Twelve Tribes and Twelve Spies

11_Twelve Tribes and Twelve SpiesScripture Reference: Numbers 1-3, 13-14

Suggested Emphasis: God is with us so have courage and do not be afraid to do what is right.

Memory Verse: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 (NIV)


Story Overview:

The Lord commanded that Moses take a census (counting the number of people) of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses appointed one man from each tribe to spy out the land of Canaan. When the spies returned, ten of them convinced the Israelites that the people of Canaan were too big and strong to overcome. Only two spies, Joshua and Caleb knew that they could overtake the Canaanites with God’s help. Because of the people’s unbelief, the Lord said that none of the Israelites over twenty years old would live in the promised land. Only Joshua and Caleb were the exceptions. Because of their lack of faith, the people would now wander in the wilderness or forty years.

Background Study:

When reading the first three chapters of the book of Numbers it becomes apparent why the book is referred to as “Numbers”.  There is a lot of counting and sorting going on.

Chapter 1- (The Census):
Two years after leaving Egypt the Lord commanded Moses to take a census of the entire Israelite community including each of its twelve tribes.  As an indication of how large the entire group was, the number of fighting men alone was 603,550 (Numbers 1:45-46).

Many generations previous to this “Israel” was the name God had given Jacob (Genesis 35:6-29).  Jacob’s twelve sons are the origin of what would later be known as the “Twelve Tribes of Israel”.  There were now some changes to the original list of twelve, however.  The tribe of Levi (the tribe Moses and Aaron belonged to) would no longer be counted as one of the twelve tribes.  The descendants of this tribe would serve as priests and workers in the tabernacle.

Another name missing from the list was Jacob’s son, Joseph.  This goes back to Genesis 48:5 when Jacob claimed Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own.  This was an honour to Joseph.

Eventually “The Twelve Tribes of Israel” will each receive a portion of the land when it is conquered and at the time that the spies are sent out the tribes are listed as the tribes of:

  1. Reuben
  2. Simeon
  3. Gad
  4. Judah
  5. Isaachar
  6. Zebulun
  7. Ephraim (Joseph’s son)
  8. Manasseh (Joseph’s son)
  9. Benjamin
  10. Dan
  11. Asher
  12. Naphtali

Chapter 2- (Organising the Camp into Tribes):
It would be obvious from now on which tribe each person was associated with because each had an assigned place whenever the camp moved to different locations.  The tabernacle and the Levites would always be in the centre of the camp with the rest of the tribes were positioned around it.

Chapter 3- (Appointing and Resourcing the Priests):
Twelve Spies MapAaron and his two sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, would serve as priests.  Since the Levites were now fully devoted to serving in the tabernacle so God ordered each of the other tribes to give money toward the support of the tabernacle and it’s workers.

Chapters 13: (Sending Spies to Canaan)
In the two years since leaving Egypt God has led the Israelites south across the Sinai Peninsula and then north again to the Desert of Paran (later referred to as Kadesh Barnea) just south of modern day Palestine and Israel.  They are now poised to enter the land God has promised to them.

At God’s instruction Moses chose one one man from each tribe to spy out the land.  For forty days they travelled through the land from south to north observing people and buildings and even collecting specimens of the bountiful produce.  When the twelve spies reported back to Moses and the people ten of them painted a picture of a people and land that was too formidable to conquer.  Only two of them, Caleb and Joshua, had confidence that God would lead them into battle and overcome.

Chapter 14 (Rebellion and Consequence):
On the continued negative word of the ten spies the people lost confidence in God’s ability to lead, protect and save them and so returned to their old ways of rebelling and grumbling.  They went so far as to begin forming plans to return to Egypt and even talked about stoning Moses and Aaron.  Joshua and Caleb were the only spies who challenged the people’s rebellion and attempted to inspire them to trust in God.  They said…

“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”  Numbers 14:7-9 (NIV)

In what is similar to the conversation God and Moses had on Mount Sinai while the people were building a calf idol God considers destroying the people and beginning again with Moses and his descendants.

