Be consistent in your Christian faith and practice. Avoid excessive anger and cruelty. Turn from you sinfulness, repent, and be restored. Demonstrate courageous leadership in your service to God. Place the LORD first and foremost in your life and do not worship idols. These are the major lessons we have covered thus far in our latest exciting sermon series titled “The 12 Tribes of Israel”.
This morning we are at the midpoint of our study. We will focus our attention on Naphtali - the sixth son of Jacob. Like his brothers, Naphtali is the patriarch of a large family made up of many descendants. The tribe of Naphtali plays an important and unique role in Scripture as the fifth of the 12 tribes of Israel. They too have left a enduring legacy that we as Christians can learn from still today.
Before we delve into our study of Naphtali, let’s highlight an event that involved each of the 12 tribes. After crossing the Red Sea during the exodus, Moses led the children of Israel to Mt. Sinai where they camped for around 2 years. During their stay, the people built the and erected the tabernacle. Upon its completion they held a special dedication ceremony to consecrate it (Numbers 7). A leading representative from each of the tribes brought a dedication offering to the tabernacle - one each day for a period of 12 days. The tribes brought and presented their gifts following the same order as they marched. The sons of Naphtali were among those who participated in this celebration.
What can we learn from the Bible about Naphtali? What does the LORD want to teach us through him? May we listen intently with our ears and hearts as we dig into God’s word today.
I. NAPHTALI - THE SON OF JACOB
As stated in the introduction, Naphtali was the sixth son of Jacob (also named Israel). He was the second and last son of Bilhah, who was the handmaiden of Rachel. Because Rachel was unable to bear children herself, she allowed Bilhah to birth children on her behalf. Though not directly from her womb, Rachel was now considered the mother of 2 of Jacob’s sons while her sister Leah was the mother of 4. Rachel felt as though she had been wrestling with Leah and had finally won, so she named this new child Naphtali which means “My struggle” (Genesis 30:7-8).
Naphtali is not singled out or specifically mentioned much during his lifetime. He was certainly with his brothers when they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites. Years later when worldwide drought and famine struck, he journeyed to Egypt with his brothers on multiple occasions to buy grain. When Jacob and his sons resettled in Egypt, Naphtali brought his family along. He had 4 sons whose names were Jahzeel, Guni, Jezer, and Shillem (Genesis 46:24). Besides these few details, little else is known about Naphtali’s life.
II. NAPHTALI - THE TRIBE OF ISRAEL
Moses took 2 separate censuses during the exodus, one near the beginning and the other near the end. They were separated by a period of about 40 years. The number of warriors from the tribe of Naphtali counted during the first census was 53,400 (Numbers 1:42-43). By the time of the second census, this number had declined to 45,400 (Numbers 26:48-50).
Like his full brother Dan, the tribe of Naphtali was also stationed on the northern side of the tabernacle. The Naphtalites were the twelfth tribe in the marching order of Israel. As such, they were the last camp to set out in the procession and served as the rear guard of the entire group (Numbers 2:29-30).
Scripture describes an ornate breastplate that the high priest wore whenever he served in the tabernacle or temple. It displayed 12 beautiful gemstones which represented the 12 tribe of Israel (Exodus 28:15-21). The Bible is unclear about which stone depicts each tribe, but some suggest that the jasper stands for Naphtali. If that is true, then reddish-brown is the color of the Naphtalites.
Each of the 12 tribes received an inheritance of land following the conquest of Canaan. The region allotted to the family of Naphtali was in the north, and partly bordered the Lake of Chinnereth (Joshua 19:32-39). Many years later, the nearby city of Chinnereth became known as Capernaum and the Lake of Chinnereth was more commonly called the Sea of Galilee. It was in this region that Jesus and His disciples conducted the majority of their ministry.
The tribe of Naphtali did not drive all of the Canaanites out of their territory, but instead conscripted them into forced labor (Judges 1:33). This may have been a source of ongoing provocation. Ultimately Barak, a descendant of Naphtali (Judges 4:6), led a coalition army under the judgeship Deborah that defeated the Canaanites. As a result of their victory, the tribe of Naphtali is praised for its courage in Deborah’s song (Judges 5:18). Years later, the Naphtalites assisted Gideon in his battle against the Midianites (Judges 6:35).
When the era of the judges ended, the 12 tribes united to form a single nation. After Saul’s reign, the tribe of Naphtali was one of several who supported David in his bid to become the new king over all of Israel. They sent 1,000 captains and 37,000 soldiers (1 Chronicles 12:34) to join his army. Hiram, a craftsman of bronze who had familial connections to Naphtali, later helped King Solomon in the construction of the first temple (1 Kings 7:14). After the nation divided, the tribe of Naphtali joined the northern kingdom of Israel.
The land of Naphtali was ravaged by Ben-hadad of Assyria (1 Kings 15:20). During the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III, the Assyrians captured and carried off numerous exiles from the tribe of Naphtali (2 Kings 15:29). The entire northern kingdom of Israel, including all of Naphtali, was conquered by the Assyrians sometime around 720 BC.
III. THE LESSON FROM NAPHTALI
The symbol for the tribe of Naphtali is a doe… as in “doe, a deer, a female deer”. Jacob described Naphtali as a doe that had been set free (Genesis 49:21). For the most part, does do not have antlers. If they do, these are usually small and underdeveloped. As such, does are not regarded as the regal leaders of the deer family. They are overshadowed by the more powerful and majestic stags. This is a fitting description of the tribe of Naphtali.
In many of the listings of the 12 tribes of Israel, Naphtali is mentioned last. Though they were definitely courageous and brave, they always seemed to be out of the limelight and serving quietly in the background. For the most part, they never garnered much praise or attention. This is reflected in the fact that Barak, the aforementioned military leader who defeated the Canaanites, did not receive the glory for his victory but instead it went to a woman (Judges 4:9).
The region and people of Naphtali were wiped out by the Assyrians and displaced. The area was resettled by a mixed population of people (many of whom were pagans). The prophet Isaiah described it as a land in anguish that God had treated with contempt. However, he further prophesied that the LORD would someday bring glory and honor to it (Isaiah 9:1). By the time of the New Testament, all of what was once Naphtali had become a part of a larger Roman province named Galilee. The more orthodox Jews in Judea despised and looked down upon the Galileans. It was in this most unlikely place that Jesus lived and served (Matthew 4:12-17), thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.
One of the wonderful lessons we can draw from the tribe of Naphtali is that God exalts the humble. Naphtali, and later Galilee, was a place of no reputation that was often overshadowed or forgotten. Yet, it was the the land that Jesus called home. This serves as an example of the Scriptural truth that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”. Jesus humbled Himself, even to the point of death on the cross, so that sinners might be lifted up. All Christians are called to practice humility in our relationships with God and others.
The fifth of “The 12 Tribes of Israel” are the descendants of Naphtali. They were an imperfect people who made many mistakes, like all of us do, but God ultimately honored their humility. They were generally considered to be lowly and inconsequential among the tribes, yet Jesus ministered comfortably among them. In his book, James the half-brother of Christ writes that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” James (4:6).
For the next few weeks we will try to cover 2 tribes in a single sermon in hopes that we might conclude this series by Easter. That said, next Sunday we’ll discuss both Gad and Asher. Until then, may we always walk humbly with our God.