon
  5. Judah
  6. Dan
  7. Naphtali
  8. Gad
  9. Asher
  10. Issachar
  11. Zebulun
  12. Benjamin

What about Levi?

As the priestly Tribe, Levi was given no land. [Num 18.20, 18.24] Instead of land, God gave Levi the tithes of the people of Israel.

The land allocations of Joseph and Levi were given instead to Ephraim and Manasseh, preserving the number of Tribes of Israel to twelve.

The Promised Land includes all the land on the west bank of the Jordan River (including Judea and Samaria — what is currently referred to as “the West Bank”, plus an area on the east bank of the Jordan River (where southern Jordan now stands), the southern tip of Lebanon, and part of Southern Syria, and as illustrated on the map, below.

12 Tribes with current country names

Even though Abraham fathered Ishmael with Hagar, God’s promise to Abraham remained through the son of promise, Isaac.

God revealed to Abraham that the promises He made concerning the land of Canaan applied to Isaac and not Ishmael and that it is through Isaac that Abraham’s descendants would be counted (Genesis 21:12-13)

The Promised Land is reckoned to Isaac and his descendants, the 12 Tribes of Israel, however because Ishmael is a son of Abraham, God promises to make a great nation of him, as well.  The land Ishmael’s descendants, the 12 Tribes of Ishmael settle is an entirely different land [see next article on the 12 Tribes of Ishmael and Their Land].

The promises Jacob inherited from Abraham through Isaac include the physical land of Canaan, whose boundaries God specified and is mentioned in Genesis 13:14-15, 15:18-21, 17:8, 22:17, 24:7, 26:3, 28:15, 35:12, 48:4, 50:24-25). The physical boundaries of that land are set out in in Numbers 34:1-12 and the future boundaries are set out in Ezekiel 47:13-20.

God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews as an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:7-8).

The Boundaries of the Land Givenby God to Israel

The boundaries of the land given by God to Israel are specified in Numbers 34:1-12;

The Lord spoke to Moses, “Command the Israelites and say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, it will be allotted to you as an inheritance[a] with these borders:

Your southern side will be from the Wilderness of Zin along the boundary of Edom. Your southern border on the east will begin at the east end of the Dead Sea. Your border will turn south of the Ascent of Akrabbim, proceed to Zin, and end south of Kadesh-barnea. It will go to Hazar-addar and proceed to Azmon. The border will turn from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt, where it will end at the Mediterranean Sea.

Your western border will be the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea; this will be your western border.

This will be your northern border: From the Mediterranean Sea draw a line to Mount Hor; from Mount Hor draw a line to the entrance of Hamath, and the border will reach Zedad. Then the border will go to Ziphron and end at Hazar-enan. This will be your northern border.

For your eastern border, draw a line from Hazar-enan to Shepham. The border will go down from Shepham to Riblah east of Ain. It will continue down and reach the eastern slope of the Sea of Chinnereth. Then the border will go down to the Jordan and end at the Dead Sea. This will be your land defined by its borders on all sides.”

So Moses commanded the Israelites, “This is the land you are to receive by lot as an inheritance, which the Lord commanded to be given to the nine and a half tribes. For the tribe of the Reubenites and the tribe of the Gadites have received their inheritance according to their ancestral houses, and half the tribe of Manasseh has received its inheritance. The two and a half tribes have received their inheritance across the Jordan from Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise.”

Numbers 34:1-12

In Ezekiel 47, God reveals the future boundaries of the 12 tribes of Israel. It is believed this will be the boundaries of the land during the earthly rule of Messiah from Jerusalem.

Current Israel Biblical borders

Distribution of the Land to the 12 Tribes of Israel

Notice that the land on the west side of the Jordan is allocated to nine and half tribes with the other two and a half tribes inheriting land on the east side of the Jordan (half the tribe of Manasseh, Reuben, Gad).

“So Moses commanded the Israelites, “This is the land you are to receive by lot as an inheritance, which the Lord commanded to be given to the nine and a half tribes. For the tribe of the Reubenites and the tribe of the Gadites have received their inheritance according to their ancestral houses, and half the tribe of Manasseh has received its inheritance. The two and a half tribes have received their inheritance across the Jordan from Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise.”

Numbers 34:13-15

12 Tribes with current country names

The promises that God made with Abraham through Isaac and Jacob was an everlasting covenant and the land God gave their descendants was an everlasting possession and based on Scripture, that land includes present-day Israel including the  so-called “West Bank” of the Jordan River (Judea and Samaria), western Jordansouth-western Syria, the southern tip of Lebanon, and all of the Golan Heights (east Manasseh).

As we will outline in the next article, the land of the 12 Tribes of Ishmael is the northern part of Saudi Arabia, south eastern Jordan, southern Assyria (specifically Southern Iraq) and Kuwait.

Everlasting Possession

It is abundantly clear from Scripture that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could not ‘lose’ the right to the land for disobedience, even apostasy, a subject of another article titled “The Promise of the Land to the Jews — everlasting or conditional”.

[http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/the-promise-of-the-land-to-the-jews-everlasting-or-conditional/]