Instead he passes sentence (Numbers 14:26-35).   Even though they were at the very brink of entering the promised land they would now wander in the desert for forty years (one year for each day the spies were in the land).  God would keep his promise and lead them to a land of their own, adults over the age of twenty and who grumbled against him would die during the forty years and would never enter the promised land.  Joshua and Caleb had remained faithful and would enter the land.

One sad attempt by some to try to fight their way into the promised land led to a sound defeat.


Way to Introduce the Story:

Take a census. Count how many people in your class today. Now count people in other bible classes. You might want to count people “secretly” like the spies did. You could just quietly count the adults in the adult class making sure that you are all so quiet that they do not notice you. Come back to the classroom and write your results on the board. “When you count people you are taking a census. We took a census of our class [and others]. God told Moses to take a census of all the people who were travelling together.”

The Story:


Ways to Tell the Story:

This story can be told using a variety of methods.  Always remain true to the facts found in the Bible but help children connect to its meaning by using drama, visual aids, voice inflection, student interaction and/or emotion.
Click here for visual aids and story-telling methods.

Click here to download these illustrations and slideshow.  Be selective.  Each teacher is unique so only use the illustrations that best relate to the way YOU are telling the story in THIS lesson. Too many illustrations can be confusing so eliminate any that cover other stories or details you do not wish to emphasise in this lesson.

Review Questions:

  1. What did it mean when God told Moses to take a census? To count the people
  2. How many tribes were the Israelites divided into? Twelve
  3. How many spies took a look at the new land? Twelve
  4. What did ten of the spies report? The enemy is too strong and big for us.
  5. Who were the two spies that believed God would help Israel win the new land of Canaan? Joshua and Caleb
  6. Because the people did not trust in the Lord, how many years would they have to wander in the desert? 40

Song Suggestions:

Learning Activities and Crafts:

(How to choose the best learning activities for my teaching situation)


  • Send out your spies! Let the children try to count the number of adults in the adult class or children in another class without those people knowing it (you might want to mention this before class to the teachers of those classes)
  • Play “I Spy” (For a variation you might spy things on the timeline if you have done one. Example: “I spy with my little eye . . . something hard with writing on it. Answer- the Ten Commandments).
  • Use the maps in the back section of a bible to show Egypt, Canaan, and the Jordan River. Many of them show how the Israelites wondered after the incident with the spies.
  • Review the Ten Commandments and the other memory verses this term.
  • Act out difficult situations where God gives us strength.
  • The help children understand the concept of the nation of Israel being divided into twelve tribes bring a pizza to class and divide it into twelve slices (Thanks, Cristy Neves, New Zealand for this great idea).
  • Here is a Song/Poem about the 12 Spies submitted by Jenny Ancell, Australia.  I’m only sorry I don’t know the tune for the song.
  • Here is a PowerPoint Slideshow about the 12 Spies or in a printible format: Pictures about the 12 Spies to help explain some background information concerning the 12 spies and the places they would have seen.  Submitted by Marvin Ancell, Australia.


Check the Teaching Ideas page on this website for ideas that are adaptable to any lesson.

Link to full list of printablesClick here for “Twelve Tribes and Twelve Spies” printables to print (A4 paper)
Click here for “Twelve Tribes and Twelve Spies” printables to print (Letter size-USA)

Other Online Resources:


Twelve Tribes and Twelve Spies Pin

4 thoughts on “Twelve Tribes and Twelve Spies

  1. I think the song about the 12 spies can be sung to the tune of 10 Little Indians.

    1. Hi Heather. That’s how I learned the 12 sons also. The 12 tribes are a bit different since they do not include Joseph or Levi. When it came to the 12 tribes these were replaced with Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. I tried inserting them with the same tune and they seem to work.

  2. Make Spy glasses from toilet paper rolls or paper towel rolls. Let the children decorate the tubes with stickers/or markers.

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