The Tribe of Dan (Hebrew: דָּן), meaning, “Judge,” was one of the tribes of Israel, according to the Torah. They were allocated a coastal portion of land when the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, later moving northwards.
According to the Torah, the tribe consisted of the descendants of Dan, a son of Jacob and Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant (Genesis 30:4). In the biblical account, Dan is one of the two children of Bilhah, the handmaid of Jacob’s wife Rachel, the other child of Bilhah being Naphtali. Scholars see this as indicating that the authors saw Dan and Naphtali as being not of entirely Israelite origin (being descendants of handmaids rather than of full wives). Some have noted that the territory of the handmaid tribes happens to be the territory closest to the north and eastern borders of Canaan, thus exposing them to Assyria and Aram. However, other tribes born to wives, including the firstborn Reuben, were also included on the eastern outskirts, and immediately adjacent to Israel’s more traditional enemies at the time of their entry to Canaan, the Moabites and Ammonites.
The initial territory of Dan appears in dark green north of Philistia on this map of the tribes.
The Dan tribe’s serpent plate on the Heichal Shlomo’s door in Jerusalem
In the Biblical census of the Book of Numbers, the tribe of Dan is portrayed as the second largest Israelite tribe (after Judah). Some textual scholars regard the census as being from the Priestly Source, dating it to around the 7th century BC, and more likely to reflect the biases of its authors. In the Blessing of Moses, which some textual scholars regard as dating from only slightly earlier than the deuteronomist, Dan is prophesied to “leap from Bashan”; scholars are uncertain why this should be since the tribe did not live in the Bashan plain, east of the Jordan.
Conquest and territory
According to the biblical narrative, following the completion of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelite tribes after about 1200 BCE, Joshua allocated the land among the twelve tribes. Dan was the last tribe to receive its territorial inheritance. The land originally allocated to Dan was a small enclave in the central coastal area of Canaan, between Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim and the Philistines. On the north the territory of Dan ended opposite Joppa, the modern Jaffa. This territory, not very extensive originally, was soon diminished by its dangerous neighbors, the Philistines. The tribe was only able to camp in the hill country overlooking the Sorek Valley, the camp location becoming known as Mahaneh Dan (“Camps of Dan”). (Joshua 19) The region they were trying to settle extended south into the Shephelah in the area of Timnah; as a result, the modern state of Israel refers to the region as Gush Dan (the Dan area).
From after the conquest of the land by Joshua until the formation of the first United Kingdom of Israel in c. 1050 BC, the Tribe of Dan was a part of a loose confederation of Israelite tribes. No central government existed, and in times of crisis the people were led by ad hoc leaders known as Judges.
The most celebrated Danite was Samson, a Danaite judge from the period of settlement in the lands allotted by Joshua. Pnina Galpaz-Feller sees similarities between the story of Samson and Denyen tribal legends.
As a consequence of the pressure from the Philistines, the tribe abandoned hopes of settling near the central coast, instead migrating to the north of Philistine territory, and after conquering Laish, refounded it as their capital (renaming it Dan) (Judges 18). Thus their territory in the end lay northeast of that of Naphtali, east of the upper Jordan River, near its eastern sources, and defining the northern extent of the land of the Israelites. A number of biblical texts thus refer to “All Israel, from Dan to Beersheba”.
With the growth of the threat from Philistine incursions, the Israelite tribes decided to form a strong centralised monarchy to meet the challenge, and the Tribe of Dan joined the new kingdom with Saul as the first king. After the death of Saul, all the tribes other than Judah remained loyal to the House of Saul, but after the death of Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son and successor to the throne of Israel, the Tribe of Dan joined the other northern Israelite tribes in making David, who was then the king of Judah, king of a re-united Kingdom of Israel.
Northern Kingdom of Israel
However, on the accession of Rehoboam, David’s grandson, in c. 930 BC the northern tribes split from the House of David to re-form a Kingdom of Israel as the Northern Kingdom.
Assyrian conquest and demise
As part of the Kingdom of Israel, the territory of Dan was conquered by the Assyrians, and exiled; the manner of their exile led to their further history being lost.
Claims of descent from Dan
Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer, and Simon the Magican, came from the village of Gitta (also spelled Getta) in Samaria, according to Justin Martyr; a site settled by the tribe of Dan according to Josephus. Justin, who was himself a 2nd-century native of Samaria, wrote that nearly all the Samaritans in his time were adherents of Simon. Surviving orthodox texts, such as those of Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, regarded Simon as the source of all heresies, including Gnosticism. Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, claim descent from the Tribe of Dan, whose members migrated south along with members of the tribes of Gad, Asher, and Naphtali, into the Kingdom of Kush, now Ethiopia and Sudan, during the destruction of the First Temple. This position is supported by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. They are said to have fought with the natives. Charles Upton relates the serpent voodoo God Danbhala as derived in part from a heterodox form of Ethiopian Judaism.
Their primary trade characteristic was seafaring, unusual for the Israelite tribes. In the Song of Deborah the tribe is said to have stayed on their ships with their belongings.
Modern artists use the “scales of justice” to represent the Tribe of Dan due to Genesis 49:16 referencing Dan “shall achieve justice for his kindred”. However, more traditional artists use a snake to represent Dan, based on Genesis 49:17, “Let Dan be a serpent by the roadside, a horned viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heel, so that the rider tumbles backward.”
Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation (7:4–8), mentions that people from the twelve tribes of Israel will be sealed. The selection of the twelve tribes does not include the names of Ephraim and Dan, although their names were used for the twelve tribes that settled in the Promised Land. It has been suggested that this could be because of their pagan practices. This made Hippolytus of Rome and a few Millennialists propose that the Antichrist will come from the tribe of Dan.