Thus far in our series on “The 12 Tribes of Israel” we have discussed Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Levi, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. We have learned several things about each of these men and their descendants. Before we embark on today’s message, let’s take a few moments to see if you can differentiate these particular tribes from one another. As you read the paragraphs below, try to identify which tribe which is being described. Are you ready?
- This tribe is often listed last or toward the end of the 12 tribes. It was never prominent or considered noteworthy. Yet, despite it’s humility, God honored this particular tribe and region. Jesus conducted the majority of His ministry and spent most of His time there.
- This tribe descended from Jacob’s firstborn son. As the son of Jacob, this man slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. His descendants settled outside of the Promised Land and were inconsistent in their faith and practice.
- This tribe grew dramatically during the exodus and was extremely blessed. Their inheritance bordered the Mediterranean Sea. A prophetess who was a descendant of this tribe saw and worshiped the baby Jesus in Jerusalem just days after His miraculous birth.
- This tribe was the smallest of the 12 by the end of the exodus. They received an vaguely defined inheritance and gradually lost their distinctiveness. As the son of Jacob, this man slayed an entire city for the sins of one man. His anger was excessive and cruel.
- This tribe is not generally considered to be one of the 12. Rather than a specific area, they received several cities as an inheritance that were scattered throughout the Promised Land. God chose them to be the caretakers of the tabernacle/temple and some served as priests.
- This tribe settled outside of the Promised Land, but promised to assist their brothers during the conquest of Canaan. They honored their promise and fought valiantly. Afterwards, they assisted in building an altar which almost led to civil war among the tribes.
- This tribe became the largest, most prominent of them all. It had the largest inheritance, and after the nation of Israel split it became the name of the southern kingdom. As the son of Jacob, this man showed courageous leadership. Jesus is a descendant of this tribe.
- This tribe became known for its sinful and wicked behavior. Though they were granted an inheritance near Philistia, many of these people migrated north. They conquered a city and named it after their ancestor, the son of Jacob. They set up and openly worshiped idols.
Last Sunday we talked about 2 of the lesser known tribes of Israel. This morning we will do the same, this time focusing our attention on Issachar and Zebulun. While neither of these tribes stands out among the others, we still need to be somewhat familiar with them.
I. ISSACHAR & ZEBULUN - THE SONS OF JACOB
Issachar and Zebulun were the ninth and tenth sons of Jacob. Leah had given birth to Jacob’s first 4 sons, but had not provided him with another child for quite some time. During this gap, Jacob had 4 additional sons through Bilhah and Zilpah, the handmaidens. Eventually Leah became fertile again and had 2 additional sons. She named the first of them Issachar which means “There is a reward” because she felt that God had rewarded her for giving some mandrakes to her sister Rachel. She name the second son Zebulun which means “Dwelling” because she hoped that Jacob would again dwell with her (Genesis 30:14-20).
There are very few details given in the Bible about either Issachar or Zebulun. Many scholars agree that these 2 brothers were extremely close to each other, as their tribes are sometimes spoken about together. They assisted their brothers in the plot against Joseph, traveled with them during the famine years later, and ultimately moved to Egypt along with the rest of Jacob’s family. Records indicate that Issachar had 4 sons and Zebulun had 3 (Genesis 46:13-14).
II. ISSACHAR & ZEBULUN - THE TRIBES OF ISRAEL
Moses took 2 censuses during the exodus, both of which are recorded in the book of Numbers. According the the first counting, the tribe of Issachar had 54,400 fighting men and Zebulun had 57,400 (Numbers 1:28-31). According to the second, both Issachar and Zebulun had grown to 64,300 and 60,500 respectively (Numbers 26:23-27). Both of these tribes were relatively large and strong in comparison to the others.
Issachar and Zebulun camped side-by-side on the eastern side of the tabernacle, along with their older brother Judah. These 3 tribes together were the largest of the quadrants stationed around the tabernacle. The sons of Issachar were 2nd and those of Zebulun were 3rd in the marching order of Israel (Numbers 2:3-9).
In Old Testament times, the Jewish high priest wore a breastplate with 12 stones on it that depicted the 12 tribes of Israel. Some experts believe that the topaz represents Issachar and the emerald represents Zebulun. If this is accurate, then the color for the tribe of Issachar is greenish yellow while Zebulun is a darker green (Exodus 28:17).
The portions of Canaan that were allotted to Issachar and Zebulun bordered each other (Joshua 19:10-23). The land of Issachar included the beautiful Jezreel Valley and the city of Nazareth, where the boy Jesus grew up. Next to it, the territory of Zebulun included the city of Cana where Jesus performed the His first recorded miracle by turning water into wine.
After settling in the Promised land, the Zebulunites didn’t drive out all of the Canaanites from their midst but instead subjected them to forced labor (Judges 1:30). Both Zebulun and Issachar are praised for aiding Deborah in her battle against Sisera (Judges 5:14-15) and later the tribe of Zebulun is again mentioned for assisting Gideon (Judges 6:35) in his fight with the Midianites. During this period of time, a man named Tola from the tribe of Issachar (Judges 10:1-2) and a man named Elon from the tribe of Zebulun (Judges 12:11-12) both served as judge. Not much is known about either of these 2 judges.
Years later, after the tribes had united to form the single nation of Israel, the sons of Issachar and Zebulun strongly supported King David (1 Chronicles 12:32-33). When the nation divided, Issachar and Zebulun became part of the northern kingdom. One of the northern kings, a man named Baasha, was actually from the family of Issachar (1 Kings 15:27-28). Both tribes participated in the Passover celebration held by King Hezekiah in Judah (2 Chronicles 30:18-20). Sometime around 720 BC the northern kingdom was defeated and decimated by the Assyrians and these 2 tribes were lost.
III. THE LESSONS FROM ISSACHAR & ZEBULUN
The symbol for the tribe of Issachar is a donkey. Donkeys were used a beasts of burden to carry or pull heavy loads and equipment. This is a fitting image for Issachar. They had a reputation for being hard workers. As blue-collar laborers, these men got their hands dirty every single day and developed a practical wisdom that only comes from real-life experience. Perhaps this is why the sons of Issachar are described as men who “understood the times” and knew “what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). They were astute men who knew the true value of work.
The symbol for the tribe of Zebulun is a ship. Although their territory did not officially border any bodies of water, over time many of the Zebulunites apparently migrated eastward toward the Mediterranean Sea and westward toward the Sea of Galilee. It was not uncommon for members of one tribe to live peaceably in the regions of another. Many of the descendants of Zebulun moved to port cities along the seashores where they engaged in commerce and trade. The Bible implies that they enjoyed great success in their exploits.
The history and legacy of each of these tribes can be beneficial to Christians today. They have similar and related stories. From Issachar believers learn the importance of practical wisdom and hard work. The Bible explicitly commands Christians not to be lazy, but rather to work in order to take care of themselves and their families. The sons of Zebulun realized great success as a result of their business efforts. They enjoyed abundance and treasures (Deuteronomy 33:18-19). Such success in possible when people are willing to work.
Issachar and Zebulun are the ninth and tenth sons of Jacob. They are the eighth and ninth tribes of Israel. By the days of the New Testament, both of their tribal territories had long-since dissolved and become parts of Galilee. The reputation of these 2 tribes can be seen in the life of Jesus, who did the majority of His work and found His greatest success among the people of Galilee. May we as Christians today be equally committed to the work and ministry that God has called us to. May we labor tirelessly for the cause of Christ.