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Flags of the Tribes of Israel

Last modified: 2015-01-03 by andrew weeks
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

This Saturday the portion "Bamidbar" (the beginning of the book of Numbers) was read in the synagogue; flags of the tribes of Israel are mentioned there. Exact descriptions are not given in the Biblical text itself, but two commentaries do describe them, and I was pleasantly surprised when my rabbi's short speech today focused on the design of the flags.
In short, one commentary assigns a flag to each of the twelve (or thirteen) tribes (related but somewhat distinct from the emblems described here), while another assigns a flag to each "camp" (a group of three tribes, for a total of four "camps").
Nathan Lamm, 31 May 2003

I went into the biblical texts mentioned by Nathan and found in the St James version of the English translation dating from the early 18th century (Numbers 2 Vers 2) the following:
"Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensigns of his father's house..."..
The revised standard version of the Bible's English translation dating from 1952 renders the same verse as follows:
"The people of Israel shall encamp each by his own standard, with the ensigns of their father's houses..."
Considering the age when the original Book of Numbers book was likely written (between 1000 and 800 BCE?), I have always thought that this reference to standards and ensigns to be English interpretations of the ancient Hebrew words which might possibly have referred to emblems that we in modern times would term vexilloids. Nathan's mention of rabbinical commentaries providing descriptions of actual flags, would to my mind be an exciting discovery of a very early use of actual flags not encountered in any other historical sources. (According to Whitney Smith, W.G. Perrin et al, the first real flag in the West was probably the Roman vexillum).
Andre Burgers, 1 June 2003

I think one of the commentaries dates to about the year 100, and the other to about the year 200 (but possibly based on much older traditions). So it's entirely possible that the rabbis who wrote them were influenced by Roman flags when interpreting the verse. Of course, as they use the same Hebrew terms as the Biblical text itself, they may simply be referring to the same objects as the Bible- and yet they do seem to be clearly referring to a piece of cloth with a design, hung in whichever way.
Nathan Lamm, 1 June 2003

Here is a scan (part 1, part 2) of the 12 tribal flags according was published in "Banderas".
Jaume Ollé, 1 June 2003

