Categories: Preacher's Blog

(The feature image on the front page is of Joseph blessing Manasseh and Ephraim. The map below is by Crossway Publishing from the ESV Bible.)


After years of reading questions you get a feel for what prompted the questions. I am fairly certain I know when a question is coming from someone who is reading their Bible and when some kind of challenging life circumstance as provoked it. Both questions are legitimate and often profound.

It is obvious that the question Reuben Lacuata posed in our discussion last week came from reading his Bible. His question was: Why is Israel (the northern tribes) referred to as Ephraim so often in the Old Testament?

Reuben had done some research on his own and came up with the following. Ephraim was the
largest of the tribes, and the man, Ephraim, was one of the sons of Joseph, born in Egypt. So he was part Israelite and part Egyptian. Perhaps there is something symbolic in the way the prophets make reference to him in their judgments against Ephraim when it is used as a reference to the northern tribes of Israel. Prior to digging into this myself, I had not thought of the symbolic aspect. So that is something I am adding to my considerations.

In combing the resources at my disposal I learned the following. Ephraim:

  • is a reference to the hill country at the core of Israelite territory
  • is where Samaria, the capital was located
  • is where the important city of Shechem was located
  • was traditionally one of the strongest tribes of the northern kingdom
  • was the tribe to which Jeroboam belonged
  • is mentioned 37 times in Hosea with reference to the North

If you look at a map showing the allotments of land given to each of the tribes of Israel, you will notice that Manasseh was given the most territory. So, Ephraim’s prominence is probably to the number of people, and the strength of the tribe. The context will determine whether Ephraim is a reference to the man, or the territory, or the ten tribes to the north.

Let’s take a look at two texts to see how the word is used to refer collectively to the northern tribes—which are also called “Israel.”

The first of 37 references to Ephraim in Hosea is 4:17:

Ephraim is joined to idols;
leave him alone.
When their drink is gone, they give themselves to whoring;
their rulers dearly love shame.
A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices.

The northern tribes were so attached to idols that they were to be left alone. There was no remedy for them.

Asaph, the ascribed author of Psalm 78, exhorts readers to rehearse the wondrous works of God to build our confidence in the Lord and in order for our children to place their hope in Him. He writes:

The Ephraimites, armed with the bow,
turned back on the day of battle.
They did not keep God’s covenant,
but they refused to walk according to his law.
They forgot his works,
and the wonders that he had shown them (78:9-11).

Derek Kidner comments:

As the largest of the breakway tribes, their subsequent history was to make them almost a symbol of blacksliding and apostasy… and this is how their name is used here. (Psalm 73-150, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, p. 282).

What a great question from Reuben! I know this will help me read the Old Testament with greater clarity.

Author: Chino Church of Christ

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