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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Tribe

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A. Nouns.

Maṭṭeh (מַטָּה, Strong's #4294), “staff; rod; shaft; branch; tribe.” This noun is a distinctively Hebrew word. It occurs 251 times; the first usage is in Gen. 38:18: “And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand.” The word appears most frequently in Numbers and Joshua, generally with the meaning “tribe” in these books.

The basic meaning of maṭṭeh is “staff.” The use of the “staff” was in shepherding. Judah was a shepherd and gave his “staff” to his daughter-in-law, Tamar, as a pledge of sending her a kid of the flock (Gen. 38:17-18). Moses was a shepherd when he saw the vision of the burning bush and when the Lord turned his “staff” into a snake as a sign of His presence and power with Moses’ mission (Exod. 4:2ff.). His “staff” figured prominently throughout the wilderness journeys and was known as “the staff of God” because of the miraculous power connected with it: “And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand” (Exod. 17:9). The “staff” was also a token of authority. The Egyptian magicians had “staffs” as symbols of their authority over the magical realm by which they duplicated several miracles (Exod. 7:12). Aaron had a “rod,” which alone sprouted and put forth buds, whereas eleven rods “from all their leaders according to their father’s household” (Num. 17:2, NASB) did not put forth buds.

The “staff” further signifies authority or power over another nation: “For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian” (Isa. 9:4). God gave to Assyria His “staff”; they received His authority, divine permission, to wield the sword, to plunder, and to destroy: “O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against a hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets” (Isa. 10:5-6). The psalmist, in his expectation that the messianic rule included God’s authority and judgment over the Gentiles, views the messianic rule as a strong “staff”: “The Lord shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies” (Ps. 110:2). Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel said, “Fire is gone out of a rod of her branches, which hath devoured her fruit, so that she hath no strong rod to be a scepter to rule” (Ezek. 19:14). The figurative usage of maṭṭeh occurs in the idiom maṭṭeh-lehem, “staff of bread.” This poetic idiom refers to the food supply, and it is found mainly in Ezekiel: “Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat [rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair]” (Ezek. 4:16; cf. 14:13).

A derived sense of maṭṭeh is “tribe,” which is used as many as 183 times. The “tribes” of Israel are each designated as maṭṭeh: “And these are the countries which the children of Israel inherited in the land of Canaan, which Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun, and the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel, distributed for inheritance to them” (Josh. 14:1). It is possible that the maṭṭeh (“staff”), as a symbol of authority, first applied to the tribal leader and thereafter by extension to the whole “tribe.”

The several meanings of maṭṭeh are reflected in the Septuagint: phule (“tribe; nation; people”) and rabdos (“rod; staff; scepter”).

Shêbeṭ (שֵׁבֶט, Strong's #7626), “tribe; rod.” In modern Hebrew this word mainly denotes “tribe” as a technical term. In Akkadian the related verb shabatu signifies “to smite,” and the noun shabbitu means “rod” or “scepter.” A synonym of the Hebrew shêbeṭ is maṭṭeh, also “rod” or “tribe,” and what is applicable to maṭṭeh is also relevant to shêbeṭ.

The “rod” as a tool is used by the shepherd (Lev. 27:32) and the teacher (2 Sam. 7:14). It is a symbol of authority in the hands of a ruler, whether it is the scepter (Amos 1:5, 8) or an instrument of warfare and oppression: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2:9; cf. Zech. 10:11). The symbolic element comes to expression in a description of the messianic rule: “But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth …” (Isa. 11:4).

The word shêbeṭ is most frequently used (143 times) to denote a “tribe,” a division in a nation. It is the preferred term for the twelve “tribes” of Israel (Gen. 49:16; Exod. 28:21). Jeremiah referred to all of Israel as the “tribe”: “The portion of Jacob is not like them; for he is the former of all things: and Israel is the rod of his inheritance: the Lord of hosts is his name” (51:19).

The Septuagint translations are: phule (“tribe; nation; people”); rabdos (“rod; staff”); and skeptron (“scepter; tribe”).

B. Verb.

Nâṭâh (נָטָה, Strong's #5186), “to stretch out, spread out, extend.” This root occurs in biblical, mishnaic, and modern Hebrew and in Arabic with the same meaning. One occurrence of nâṭâh is in Exod. 9:22: “Stretch forth thine hand toward heaven.…”

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Tribe'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/vot/t/tribe.html. 1940.

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