The book of Numbers (B’Midbar in Hebrew) is going to show us the typical Hebrew societal structure and thus we are going to get several Hebrew words used to describe the various family and social units.
One of the most used Hebrew terms that we’ll usually find translated, as “family” in the English Bible is Mishpachah. And probably a better alternative translation than family is “clan”. The best way to think of clan is as kind of an intermediate size of social unit, somewhere in between a single family and the entire tribe.
And with you there shall be a man from every tribe, each one the head of his father’s house.
Numbers 1:4 (NKJV)
Now in verse 4 Moses is instructed that the tribal chieftains (also at times translated as “princes”) who are the headmen of each of the 12 tribes are to assist him. The idea is that Moses and Aaron are to delegate this job of census taking to the leader of each tribe, and then Numbers proceeds to give us the name of the current nasi for each tribe (nasi is the Hebrew word usually used to indicate the chieftain or prince…the top dog…. of a tribe).
So that we can better understand Israelite social structure, and get a good grip on the typical Biblical way a person is identified let’s look at the first name in the group in verse 5.
These then are the names of the men who shall stand with you: from [the tribe of] Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur;
Numbers 1:5 (AMP)
It begins by identifying the first level of division of Israel; it identifies one of the 12 tribes, which all together form Israel. And, the tribe is called “Reuben”. The current chieftain of that tribe is someone named Elizur; and Elizur comes from the family, or really, clan of Shedeur.
In general tribes were divided up into clans and clan units were powerful. The easiest way to understand this process is to begin with the person who first formed the tribe, and then see how it proceeds.
Rueben, the first son born to Jacob, was the founder of the tribe of Rueben. Rueben had several children. Each of his male children would have started their own family. Within 2 or 3 more generations there would have been enough people that each of those sons of Rueben would now have been considered the head of a clan of people.
So now there would have been several heads of clans that together formed the tribe of Rueben. Yet the fact remains that when Rueben (the head of the tribe) died, ONE of his sons (one of those clan leaders) would have to assume his place.
Usually, but not always, it was the head of the tribe’s designated firstborn who would take over; and when he died HIS firstborn would assume control over the whole tribe, and so on and so on.
However there were glitches and exceptions in this procedure. After several generations perhaps a firstborn and his family were wiped out with disease or in battle, or another clan grew greater than the others in power. So it fell to one of the other clan leaders to assume the role of the head of the entire tribe.
How this was determined varied but usually it was according to which clan was the most powerful. And as you can imagine there was much intrigue and politicking (and sometimes murder) when the usual and customary line of succession was interrupted.
So the structure for identifying just WHO the head of each tribe is, here in Numbers, is first to state the tribe, then to state the name of the current tribal ruler, then to state from which of the several clans that formed the tribe this particular tribal ruler was from.
Therefore we must be cautious in this kind of listing NOT to assume, for instance, that Elizur was literally the son of a man named Shedeur; likely Shedeur was the name of a large clan and Elizur was simply from the clan of Shedeur.