“You are of the tribe of Ephraim”

Last Sunday, I taught my Gospel Essentials class on “Priesthood Organization.” One of the sub-themes of the lesson was the role of the “Patriarch.” The Bishop plugged “patriarchal blessings” for the new members, and listed the duties of the patriarch, including that of “assigning lineage.” A recent African-American convert approached me after the lesson, informed me that she had recently received her own patriarchal blessing, and asked: “Brother Brown, what exactly does it mean to “assign lineage”?”

What should I tell her?


  1. Jennifer, were there some funny looks at the brother with the different lineage? So…. Mom… what’s going on?

    This actually gets to the heart of what we mean by lineage. In a broad sense, we’re talking about the concretisation of a doctrine of being a part of the house of Israel upon baptism. For many in the Church, becoming a child of God at baptism is spiritual but also literal – you are accounted among the house of Israel. This is what a patriarchal blessing confirms when it assigns lineage. My understanding is that the lineage is more of a confirmation of belonging to Israel than an actual genealogical test. I would be wary of anyone who tries to make significant outside assertions on the basis of lineage.

  2. Jim: “That new converts become part of the family of Israel has tremendous symbolic significance.”

    I think we’d all agree on the symbolic aspect. I like the idea of invoking it as shamanistic, tying us to the most ancient covenants God made with man. People forget about that powerful link.

    Any ideas on how the literal aspect of this got dropped?

  3. Aaron Brown says:


    It’s all fine and good to point out the significance of being part of the “House of Israel,” but my question deals specifically with the differentiation between one tribe and another. Can anyone really explain to me any meaningful difference between being “of Ephraim” and being “of Naphtali”? I understand, as Jennifer said, that each tribe is supposed to have certain blessings/attributes associated with them, but do we really associate the lineages with particular sets of blessings anymore? Short of telling each other that anyone assigned to the “tribe of Levi” would automatically retain certain officiating rights in Mormon meetings, does anyone impute any specific signficance to the tribal distinctions at all? I’ve never met anyone who does.

    Once again, I suspect the practice of lineage assignment is a “vestigial trait,” to use a biological analogy. It made sense in one historical context, but now it just hangs around with comparatively little to do. Try to imagine patriarchal blessings that generically assigned EVERYBODY to the “House of Israel.” What of theological significance would be lost? Not much, it seems to me.

    Aaron B

  4. Maybe LDS patriarchal blessings are where J.K. Rowling got her idea for the “sorting hat”… ;-)

  5. Not just me, *all* Europeans are literal descendents of Aaron. If you go back 3000 years, that’s maybe 100 generations, meaning if you trace back the lines you’d have over a billion billion trillion slots to fill in on your pedigree chart. Even with only a limited amount of population mixing, it’s just inconceivable that no descendent of Aaron would belong in any of these slots.

    Check out the link in my previous post for more.

  6. Oh, ye modernists of little faith! That new converts become part of the family of Israel has tremondous symbolic significance. It makes all of the scriptural promises to Abraham and Israel relevant to the individual person. Being assigned to a lineage is symbolic of being made a part of the family of Israel, which is the family of Christ. Everyone gets to be a member of one of the 12 tribes. Cool!

    The patriarchal blessing is a powerful shamanic evocation of ancient covnenants, telling the recipient that they are partaking of the promises made to Abraham. Where else in the modern world can you have a shamanic experience? I would refer your new member to the Topical Guide scriptures under the heading “Seed of Abraham” and if she wants something meatier see Teachings of PJS, pp. 149-150.

    I would not confuse her with old 19thC Mormon folk beliefs that had more to do with now forgotten racist Anglo-Israelite theories than anything in the Scriptures.

    BTW, I know Russians whose patriarchal blessings identified them as being from the tribe of Naphtali.

  7. Jennifer J says:

    Please excuse my horrendous grammatical error with the apostrophe on brothers. I’m very ashamed.

  8. Reuben is actually fairly common. I had several companions of that lineage.

  9. Aaron Brown says:

    Steve asked:
    “Any ideas on how the literal aspect of this got dropped?”

    Armand Mauss has a great article in the Spring 1999 JMHA on this question. I believe it also became a chapter in his _All Abraham’s Children_. (I’ve been having an “Armand Mauss” month, it seems. The guy should really send me a check).

    I don’t have time to get into all the details now, but Mauss does mention the informal, unsystematic polling he’s done of stake patriarchs over the years, and how their own beliefs about what it means to “assign lineage” are all over the map. They range from seemingly 19th Century beliefs in “literal” lineages to notions that the lineage designations are purely symbolic of adoption. If I recall correctly, the Church handbook given to patriarchs apparently provides nothing in the way of definition as to what’s going on. Interesting.

    In short, belief in the “literal” aspect seems to have faded (or to be fading) over time, given that it is premised on dubious biological notions.

