Can you name all 12 tribes of Israel? No, don’t Google it. Many years ago I had to admit to my church youth group that I couldn’t either. We were at a summer mission work camp in Virginia where instead of just giving each work team a number or a letter, some creative soul decided to name each team after one of the 12 tribes of Israel. You will recall from the book of Genesis that those tribes were named after Jacob’s 12 sons. The challenge to name all 12 arose because at our work camp we only had 10 teams; so two of the tribes were not named.
Inquiring minds want to know these things, and it provided a teachable moment. So in the church van on the way back to Ohio at the end of the week we asked our youth if any of them could name the two missing tribes. No one could, of course; so we invited the kids to pull out their Bibles and see if they could solve the mystery. It was a great way to keep them occupied on the long trip home, and turned into a much better spontaneous Bible study than most I have planned in advance.
While digging around in Genesis the youth found a lot of interesting R-rated stories that they had never learned in Sunday School. They discovered that those 12 sons of Jacob came from 4 different women, and Jacob was only married to two of them. Yes he had two wives, Rachel and Leah, and if you don’t know the story of how that happened, it’s very interesting drama in Genesis 29. The youth also found tales of incest and adultery, and other stupid human tricks that would make good soap opera episodes.
After they had shared several of these unseemly stories with each other, one of the young women turned to me and said, “Those aren’t very nice people! What are they doing in the Bible?” Excellent question and the answer is that fallible human beings are all God has to work with. It’s like when Jesus’ critics asked why he ate with sinners. Because if he didn’t he would always have to eat alone!
What I love about the biblical narratives is that they are not sugar-coated Hallmark movies but honest stories about how messy life is. The characters (in every sense of the word) are just like you and me, and the good news is that there is a place in God’s story for all of us, from Abraham to Zechariah, from Bathsheba to Mary Magdalene, not because of our many faults, but in spite of them. Thanks be to God who is faithful, especially when we aren’t.
By the way, the two missing tribes were Zebulun and Issachar.