Tribe of Joseph: Symbol & Split

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Joseph was instrumental in saving people from famine, always forgiving, and one of Jacob's favorite children - so why was his tribe split? Learn more about this split and the subsequent tribes in this lesson.

The Tribe of Joseph: History and Symbology

Joseph is probably the most well-known of the sons of Jacob. From the coat of many colors to becoming an important figure in the Egyptian court, Joseph's story is laid out throughout the Book of Genesis. So why is his tribe split if he is so important? We are given a story in Genesis 48 where Jacob splits the tribe between Joseph's two sons. The story, though, probably acts as an etiology, or explanation or cause of a phenomenon, as the reason there were the two tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh rather than the one tribe of Joseph.

Before the tribe of Joseph was split, and even after, when it was considered a combined tribe, the tribe was symbolized by the image of wheat stalks. This symbol goes back to before Joseph went to Egypt as a slave. Joseph had a dream with 11 stalks of wheat bowing down to a central stalk, symbolizing Joseph's brothers bowing down to him. This audacity, as his brothers saw it, led his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery, but because of this dream, and Joseph saving the Egyptians, the symbol of wheat stalks stuck with Joseph and his tribe.

The Half-Tribes of the House of Joseph

When Jacob blessed Joseph's sons, while on his deathbed, he set the two up as the replacement for Joseph's tribe, which then became called the ''House of Joseph.'' Because of the symbolism of the number 12 to Judaism (the 12 tribes of Israel, totality, wholeness), the tribes were not considered whole tribes but were instead called half-tribes. Jacob gave them double the territory the other tribes received so that, even though they were technically half-tribes, they would each have the same amount of land as Jacob's other sons.

Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh
Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh


During Jacob's blessing, much to Joseph's dismay, Jacob laid his right hand on Ephraim, the younger of Joseph's sons, to bless him. This was something which was usually done to the oldest child. However, Jacob may have done this to continue the tradition of younger siblings having larger roles than older siblings, like Ishmael and Isaac or even Esau and Jacob himself. On the other hand, it could also have been a reference to the importance of the tribe of Ephraim. Joshua, the successor of Moses, who led the Israelites, and the first king of Israel after the monarchy split in the tenth century, were both Ephraimites. The tribe of Ephraim is often symbolized by an ox to indicate the strength of the tribe.

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