The Greek and Hebrew that is translated as “tribe” in English when referring to the “12 tribes of Israel” is translated in some East African languages, including Taita and Pökoot use the equivalent of “clan” instead.

Aloo Mojola explains (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 208ff.) (click or tap here to see the rest of this insight):

“A number of Bible translation teams in East Africa have been baffled and intrigued by the use of the term ‘tribe’ in the English translations of the Bible. The usage employed in these translations does not reflect any of the popular meanings associated with the term ‘tribe’ in present-day English. Neither does it reflect popular conceptions of the meaning of this term in East Africa or in other parts of Africa and elsewhere. This raises the question: is the term tribe the best translation of the Hebrew terms shebeth and matteh or the Greek term phyle? What is a tribe anyway? Are the twelve tribes of Israel tribes in the sense this term is currently understood? How can this term be translated in East African languages?

“It is easy to see that there is no consistent definition of the term tribe which applies exclusively and consistently to the communities to which it is currently applied. Why, for example, are the Somali or the Baganda called a tribe, but not the Irish or the Italians? Why do the Yoruba or Hausa qualify, but not the Portuguese or the Russians? Why the Bakongo and the Oromo, but not the Germans or the Scots? Why the Eritreans, but not the French or Dutch-speaking Belgians? Why the Zulu or the Xhosa, but not the South African Boers (Afrikaners) or the South African English? The reason for the current prejudices, it would seem, has nothing to do with language, physical type, common territory, common cultural values, type of political and social organization or even population size. Ingrained prejudices and preconceived ideas about so-called “primitive” peoples have everything to do with it.

“The term ‘tribe’ is used to refer to a universal and world-wide phenomenon of ethnic identification which may draw on any of the following bases: identification in terms of one’s first or dominant language of communication (linguistic), in terms of one’s place of origin (regional), in terms of one’s presumed racial, biological or genetic type (racial), or in terms of one’s ideological or political commitments (ideological), and so on. Communities may choose one or more of these bases as criteria for membership. Any of these may change over time. Moreover forms of ethnic identification are dynamic or in a state of flux, changing in response to new environments and circumstances. Essentially forms of ethnic association reflect a people’s struggle for survival through adaptation to changing times. This is inextricably intertwined with the production and distribution of vital resources, goods and services as well as the distribution of power, class and status in society.

“At the base of any ethnic group is the nuclear family which expands to include the extended family. The extended family consists of more than two families related vertically and horizontally: parents and their offspring, cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, and others, extending to more than two generations. A lineage is usually a larger group than an extended family. It includes a number of such families who trace descent through the male or female line to a common ancestor. A clan may be equivalent to or larger than a lineage. Where it is larger than a lineage, it brings together several lineages which may or may not know the precise nature of their relationships, but which nevertheless claim descent from a common ancestor. A clan is best thought of as a kind of sub-ethnic unit whose members have some unifying symbol such as totem, label, or myth. In most cases the clan is used to determine correct marriage lines, but this is not universally so. Above the clan is the ethnic group, usually referred to inconsistently as the tribe. Members of an ethnic group share feelings of belonging to a common group. The basis of ethnic identity is not always derived from a common descent, real or fictional; it may draw on any of the bases mentioned above.

“The Israelites identified themselves as one people sharing a common descent, a common religious and cultural heritage, a common language and history. There is no doubt that they constitute what would nowadays be called an ethnic group, or by some people a tribe. The twelve subunits of the Israelite ethnic group or tribe, (Hebrew shebeth or matteh, or Greek phyle) are clearly equivalent to clans. In fact this is what seems to make sense to most African Bible translators in the light of their understanding of these terms and the biblical account. Referring to a shebeth as a tribe or an ethnic group and to Israel as a collection of twelve tribes creates unnecessary confusion. Translating each of the terms shebeth, matteh, and phyle as clan seems to solve this problem and to be consistent with current usage in African languages.”


Some languages do not have a concept of kingship and therefore no immediate equivalent for the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that is translated as “king” in English. Here are some (back-) translations:

(Click or tap here to see details)

  • Piro: “a great one”
  • Highland Totonac: “the big boss”
  • Huichol: “the one who commanded” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Ekari: “the one who holds the country” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Una: weik sienyi: “big headman” (source: Kroneman 2004, p. 407)
  • Pass Valley Yali: “Big Man” (source: Daud Soesilo)
  • Ninia Yali: “big brother with the uplifted name” (source: Daud Soesilio in Noss 2007, p. 175)
  • Ghomála’: Fo (“The word Fo refers to the paramount ruler in the kingdoms of West Cameroon. He holds administrative, political, and religious power over his own people, who are divided into two categories: princes (descendants of royalty) and servants (everyone else).” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn))

Faye Edgerton retells how the term in Navajo was determined:

“[This term was] easily expressed in the language of Biblical culture, which had kings and noblemen with their brilliant trappings and their position of honor and praise. But leadership among the Navajos is not accompanied by any such titles or distinctions of dress. Those most respected, especially in earlier days, were their headmen, who were the leaders in raids, and the shaman, who was able to serve the people by appealing for them to the gods, or by exorcising evil spirits. Neither of these made any outward show. Neither held his position by political intrigue or heredity. If the headman failed consistently in raids, he was superceded by a better warrior. If the shaman failed many times in his healing ceremonies, it was considered that he was making mistakes in the chants, or had lost favor with the gods, and another was sought. The term Navajos use for headman is derived from a verb meaning ‘to move the head from side to side as in making an oration.’ The headman must be a good orator, able to move the people to go to war, or to follow him in any important decision. This word is naat’áanii which now means ‘one who rules or bosses.’ It is employed now for a foreman or boss of any kind of labor, as well as for the chairman of the tribal council. So in order to show that the king is not just a common boss but the highest ruler, the word ‘aláahgo, which expresses the superlative degree, was put before naat’áanii, and so ‘aláahgo naat’áanii ‘anyone-more-than-being around-he-moves-his-head-the-one-who’ means ‘the highest ruler.’ Naat’áanii was used for governor as the context usually shows that the person was a ruler of a country or associated with kings.”

(Source: Faye Edgerton in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 25ff.)