The Twelve tribes of Israel are the descendants of the patriarch Jacob whom the Lord later named Israel. Jacob had 6 sons through his wife Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun) and 2 sons through his wife Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin). In the providence of God, Jacob was forced into marrying two sisters (through the manipulation of his father-in-law Laban) creating a terrible rivalry between the wives for the love and support of their husband. As this battle between sisters played out, both women gave to their husband their own maidservants as concubines to produce even more children. This resulted in the birth of 4 more sons (Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher). Thus, by Genesis chapter 50, the nation of Israel was growing along the family lines of these 12 sons and their wives.
These 12 Tribes of Israel continued to grow through the exile and exodus from Egypt and settled into the conquered land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. One particular tribe, the descendants of Joseph, appear from this time forward as the half-tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers because of extreme jealousy, but their evil intentions were turned to good as God elevated Joseph into the highest echelons of leadership in Egypt. When a famine hit the lands of Egypt and Israel, Joseph was tapped by God to save his own family but also the people of his new homeland through his wise leadership. Ephraim and Manasseh were the sons born to Joseph in Egypt and their names carry the family tree forward when the nation eventually returns to the land of promise. The number does not increase to 13 tribes but remains 12. Joseph does not appear with his brothers in the family roll call as his is a life set apart, a type of Christ, to bring salvation to his people. But his rightful inheritance falls to the bloodline of his two sons.
The first substantial change comes at the end of the monarchy of Solomon. His son Rehoboam in youthful arrogance, alienates through heavy handed leadership 10 of the 12 tribes( c.926 BC). These tribes set up a rival nation under the leadership of Jeroboam in the northern provinces and identifies itself as Israel. The southern territory, which included Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord, remained under the leadership of the House of David through Solomon’s line and called itself Judah. The tribe of the Levites, which held no territory and were associated with the temple rituals also remain as their work must be carried out in the Jerusalem temple. Whatever good was happening in these separated kingdoms was eclipsed by their spiritual and moral deterioration. The Kingdom of Israel started out in idolatry as their first king Jeroboam feared that if his people went to Jerusalem to worship (as they were commanded to do in scripture) they would eventually abandon his kingdom. So Jeroboam set up two golden calves and a rival priesthood and this began a 200 year downward spiral into deep superstition and idolatry. God sent many prophets to warn them but His counsel of repentance was spurned and so in 722 BC the Assyrian army was sent by God to invade, conquer, and depopulate the land. The kingdom of Judah lasted longer than Israel, but they also continued to deteriorate spiritually adding the worship of Canaanite gods to the worship of Yahweh in the temple. Several of their kings made decisive reforms against this practice but immediately after their death, the nation would go back to the well of idolatry. Finally in 597 BC, God sent Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army to conquer Jerusalem and take the Jews into exile. This was to last approximately 70 years according to the prophet Jeremiah.
The Babylonian exile was not all bad for the Jews. They were permitted to settle and build as communities within their host nation which in turn allowed them to practice their laws and traditions in a foreign context. During this period the leaders of Israel reasoned that since the temple no longer stands and therefore the altar of sacrifice is no longer available, the best thing they can offer God is to gather for worship and to learn and practice His law. This led to the development of the synagogue, something that was unknown in Judaism prior to the exile. The placement among idolaters definitely cured them of their own idolatry. When they return to their own land, no prophet denounces this sin ever again. And later when Jesus comes on the scene, the charge of idolatry is conspicuously absent from his many public criticisms of Israel’s religious and spiritual life.
The northern kingdom was taken by Assyria. The southern kingdom was taken by the Babylonians. The Babylonians were used by God to judge Assyria (just because they were his tool of discipline didn’t mean He approved of their evil and idolatry as a nation either). In turn, when the 70 years of exile in Babylon were complete, the Persian empire conquered and destroyed the Babylonian empire (in judgment for their arrogance against Him). Cyrus, one of the early and great Persian rulers, made a decree that the Jews were to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the walls and the temple and there in the temple, they were to offer prayers and sacrifices on his behalf (Ezra 1:2-4). What is even more amazing is that Isaiah the prophet predicted that God would raise up a servant by the name of Cyrus who would release the Jews from captivity (Is.44-45). Isaiah made this prediction 150 years before Cyrus the Great was born and 180 years before he made his decree.
The Jews did rebuild Jerusalem and the temple under Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel and were restored to their land, but with the exception of a couple of short episodes, they never were a totally sovereign nation again but under the domination of other world powers. I would argue this is even true today although they are certainly not occupied as they were by the Romans in ancient times. In this restoration people from the tribes of the Northern and Southern kingdoms returned to the land, but they were but a remnant. Many had grown up having never lived in the Jewish homeland and had no desire to return. Economics, opportunities, and politics caused many Jews to disperse throughout the Roman empire and form enclaves wherever they settled. Later on in the church age, these colonies were often the initial targets of evangelization by the Apostles Peter and Paul.
As the Persian empire gave way to the Greek empire of Alexander the Great which in turn dissolved into 4 smaller kingdoms headed by Alexander’s generals after he died suddenly in his early 30’s, Israel found itself literally and figuratively caught between a family feud between the Seleucid’s (whose kingdom corresponds to Syria today) and the Ptolomies (whose kingdom corresponds to Egypt). Both kingdoms fought over Israel because it was a nice buffer zone between the two. This went on for several hundred years until Rome became powerful enough to absorb them both. This was the Israel that Jesus of Nazareth was born into, and this tension of desiring to overthrow the Romans and retake national sovereignty is a constant theme in the background of the Gospels.
When Jesus offered himself as Messiah and was rejected, betrayed, and crucified by his own, it was a moment of destiny for the nation. It was before Pilate that the leaders of Israel said “we have no king but Caesar”, and “ his blood be upon us and our children”(Mt. 27, Jn.19). I am not insinuating the notion of the “blood curse” which has been used for centuries to excuse anti-semitic persecution. What I am saying is that in rejecting their own messiah, their national trajectory was set. They would continue seeking to realize freedom from Roman occupation and the discontent and resentment became so palpable that it caused a great rebellion against Rome which was met with overwhelming power. In the end, Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem and it was renamed Aelia Capitolina and was made a Gentiles-only city.
And so for the last 1900 years, the 12 tribes of Israel have become a pilgrim nation among other nations. During the last two centuries (19th and 20th) there were efforts led by Jewish leaders to reestablish the state of Israel in its traditional boundaries. The holocaust in World War 2 accelerated these efforts and the United Nations on May 12, 1948 approved and recognized Palestine as the new and official homeland for the Jews. Anti-Semitism, persecution, religious connection, and patriotism have served to return many of the Jewish nation back to their homeland for more than 6 decades. But they are a mixed multitude of traditionalists, secularists, and atheists. It’s hard to imagine this present nation as God’s chosen people, but St. Paul in Romans 9-11 makes it clear that in this present time (the church age) God has allowed a hardening of the heart towards the Gospel in the Jewish to remain in place. This does not mean that Jews can’t become Christians (it does happen in this present age) but that there will be a future large-scale work of God among them that waits until the end of the era of the Gentiles.