    Aaron B

  10. Aaron Brown says:

    Steve’s comments come closest to getting to the issues I wanted to raise. What exactly does it mean, in 2004, to say that one is of the tribe of Ephraim (or any other tribe, for that matter)? When Jennifer’s mom says “it’s whatever blood runs strongest,” what in the world does that mean?

    Steve points out (rightly, I think) that modern LDS are less likely to see lineage assignment as a “geneological test” than a mere confirmation of being adopted into the House of Israel. But do we really need such confirmations, these days? Doesn’t it go without saying? And what significance would there be to my being from the tribe of Ephraim, rather than Reuben, in terms of blessings, or anything else?

    19th Century Mormons clearly took lineage assignments very literally, and the practice seems to make more sense to me in that context (but not complete sense, since I still don’t totally get what’s being claimed). I have to wonder if lineage assignment isn’t just a vestigial trait from the 19th Century Church that makes little sense in the 20th.

    Aaron B

  11. Jennifer says:


    Yeah, at first I thought it was strange that my brother was of a different lineage, although still one that is not uncommon. It is my understanding that people in the same family can be of different lineages. I’m not sure of the reasons. My mother always says that it’s whatever blood runs strongest.
    I never questioned where my brother came from. He’s too much like my dad. ;-) *Grin*

  12. There was a Jewish/Mormon man in one of my past wards (New Jersey) who expressed concern when one of his children was told they were from Ephraim rather than Judah. Then again, I don’t think Mom was Jewish. So this would actually be in keeping with halacha (Jewish religious law).

  13. Frank McIntyre says:

    This thread has been passed by, but there is evidence in the scriptures of specific rights / responsibilities / privileges being assigned to specific tribes. I don’t think there is enough to really do much with without further personal or Churchwide revelation, but Jacob gives an individual blessing to each tribe in Genesis 49, which I think Moses alludes to later somewhere in the five books.

    As an example, “Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a frutiful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall…” may refer to the Nephites going “over the wall”. Or it may not.

    In any case, we’ll probably have to wait until the full-fledged return of the Lost Tribes to get a complete understanding of the rather cryptic “Naphtali is a hind let loose, he giveth goodly words”. But that needn’t stop the Lord from giving personal revelation to someone about how their tribe related to them.

    Also, Levi is still a tribe, they just didn’t have a territory. Thus if one counts Joseph’s double inheritance as two tribes, there are 13 tribes of Israel.

  14. Jennifer says:

    I don’t visit for one day and now there is another Jennifer on here?
    Even stranger, when I first read her post I wondered if I had written it in the middle of the night and forgotten because the exact same scenario is in my family too. One of my brother’s is in Manassah while the rest of us are in Ephraim. My mother wasn’t blase about it. I think it upset her, she might think they’ll be separated or something because of it.

    So I guess Jennifers will all now have to use their last initials!

    Jennifer J

  15. Aaron —

    You’re asking a perfectly legitimate question, but I think you are being too literalistic. I agree that based on our current knowledge we can’t precisely say what the significance of being assigned to a particular tribe is as opposed to just generally becoming part of Israel. However, clearly the Scriptures consider the tribal differentiations to be worthy of much attention. Therefore, I am hesitant to discard the tribal assignment as “vestigial.” My current thinking is as follows:

    (1) The duty of the patriarch to make a tribal assignment is, for whatever reason, part of his clear duties. Therefore, I believe that the safe default position is that it may have significance which has not yet been revealed to us. To use your biological analogy, my understanding is that as medicine advances, it often discovers that body parts that were thought to be vestigial actually have a function which we had just not understood or discovered. I would suggest that this may be the case with these tribal assignments which the prophets tell the patriarchs that they must continue to make.

    (2) Lacking such revelation, I can still see a symbolic value in the tribal assignment in that it says to the recipient of the blessing “you are SO much a part of Israel now that you are even being assigned to one of the tribes which are clearly important to the concept of Israel in the Scriptures.” It reinforces the adoption into Israel.

    (3) I also think it has tremendous value precisely because it is so undefined. As I indicated in my prior post, I believe that a lot of the blood/ancestral ideas that surrounded tribal assignment were Mormon folk beliefs derived from old Anglo-Israelite ideologies which held that Englishmen were descended from the ancient Israelites (which among other points justified the British Empire). Now that the concept is being freed from this racist baggage, it provides the individual with the freedom to seek out their own personal spiritual understanding. Let millions of spiritual insights flower. That is the beauty of being in a religion of story rather than of creed. It is precisely these undefined, goofy vestiges that provide the channels for new possibilities of understanding. That is why I see patriarchal blessings as shamanistic. Their meanings are not precise, they are symbolic and evolving.

