The meraglim (scouts) and their shevet (tribe) are listed in a strange order in Bemidbar 13:

  1. Reuven
  2. Shimon
  3. Yehuda
  4. Yissachar
  5. Ephraim
  6. Binyamin
  7. Zevulun
  8. (Of Yosef): Menashe
  9. Dan
  10. Asher
  11. Naftali
  12. Gad

As Ramban notes,

מנה הכתוב השבטים לא לדגליהם ולא לצבאותם ולא כתולדותם.‏

"Scriptures enumerates the tribes not according to their banners, nor their hosts, nor their order of birth."

Can we account for this order, other than with what Ramban suggests, that this was done based on their relative worth?

ונראה שראה למנותם הנה לפי מעלת השלוחים, כי היו ראשים ונשיאים בעם כאשר ספר, ואין מעלתם שווה אבל יש בהם גדול מחברו בחכמה (ובמניין): ובכבוד, והקדים הנכבד הקודם במעלה כי ממעלת עצמם מנאם לא למעלת השבט. וכן בנשיאים החולקים להם את ארץ כנען (להלן לד יז - כט): הזכירם כפי המעלה לא לתולדותם:‏

  • Hmm well we have the Bnei Hashefachot at the end (not by age or by mother). And the first four are all Leah's (in age order).
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 4:26
  • Can't you ask your question just as well about the list of tribes in Bamidbar 34?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 4:43
  • yes, though the order is different than it is here. mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0434.htm Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 4:50
  • 1
    Josh: problem is, the more varieties of order we find, the more likely we're going to have to "settle" for an explanation like the Ramban's and not have specific reasons in each case.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 4:53
  • Part of me wants to say that it's related to the portions of land that they are "destined" to inhabit in the land, but it doesn't work out so well. Works a little better for Bamidbar 34, though; if you compare the order there with a tribal map of Israel, you get a kind of south-to-north pattern.
    – jake
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 5:03

3 Answers 3


The following is how Abarbanel parses the list:

והתחיל מראובן כי הוא היה הבכור גם הוא ראש דגל. ואחריו שמעון שנולד אחריו והוא ג״כ בדגלו. ולפי שלא הלך מרגל משבט לוי זכר אחריו יהודה כפי תולדותם ושהוא ראש דגל כמלך בגדוד ואחריו הנכבד מהחונים עמו בדגלו והוא יששכר ואחריו אפרים שהוא ראש דגל ואחריו הנכבד מהחונים בדגלו והוא בנימין. ואחריו זבולון כי הוא בן לאה והיה נשאר מדגל יהודה, ואחריו מנשה שהוא הנשאר משבט [ממחנה?] אפרים ואחר שזכר בני הגבירות זכר בני השפתות רוצה לומר אותם ג׳ שהיו בשבט דן. ונשאר גד באחרונה

So, it goes:

  • The greater two from degel Reuven.
  • The greater two from degel Yehuda.
  • The greater two from degel Efraim.
  • The remaining from the above two camps.
  • The three from the camp consisting of all the b'nei hashfachot.
  • The only remaining ben shifcha: Gad.

Now, because this seems only ever so slightly better than a randomly ordered list, Abarbanel finishes:

והיה הסבה לכל זה מה שזכרתי ששמר בהם הקדימה והאיחור כפי מעלתם בעצמם וכמו שכתב הרמב״ן

But, perhaps the above order is not so random if we incorporate an idea from John Gill's Exposition of the Bible:

and the several tribes are mentioned, not according to the order of the birth of the patriarchs, nor according to the dignity of their mothers that bore them, but, very likely, according to the order in which they were sent, two by two, to search the land; for had they gone all twelve in a body, they would have been liable to suspicion

This is not a far-fetched idea, as we do see that Yehoshua sent two spies, possibly for this reason, and we do find several commentaries back when Yosef's brothers argued that they were not spies explaining their argument based on this same idea.

So, if we group the meraglim two by two, we get something relatively coherent:

  • Start with the sons of the full-fledged wives (Leah/Rachel)

    • The greater two from degel Reuven.
    • The greater two from degel Yehuda.
    • The greater two from degel Efraim.
    • The remaining from the above two camps. (The remaining tribe from degel Reuven is a ben shifcha, so we'll leave him for later.)
  • Now finish with the b'nei hashfachot

    • The greater two from degel Dan.
    • The remaining two bnei hashfachot.

The only thing that seems odd to me about this order is that I would have said that "the greater two from degel Efraim" are Efraim and Menashe, as that follows their order from Bamidbar 2. It could be, as you suggested here, that they wanted to sent Gadiel ben Sodi and Gadi ben Susi together because their names are similar, but that seems far-fetched to me. More likely, in my opinion, is that really Efraim and Binyamin are the greater two of that camp, just in Bamidbar 2 we put Efraim and Menashe together under the "Yosef umbrella" and always juxtapose them.


R. Abraham Saba in his commentary on Torah (Shelach 13:4) says that they were listed in order of esteem they had toward the land.


Presumably it's in order of personal greatness ... and yet some of the "personally greater" ones still made a terrible mistake.

  • My issue with order of personal greatness (like Ramban) is that there certainly seem to be other runs. For instance, What are the odds that Reuven, Shimon, <strike>Levi</strike>, Yehuda, Yissachar, Dan, Naftali all happen to be listed in relative birth order, and that accords with their personal greatness? Also, is it personal or tribal greatness? Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 13:33
  • 2
    For the record, Seforno says it not in order of relative greatness, but rather in age order. But I guess that doesn't help you, @joshwaxman, since "what are the odds...?"
    – jake
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 14:35
  • @jake: I wonder how Sforno would explain the facts that I mentioned in my comment to the related question, which indicate that Calev (#3 on the list) was younger than Hoshea/Yehoshua (#5).
    – Alex
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 5:21
  • @Alex, I can think of only two possibilities: (1) He believes that it took much longer for Yehoshua to conquer/settle the land before he died than Chazal postulate, which makes him younger than the 56 that Ibn Ezra calculates. (2) "בן ארבעים שנה אנכי" means that Calev was 40-ish, maybe closer to 42 or 43 and actually slightly older than Yehoshua, who was 42 like Seder Olam states (but enough older that someone else is listed between them).
    – jake
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 5:40

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