The Tribal Emblems of Israel

We are often told that heraldry and the use of heraldic emblems came into use about the time of the Crusades. It is said that knights in armour were unable to distinguish friend from foe in battle and that, consequently, they began to put a mark or a representation of some animal or other on their shields and banners, so that they could be recognized.

The banners of the Roman legions and the emblem called “Britannia” were certainly in use long before the Crusades. In the legends and on works of art in ancient Greece, we have a record of the emblems used by the leaders on both sides in the Trojan War; and when we turn to the Bible we find that each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel had an emblem and that, by God’s command, these were in regular use during the forty years of Israel’s wandering following the Exodus from Egypt. This is definitely stated in Numbers 2:2, where we read: “Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house.”

As we read this second chapter of Numbers we see that, when not on the march, the Twelve Tribes encamped in a definite order around an open space, at the centre of which was the tent-like enclosure for national worship called the Tabernacle. It is generally assumed that the Twelve Tribes encamped around this open space in the form of a square, but the Bible does not actually say this and there are some indications that it may have been round or oval.

In either case it is evident that the Twelve Tribes encamped around an open space with three tribes in each of the four directions -- East, South, West and North -- and that in obedience to the command quoted above, each tribe encamped under its own ensign or emblem. Actually these tribal emblems were in use long before the Exodus. In Genesis 49 we read that, just before his death, Jacob called his sons to him to give them his blessing. In this blessing Jacob likened each of his sons to some object, animal or personal characteristic, which then became his emblem and the emblem of the family and the tribe descended from him. Later, Moses added some additional items as recorded in Deuteronomy 33, with the result that each of the tribes of Israel had at least one emblem and some of them had two or more.

Jacob’s eldest son was named Reuben, and in blessing him Jacob said, as we read in Genesis 49:3-4: “Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defilest thou it: he went up to my couch.” In this description of Reuben two points stand out. He was primarily a Man, strong and evidently handsome in a physical sense but sensual and weak morally. Further, his nature was changeable, so much so that Jacob declared him to be as unstable as water. Thus, Reuben is pictured as a Man and also as a body of water. Consequently, Reuben’s emblems were, first, a Man and then some Wavy Lines or Bars representing a sheet of water. These then became the emblems of the family and later of the tribe descended from him.

Simeon and Levi are dealt with together in their father’s blessing and in his description of their characters. However, for reasons which will be explained later, the object mentioned in connection with them applies only to Simeon. Of them Jacob said, as recorded in verses 5-7: “Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations...in their anger they slew a man.”

Here we should note that the marginal rendering of the words “instruments of cruelty” reads “their swords are weapons of violence.” We should also note that in the record of their slaying of the man mentioned above we read: “Simeon and Levi...took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly and slew all the males. And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword” (Genesis 34:25-26).

As we read Jacob’s blessing of his fourth son, Judah, we see that he is given a special blessing, in that from among his descendants is to come the future Royal House of the Israel nation. In this blessing he is likened or related to four things, as we read in verses 9-11: “Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come;...Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes.”

Here we see that Judah is declared to be a Lion’s Whelp and, in the same verse, he is likened to a Lion, twice more. Thus Judah is likened to a Lion and also to Three Lions. Then in the next verse he is stated to be in possession of a Sceptre. Finally, he is associated with a Grape Vine. Consequently, these four devices, a Lion, Three Lions, a Sceptre and a Grape Vine, became the emblems of Judah and of his descendants, the Tribe of Judah.

In considering the blessing of Dan we see that he is likened to two objects. These are stated in verse 17, where we read: “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.” The first object to which Dan is likened is definitely stated to be a Serpent. The second is implied, being mentioned in relation to the first. It is a Horse, or a Horse and Rider, the Horse usually being white. Later, in Deuteronomy 33:22, Moses likened Dan to a Lion. As this Lion was a secondary emblem only and the same as Judah’s official emblem, it was never used. Consequently, the Serpent and the White Horse remained the emblems of the Tribe of Dan.

The blessing of Naphtali is short and promises him nothing. As recorded in verse 21 it says: “Naphtali is a hind let loose; he giveth goodly words.” Naphtali is here likened to a freed Hind and so his emblem became a Leaping Hind. This was Naphtali’s official emblem as used in ancient Israel. However, there are some indications that in the course of time this female deer was gradually replaced by the male, so that today a Stag is the equivalent of Naphtali’s emblem, the Hind.

The blessing of Gad, as recorded in verse 19 is also very short. It simply says: “Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last.” This does not promise him very much in a material sense, but it does show a definite relationship between him and a Troop of Horsemen. Then, in Deuteronomy 33:20, Moses likens Gad to a Lion. As in the case of Dan, and for the same reason, this Lion to which Moses likened Gad was never used, leaving him with one usable emblem, a Troop of Horsemen. However, as a Troop of Horsemen would be difficult to portray on an ensign, Gad’s emblem was usually shown as the mounted Leader of the Troop holding aloft a pennant.

-- W.H. Bennett

Hope of Israel Ministries
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