Is there archaeological evidence of the sons of Jacob, the tribal leaders of Israel?

Various archaeological discoveries support the Biblical record concerning Jacob, his 12 sons, and the later tribes of Israel.

DAN—Will Provide Justice for His People

see: Genesis 49:16

Dan was the fifth son of Jacob and the first son of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid (Genesis 30:1-6). During the period of Judges, the tribe of Dan migrated from their original allotment on the Mediterranean coast to the city of Laish, renamed Dan (Judges 18).[1] The site of Laish/Dan has been under excavation since 1966, directed by Avraham Biran on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The city of Dan is most famous for being the site of one of the high-places set up by Jeroboam, first king of the breakaway northern kingdom, in order to worship the golden calf.

Therefore the king asked advice, made two calves of gold, and said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And he set up one in Bethel, and the other he put in DAN.
1 Kings 12:28-29

That high place has been found and excavated by Biran (Biran 1976). The Dan high place was not only used during Israelite times, but continued as a religious center down to the Roman period.

In 1977, a very important discovery from the Hellenistic period (3rd-2nd centuries BC) was made. A dedicatory inscription mentioning Dan was found some 17 meters south of the high place (Biran 1981). For the first time, the Biblical name of the site was found in an ancient inscription and, by association, the name of one of Jacob’s sons.

GAD—Will be Attacked by a Band of Raiders

see: Genesis 49:19

Gad was Jacob’s seventh son, the first son of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid. The tribe of Gad occupied the central area of Transjordan (Joshua 13:24-28).

In the famous Mesha Inscription found at Dhibon in Jordan, dating from the 9th century BC, the tribe of Gad is mentioned.[2] The Moabite king Mesha states, “And the men of GAD had dwelt in the land of Ataroth from of old” (Lemaire 1994: 33, line 10).[3]

ASHER—His Food Will be Rich

see: Genesis 49:20; Asher

A number of scholars have maintained that that the name 'Isr appearing in Egyptian texts is the Israelite tribal name Asher (e.g., Aharoni 1979: 179, 183; Hadley 1992: 482). That appears not to be the case, however. So we present the following in the way of a correction to information that might appear in other sources.

The earliest mention of the name 'Isr is in a list of conquered peoples from the time of Seti I, early 13th century BC (Simons 1937:147, List XVII, no. 4).

Photo copyrighted. Courtesy of Films for Christ.
Pharoah Rameses II

The name also appears several times in the inscriptions of Rameses II (1279-1212 BC), again in lists of conquered peoples (Gauthier 1925:105; Kitchen 1993:39-40; Simons 1937: 162, List XXV, no. 8).

Perhaps the most interesting of these references is in Papyrus Anastasi I from the end of the 13th century BC. Here, the wise scribe Hori chides the novice scribe Amen-em-Opet concerning his knowledge of Canaan. He warned that his reputation could become as low as that of “Qazardi, ruler of Asru ('Isr), when the hyena caught him up a tree” (Kitchen 1993: 40).

Noted Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen lists four reasons why the Egyptian name “Isr” cannot be the Israelite tribe of Asher (1993: 40-41; cf. Kitchen 1966: 70-71):

JUDAH—Holder of the Royal Scepter and Ruler’s Staff

see: Genesis 49:10; scepter

Judah is perhaps the best known of Jacob’s sons. He was the fourth son of Jacob and the fourth son born to Leah (Genesis 29:35). It was Judah who talked his brothers out of killing Joseph at Dothan and selling him to the Ishmaelite traders (Genesis 37:26-27). Judah acted as spokesman for the brothers on their second journey to Egypt to face Joseph during the famine (Genesis 43:3; 44:14-34). Since his three older brothers were passed over,[4] Judah inherited the position of firstborn of Jacob’s sons and received the kingly blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:8-12).

The tribe established by Judah became the greatest of the Israelite tribes. It received the largest allotment in the promised land (Joshua 15), and it was from Judah that the Messiah descended (Genesis 49:10-12; Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). When the kingdom divided, the southern kingdom was known simply as Judah. After the return of the exiles from Babylon, the ancient tribal area continued to be known as Yehud/Judah/Judea until the suppression of the Bar Khokba revolt by Hadrian in AD 135. After that, the name passed out of use.

Because of the political importance of the area of Judah through the centuries, the name has turned up in many ancient inscriptions.

The oldest of these are two references to Ahaz King of Judah from the eighth century BC. One is on a bulla (clay sealing) which reads “Ahaz (son of) Jotham King of JUDAH” (Shanks 1997). The other is in a building inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III from Calah (Nimrud), Iraq. It simply states that king “Jehoahaz (Ahaz) of JUDAH” paid tribute to the Assyrian king (Oppenheim 1969:282).

Additional references to Judah occur throughout the Assyrian period (Oppenheim 1969: 287, 288, 291, 294, 301). The Babylonians recorded the fall of the “city of JUDAH” to Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC (Oppenheim 1969: 564) and the issuing of rations to Judean captives, including Jehoiachin (Oppenheim 1969: 308). In addition, we have a 407 BC letter from Elephantine to Bagoas, governor of JUDAH (Ginsburg 1969: 492), Yehud (Judah) coins from the 4th century BC, and Yehud seals from the 4th-2nd centuries BC (Stern 1982: 224-27; 202-13).

All of these data support the historicity of the Biblical record concerning Jacob, his 12 sons, and the later tribes of Israel. There is even evidence of their sojourn in Eqypt.

More information


  1. For archaeological evidence for the migration of the Danites, see Wood 1991:107-109.
  2. For more information on the Mesha Inscription, see Wood 1996.
  3. Ataroth is thought to be located at Atarus 13 km northwest of Dhiban.
  4. Reuben sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilhah (Gn 35:22), and Simeon and Levi massacring the men of Shechem (Genesis 34).


Author: Dr. Bryant G. Wood of Associates for Biblical Research. Adapted from the ABR article: “The Sons of Jacob: New Evidence for the Presence of the Israelites in Egypt”

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