The flags just posted are, I believe, from a ceremony a few decades back in Israel. There are some errors in the transcription (Asher and Simeon are transposed, etc.); furthermore, there are some differences with the original accounts. The two rabbinic commentaries on the flags of the tribes are Numbers Rabbah and Pseudo-Jonathan.
Numbers Rabbah is a Midrash, part of the collection called Midrash Rabbah, the Great Midrash. A Midrash (there are about a hundred) expounds (the meaning of Midrash) on verses in the Bible, whether to determine Jewish law or, on the other hand, history, lore, and so on from them. They were written over a large span of time, from about the first century until about the tenth. (Some collections came out in the next few centuries) Numbers Rabbah was written in about the ninth century. It's in Hebrew, and the translation below is my own.
Pseudo-Jonathan is a Targum, that is, a translation of the Bible (here, the first five books) into Aramaic. There are several Targums, of different style. Some are simple translations with minimal exposition, but Pseudo-Jonathan gives much commentary among its translation- all of what is below is not in the actual Biblical text. (The actual Targum Jonathan covers the Prophetic books, not the first five. This is actually the "Jerusalem Targum" [it was written in Israel], but someone mistook the initials "T.J." [actually "T.Y."] for Targum Jonathan, because of the other Targum of that name, and the name stuck, hence the use of the term "Pseudo-Jonathan.) This Targum was written in about the seventh or eighth centuries. The translation from the Aramaic is my own; as my knowledge of Aramaic isn't as good as my knowledge of Hebrew, it's a bit rougher.
An important note: Although the two works date from when I wrote above, each uses sources that were much older, perhaps dating to the first or second centuries. These sources, in turn, may have been based on even older traditions, perhaps dating back to the time of the writing of the Bible and/or the events described therein. Going back that far, one would have to see what the vexillological customs of the ancient Mesopotamians (the place of origin of the Israelites), the ancient Canaanites/Phoenicians (where they had come from and where they were going) and the ancient Egyptians (where they had just come out of) were. Of course, it is hard to tell what portions of these two works have long traditions behind them and what portions do not, and one cannot discount the fact the descriptions of flags here are undoubtedly influenced by flags that existed in the early Middle Ages, when they were written. The word "flags" here may thus mean "banner" or "strip of cloth" or "vexillum" or perhaps even "flag" in our modern sense. However, the original standards, if any, may have been an object (a vexillloid) of some sort. (Note that the Midrash attributes the widespread use of colored cloth flags to the example of the Israelites!)
Numbers Rabbah, 2:7, commenting on Numbers Chapter 2, Verse 2 ("Each man according to his degel ["division", but modern: "flag"] under the otot ["standards"] of their fathers' houses shall the Children of Israel camp..."):
BeOtot ("Under the standards"): Each prince [of each tribe] had symbols, a mapah ["cloth," "spread," hereafter "flag"], and the color of each flag was like the color of the fine stone that was on the heart of Aaron [the High Priest]. [The breastplate of the high priest contained twelve precious stones, one for each tribe. The exact definition of each is not known, so the Hebrew is given here; hints may be taken from the colors and are given as well, but therefore may only match some of the colors given.] From this the kingdoms learned to make flags and a color for each flag. For each tribes' prince, the color of the flag was similar to the color of its stone.
- Reuben's stone was Odem [carnelian? ruby?], and the color of his flag was red, [a picture of] mandrakes was drawn on it. [Mandrakes figure in a story about Reuben, the founder of the tribe, Genesis 30:14.] [I'm not sure where the imagery of a rising son comes from- Reuben being the eldest?]
- Simeon's stone was Pitedah [emerald?], and the color of his flag was green, and [a picture of the city of] Shechem was drawn on it. [Simeon, together with Levi, destroyed that city, Genesis 34.]
- Levi's [stone was] Bareket [topaz? carbuncle? smaragd?], and the color of his flag was a third white, a third black, and a third red [think of a banded stone], and [a picture of] the Urim VeTummim [that is, the twelve-stone breastplate {the Urim VeTummim were within}- a square, four rows of three stones each, usually horizontal but sometimes vertical] was drawn on it. [The priesthood was drawn from the tribe of Levi, and the whole tribe participated in holy service.] [Levi is omitted from the list by some, as he was not counted among the others, with the two tribes of Joseph making up the total of twelve.]
- Judah's [stone was] was Nofekh [carbuncle? topaz?], and the color of his flag was sky blue, and [a picture of] a lion was drawn on it. [Judah, from whom the monarchy descended, is compared to the king of beasts in Genesis 49:9, the blessing of Jacob.]
- Issachar's [stone was] Sapir [sapphire?], and the color of his flag was like azure [some: black], and [a picture of] a sun and a moon was drawn on it, because [as it says in I Chronicles 12:33] "And from the sons of Issachar were those who knew the wisdom of the times [i.e.,astronomy and calendars]". [Jacob's blessing calls Issachar a "laden donkey," and sometimes the symbol is shown as that or as a laden man.]
- Zebulon's [stone was] Yahalom [beryl?], and the color of his flag was white [according to some, like silver {similar to heraldic rules today} because of his wealth], and [a picture of] a ship was drawn on it, because [as it says in Genesis 49:13] "Zebulon shall dwell by the seashore [i.e., engage in trade]."
- Dan's [stone was] Leshem [jacinth?], and the color of his flag was like a sapphire [others: black], and [a picture of] a snake was drawn on it, because [as it says ibid. 17] "Dan shall be [as] a snake [when he attacks from an ambush]." [As Dan's descendants were judges, scales are sometimes shown as well.]
- Gad's [stone was] Shevo [agate?], and the color of his flag was not white and not black but a mixture of black and white [gray?], and [a picture of] a camp was drawn on it, because [as it says ibid. 19] "Gad shall camp in troops" [Heb: Gad Yegud Yegudenu, a reference to his fighting strength]. [Sometimes actual troops, not tents, are shown.]
- Naftali's [stone was] Achlamah [amethyst?], and the color of his flag was like diluted wine (whose red [color] was no longer strong), and [a picture of] a deer was drawn on it, because [as it says ibid. 21] "Naftali shall be as a sent deer [i.e., he was fast]".
- Asher's [stone was] Tarshish [chrysolite?], and the color of his flag was like the expensive stone women decorate themselves with [pearl? opal?] [others: olive, or the light given by olive oil], and [a picture of] an olive tree was drawn on it, because [as it says ibid. 20] "From Asher will be his rich bread [i.e., he will live in a fertile area]". [Sometimes other signs of agricultural wealth- a cornucopia, say- are shown.]
- Joseph's [stone was] Shoham [onyx?], and the color of his flag[s] was very black, and the [picture] drawn on it for the two princes [of] Ephraim and Menasseh was Egypt [a pyramid?], because they were born in Egypt. And on the flag of Ephraim was drawn an ox, because [as it is written in Deuteronomy 33:17] "His first born is his ox," this is [a reference to] Joshua who was from the tribe of Ephraim [in addition, although the younger brother, Ephraim's was considered the senior tribe, and Genesis 49 calls Joseph an ox as well]. And on the flag of Menasseh was drawn a re'em [a sort of wild ox], because [as it is written Deuteronomy ibid.] "And the horns of the re'em will be [as] his horn," this means Gideon son of Joash who was from the tribe of Menasseh. [There is a question what this means: Was there one black flag with an overall picture of Egypt plus the two animals, or a flag with Egypt for the whole Joseph and a flag for each tribe, or just aflag for each tribe?]
- Benjamin's [stone was] Yashpeh [jasper?], and the color of his flag was like all the colors of the twelve colors, and [a picture of] a wolf was drawn on it, because [as it says Genesis 49:17] "Benjamin is like a scavenging wolf".

Therefore [the word] "BeOtot" [literally "in the signs"] is used, for there were symbols for each prince. [End of Numbers Rabbah translation.]

