Our wide-range view of the history of Israel, taken with the perspective of passing millennia, gives us a picture of a single, united nation. That concept has become a prominent political theme since the Second World War. But when we narrow our focus to the ninth and tenth centuries B.C.E., a different picture emerges.
It was at Mount Sinai in the year 1513 B.C.E. that Israel became a nation. It was comprised of an amalgamation of thirteen tribes and countless foreigners who joined themselves to those tribes (including entire peoples, such as the Gibeonites of Joshua chapter 9). It would be many centuries before Israel viewed itself as a single people. Tribal loyalty remained stronger than national until after Saul’s day, perhaps reinforced by divine edicts forbidding intermarrying between tribes and strict delineation of unalterable tribal territories. Throughout the period of the judges (the three hundred years between 1450-1117 B.C.E.) the tribes are primarily described as operating somewhat independently, and inter-tribal civil wars and conflicts break out more than once.
Under these circumstances, over a period of over 700 years of tribal intermarriage, each tribe would have no doubt developed their own subculture as well as distinct genetic traits and characteristics. It was possible for an Israelite to identify a man of another tribe by his looks, dress, or accent (Judges 8:24, 12:1-6).
The tribes also had unique military roles or specialties. Chaim Herzog (former President of the State of Israel) and Mordechai Gichon (Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University) have written a wonderful book entitled “Battles of the Bible” (Greenhill Books, Lionel Leventhal Limited, 1997). In it they describe the various tribes’ “military proficiencies.” The Benjaminites were ambidextrous missile warriors with sling and bow (1 Chronicles 12:2; Benjaminite boys had their dominant hands tied behind their backs for long periods of time to force them to develop ambidextrousness). Judges 20:16 says of the Benjaminite slingers: “They would not miss.” The Gadites were highly mobile “shield and buckler” warriors, ‘as swift as the roes upon the mountains’ (1 Chronicles 12:8). The Zebulunites were experts with all weapons and apparently known for their fearlessness—the writer of Chronicles says they could “keep rank” in the direst of circumstances (ibid., v.33). Judeans were rank and file spear and shield warriors (ibid., v.24), as were the men of Naphtali (ibid., v. 34). The tribe of Issachar is described as having an ‘understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do’—apparently indicating that they were specialists in military intelligence, logistics, and tactics.
While Israel was traveling in the wilderness, their camps were organized by tribes, and each tribal encampment was marked with a ‘sign’ or ‘banner’ (Numbers 2:2). While the Bible does not give descriptions of these signs, it seems that they served a similar purpose to heraldic coats of arms in medieval times. Such designations would have been very useful in organizing a camp of upwards of three million people. Some scholars feel that these ensigns were likely based on the prophetic descriptions of each tribe given by the patriarch Jacob on his deathbed (Genesis Chapter 49): a lion for Judah, a ship for Zebulun, an ass for Issachar, a snake for Dan, a deer for Naphtali, a sapling for Joseph, and a wolf for Benjamin.