    So, my suggestion as to your response to your new member is this:

    “All who receive Christ become a part of the House of Israel and receive all of the blessings that were promised to Abraham and Israel. The patriarchal blessing confirms that by actually telling you which of the 12 tribes of Israel you are part of. All Church members are assigned to a tribe. Most get assigned to Ephraim, but there are some who are told they are of other tribes, including the “lost” tribes. We do not know the precise significance of being assigned to a particular tribe, but we trust that either that will be revealed to t

  16. Aaron, that could be a really tricky question, but as a practical matter people are either assigned to Judah (Jewish converts) or Ephraim (everyone else, by adoption). I mean, have you ever heard of someone who was proclaimed of the tribe or Reuben or Naphtali? [Okay, maybe Native Americans both north and south are assigned to Manasseh following Alma 10:3; of course, that would represent patriarchal endorsement of the continental model or “principal ancestor” story over the LGH, wouldn’t it?]

    So the easy answer is: “In patriarchal blessings, Mormons are assigned to either the tribe of Judah, if they’re Jewish, or Ephraim, by adoption, for everyone else.”

  17. Aaron, the problem revolves around the terms “tribe” and “lineage,” which are both rather general and undefined and don’t really fit together very well. What is a tribe? What does lineage purport to be and what information does a statement of lineage in a patriarchal blessing really purport to convey? So I guess my short answer to the “what does a declaration of lineage mean in 2004” question is: basically nothing.

    I suppose my answer derives partly from my albeit limited knowledge of biology, in which the question of lineage is swallowed up by population genetics. It’s all about gene pools and the frequency distribution of various alleles within a population–lineage becomes irrelevant very quickly. The genetic endowment of an individual in generation N is highly dependent on the gene pool of the population at generation N-1 (the parents’ genes being drawn from that pool) and entirely independent of the genetic makeup of literal ancestors from thirty or twenty or even ten generations back. What does “lineage” mean in this context?

  18. Jennifer says:

    Actually, I have heard of some of the others although I cannot give a concrete example except for one. Everyone in my family is Ephraim, except for one of my brothers, who is Manasseh (sp?). Go figure. We all come from the same parents in my family.

  19. D_ _ _, truncated again. The rest of the post was:

    We do not know the precise significance of being assigned to a particular tribe, but we trust that either that will be revealed to the prophets, or perhaps you will come to understand it through the Holy Ghost. All of the patriarchal blessing is a personal revelation to you, and you are entitled to receive inspiration from it and about it throughout your life.”

    In sum, I think we will understand patriarchal blessings better using Jung than Mendel.

  20. Ed- I’m just curious, but how can you possibly be sure that you are a literal descendant of Aaron? Are you really that on top of the ball with your Genealogy, or is there something that I am missing?

  21. Here’s how I currently see it: assuming that Jacob’s posterity was even half as prolific as he was, the likelihood is that most of us have several of these tribal fathers for ancestors. The declaration of lineage is not so much a revelation of some already-existing condition as it is a placing into a lineage (which may also be part of one’s physical lineage). The purpose of this is that each lineage apparently has particular roles and responsibilities, and this seems to tie in closely to the idea of patriarchal blessings.

    So I think our lineage is declared in much the same way as someone might be declared a knight.

  22. How important is that type of analysis, though, danithew? It seems to me like it used to be much more central to LDS belief than it is today. We used to speak at lengths about physical changes that occur with the gift of the holy ghost and our adoption into the house of Israel — we don’t any more. How important is the lineage to you, so long as it says what really matters (i.e., you’re counted among Israel)?

  23. I actually have heard of some of the more obscure tribes. I good freind of mine who served his mission in Russia told me that people receved Asher and Dan and I think even some others. Has anyone else heard this?

  24. I agree with grasshopper. In fact, I’m sure everyone with any European or Asian ancestry is directly descended from *all* of the sons of Jacob, each along literally thousands of lines.

    This article from the atlantic explains why this would be:

    What, if anything, this means for the gospel I couldn’t say. For example, I’m sure I’m a literal descendant of Aaron (in the Bible, not Brown). But I doubt if that means I automatically get to be the Bishop.

  25. Jennifer says:

    I always wondered what that meant as well when my Mom said “whatever blood runs strongest.” I always assumed she meant there was either a genetic component or spiritual attribute component to the assignment of lineage.

    I’m not sure what the importance of lineage is, but didn’t each tribe have certain blessings or attributes assigned to them?

    Also, for tracing things back, aren’t Ephraim and Manasseh actually from Joseph?

  26. I would be skeptical of any of the other tribes unless I actually saw the blessing. They are lost, you know.

  27. Jennifer,

    Yes, they’re both Joseph. As I recall, they are separate tribes because (1) Joseph got a double share of the inheritance, as a birthright son, and (2) Levi didn’t go forward as a tribe; the children of Levi became priests for all of the tribes.

  28. concrete example, my sister adopted a child from Ukraine, though she already had 4 of her own, the two oldest received their blessings and were of Ephraim, the adopted one then received her blessing and it was proclaimed Dan.

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