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Flags of the Tribes of Israel

Last modified: 2003-01-18 by santiago dotor
Keywords: israel | tribes | mandrake | gate | ephod | lion | scales of justice | gazelle | camp | olive tree | corn | sun | stars | donkey | camel | ship | sheaf | wolf |
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These flags [of the individual tribes of Israel] were published some months ago in Banderas, but I don't have drawings of them, because I think that probably they are a bit fantasious.

Jaume Ollé, 5 May 1998

There is a biblical reference to the tribal flags as well that a friend of mine sent me some months ago, to whit: (Book of Numbers, Chapter 2, Verse 2) "The children of Israel shall encamp every man by his own standard, with the ensigns of their father's houses". The book the Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this and other biblical references under the heading of "Banner" that might be interesting to list members.

Greg Biggs, 5 May 1998

The following article about the Tribes of Israel is taken from a CD on Israeli stamps that was just released (I was one of the philatelic advisors). The CD has full-colour images of all the stamps of Israel plus articles on them (like this one) as well as stationaries, booklets and ATM labels. It costs about US$ 80. The stamps were issued in 1955/56 as a definitive series, Scott 105/116, SG 115/126, Yv 97/108, Mi 119/130, Bale 118/119.

This set of stamps features the emblems of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each stamp bears a single tribal emblem, part of them in combination with other motifs. The symbols of the tribes are by no means fixed as different interpretations may be given to the biblical texts describing the sons of Jacob.

The 12 tribes of the House of Israel are the descendants of the Patriarch Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and his two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah. Leah had six sons — Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Each of the other women had two sons each. Rachel's were Joseph and Benjamin; Zilpah's, Gad and Asher; and Bilhah's, Dan and Naphtali.

In Jacob' Blessing (Genesis 49) each of the sons is described allegorically and symbols for the tribes have been derived from these descriptions as well as form other biblical passages. Interesting descriptions of the tribal symbols are found in a rabbinical commentary on the Bible, the Midrash Rabba (c. 3rd century), which describes the flag of each tribe. The emblems of the tribes, however, found no expression in graphic art in earlier ages.

That the number of the tribes bears some relation to the zodiac follows from the hints which accompany different names mentioned in Jacob's Blessing. Simon and Levi, there noted together, are the Twins, Judah is described as a Lion; Dan as Scales, and Benjamin as Wolf. In the Wars of the Jews (4, 5) Flavius Josephus also mentions that the 12 shewbreads in the Temple represented the zodiac.

The mandrakes in Reuben's coat-of-arms are based on the episode related in Gen. 30, where young Reuben brought his mother Leah mandrakes from the field. The biblical phrase on the tab is from Deut. 33:6, "Let Reuben live."
Simon was one of the strongest tribes during the wandering in the desert but later became one of the weakest in consequence of losses suffered during the battles for the Promised Land. It was eventually absorbed by mighty Judah. Formerly the city of Shechem was situated within the boundaries of Simon and the gate of the city therefore appears on the tribe's. The biblical phrase on the tab is from Deut. 33:5, "...and the tribes of Israel were gathered together."
The Levites "kept the charge of the tabernacles of testimony" (Num. 1:53); they had no territory of their own and were dispersed among the other tribes. Their emblem was the ephod of the High Priest on which were engraved, upon precious stones, the names of all tribes. The biblical phrase on the tab is from Deut. 33:10, "They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law."
The most famous heraldic symbol belongs to the tribe of Judah, which displayed a lion on its shield. This tribe became the most powerful and constituted the Kingdom of Judah. The lion is the symbol of strength and is featured as such in innumerable works throughout the ages. This animal is one those most frequently mentioned in the Bible, appearing about 130 times under 6 different names. The biblical phrase on the tab is from Gen. 49:9, "Judah is a lion's whelp."
The original area of the tribe of Dan extended from Jaffa southward. Samson was a son of this tribe. As it could not conquer its entire territory, Dan looked to settle elsewhere and the tribe moved north to the source of the Jordan River, captured the city Laish, and settled there. In Jacob's Blessing Dan was promised that he "shall judge his people" (Gen. 49:16), a reference symbolized by the scales of justice on the stamp. The phrase appears on the tab.
After the conquest of the country, the tribe of Naftali settled in the north where played a central role among the tribes located there. Naftali is represented by a gazelle or running stag. The biblical phrase on the tab is "Naftali is a hind let loose" (Gen. 49:21).
The tribe of Gad settled in the land of Gilead, east of the Jordan. It did battle against Amon and Moab coming from the south, wandering tribes from the east, and Aram from the north. The emblem resembles a camp in reminiscence of the biblical phrase -on the tab- "Gad, a troop shall overcome him" (Gen. 49:19).
The coastal strip from the foot of Mount Carmel up to Sidon was inhabited by Asher, the fertility of whose land was indicated by an olive tree or —as represented on stamps of the Jewish National Fund or in the synagogue of Aix-la-Chapelle, Germany— by ears of corn or fruit. The biblical phrase on the tab is "Out of Asher his bread shall be fat" (Gen. 49:20).
Issachar's territory was the plain of Esdraelon, from the sea to the banks of the Jordan. This tribe is frequently mentioned together with Zebulun indicative of their being neighbors and maintaining close relations. The tribe's emblem of sun and stars is derived from the biblical phrase, "And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times" (1 Chron. 12:32), which appears on the tab. Other representations of Issachar reflect the dependence of this tribe on the Phoenicians, in whose products the tribe dealt — as a carrier of loads (see also Menorah stamp), as a donkey (on the Jewish National Fund stamp), or as a laden camel (in the synagogue of Aix-la-Chapelle).
Zevulun settled on the country's seaboard and as symbolized by its emblem was engaged in navigation. This idea is conveyed in the biblical phrase, "Zebulun (...) shall be for a haven of ships" (Gen. 49:13).
Joseph was the principal tribe in central Eretz Israel, which split into Manasseh and Ephraim. The fertility of Joseph's country is symbolized by the sheaf on the stamp. The biblical phrase on the tab reads, "...blessed of the Lord be his land" (Deut. 33:13).
The favorite son of Jacob, Benjamin has remained the symbol of the tender youngest child. The tribe of Benjamin, however, was considered particularly warlike and courageous. To this tribe belonged Saul, the first king, and Jonathan, his son. The symbol of the tribe was the wolf, a predatory animal. The biblical phrase on the tab reads, " the morning he shall devour the prey" (Gen. 49:27).
  1. I disagree to the use of the terms coat-of-arms and heraldic in the article. I believe that heraldry is a well-defined European concept that began more than two millenia after the Tribes of Israel.
  2. There is a confusion about the 12 tribes. Those on the stamps are the sons of Jacob, but there was no tribe of Joseph — only tribes of Menasseh and Ephraiym, his sons. Levi was not regarded as a tribe either because the Levites were the priests and they had no territory of their own.
  3. The Lion of Judah is the origin of the city emblem of Jerusalem that is on the city flag. It is also (in a different design) the emblem of the IDF Central Command which has its HQ in Jerusalem. One of the Command Generals in the 70's had a cage with a live lion there!

Nahum Shereshevsky, 5 May 1998

The emblems of the Tribes are commonly used as decorations in official ceremonies, like the ceremony that closes Memorial Day and opens Independence Day.

Nahum Shereshevsky, 2 June 1998

I scanned stamps of the symbols of the 12 tribes.

Dov Gutterman, 1 June 1999