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan reads the verse as giving not one flag to each tribe, but one flag for each "camp"- that is, each of the four groups of three tribes each. He also sees the stones on the breastplate as being arranged for the tribes not in the order above (by mother, then by age) but according to the camps. Thus his commentary on the following verses:
- Numbers 2:3: "...[the camp of Judah's] Tekes (lit. "troop" [?], here clearly "flag") had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, odem, pitedah, bareket. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Judah- Issachar- Zebulon" and (in the center[?]) the verse [Numbers 10:35] "Arise, Lord, and may Your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate You flee before You!" And there was a picture of a young lion [Genesis 49:9, "Judah is a young lion..."] on it..."
- Numbers 2:10: "...[the camp of Reuben's] flag had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, nofekh-sapir-yahalom. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Reuben- Simeon-Gad" and (in the center[?]) the verse [Deuteronomy 6:4] "Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." And there was a picture of a young deer [ram?] [originally to have been a calf, but changed because of the sin of the golden calf, hence the verse, with "rams" symbolizing Israel] on it..."
- Numbers 2:18: "...[the camp of Ephraim's] flag had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, leshem-shivo-achlamah. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Ephraim-Menasseh-Benjamin" and (in the center[?]) the verse [Numbers 10:34] "And the cloud of the Lord was above them during the day when they traveled from the camp." And there was a picture of a young boy [Jeremiah 31:19, "Ephraim is my dear son..."] on it..."
- Numbers 2:25: "...[the camp of Dan's] flag had three stripes, each like three of the stones of the breastplate, tarshish-shoma-yashpeh. On it was written the names of the three tribes, "Dan- Naftali-Asher" and (in the center[?]) the verse [Numbers 10:36] "Return, Lord, the myriads of thousands of Israel!" And there was a picture of a snake [Genesis 49: 17, "Dan shall be [as] a snake..." {see above}] on it..."
Nathan Lamm, 5 June 2003

In "Modern" Hebrew, the stones are translated as follows:
- Odem: Ruby
- Pitedah: Topaz
- Bareket: Emerald
- Nofekh: Not in use as stone name today
- Sapir: Sapphire
- Yahalom: Diamond
- Leshem: Opal
- Shevo: Not in use as stone name today
- Achlamah: Amethyst
- Tarshish: Not in use as stone name today
- Shoham: Onyx
- Yashpeh: Jasper
Dov Gutterman, 5 June 2003

First of all, while the Twelve Tribes of Israel, or Shivtei Yisrael, as they are known in Hebrew, did indeed have what we might term in contemporary usage heraldic signs and devices, all of which are mentioned repeatedly in the bible. There is no Tanachic record of the Tribes ever actually possessing, much less using flags of any sort. Any such items are purely fictitious in nature, having been invented not earlier than the Protestant Reformation and probably much more recently. Any flag which you have seen which claims (or has claimed for it) that it belonged to any or all of the Twelve Tribes is absolutely, completely, and totally spurious.
Incidentally, the State of Israel has over the years issued several series of postage stamps which depict the heraldic devices of the Twelve Tribes; you can find these illustrated in Scott's Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue or in Stanley Gibbons' Stamps of the World Catalogue. Believe me, if the Twelve Tribes had had any flags the Israelis would have issued postage stamps commemorating the fact.
What might have been the case was that in battle some or all of the tribes may have borne standards containing a depiction of their identifyiong device on a piece of colored cloth. Hoever, none of them would have borne any flag such as you describe.
Ron Lahav, 18 March 2004

The fact is rather the opposite: Symbols of the tribes are mentioned at the end of Genesis, and are merely part of a blessing. On the other hand, flags (of a sort) are explicitely mentioned in Numbers, but the Bible itself does not mention what was on them. The Midrash does, often but not always in line with the blessing in Genesis.
Of course, the "flags" likely did not resemble modern flags at all, and may not even have been made of cloth.
Nathan Lamm, 18 March 2004

I do not think that the Degalim (flags) mentioned in Numbers (Bamidbar) can be considered as true standards or flags. If anything they were Vexilloids.
Ron Lahav, 18 March 2004

You should be aware that the flags of the tribes of israel ARE described, but not in the Torah (Old Testament). Each tribe had a colour with a symbol embroidered on it. The colour of the flag could be from a single colour such as that of Joseph (shared by Ephraim and Menasshe) of black, to that of Benjamin which is described as "many colours" and is taken to mean any colour of the wolf which is the symbol on the flag. It must be noted that use of heraldry began from this source as the Romans did not use flags, and Celts and germanii used carved/hammered symbols on long poles as far as I'm aware.
The stamps do not reflect the colours. The significance of the colours is that they related to the colours of the stones on the breastplate of the High Priest.
Greg Chalik, 5 January 2006

It should be pointed out, though, that "heraldry" originated in coats of arms, not flags, and so can't be traced to the tribes of Israel. In any event, it's not entirely clear that "flags" as we know them are meant here, at least in the Bible itself.
One more point: Some of the flags *are* multi-colored.
Nathan Lamm, 5 January 2006

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