The Twelve Tribes of Israel - Zebulun
Lloyd Stock, Bury St. Edmunds, England. [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
As we near the end of this series on the tribes of Israel, we notice an awakening in Jacob’s home. Leah has put an end to relying on her handmaid, and God is back in her consciousness again – she clearly recognizes His hand in renewed fertility, Gen. 30. 18-20. At the same time, both boys’ names are still more a reflection of her relationship to Jacob than to God. At Zebulun’s birth she utters these heart-breaking words, ‘now will my husband dwell with me’. Conveying all her wishful thinking on her last son, she names him, literally, ‘habitation’ or ‘dwelling’. The reality is that Leah’s need would never be met in her immediate offspring. Her need, and ours, can only be met by God; a thought we will come back to later.
Labouring under God’s blessing
As we noted with Issachar, the tribes of Zebulun and Issachar are linked in birth, camping order and land allocation, Josh. 19. 10-23, Ezek. 48. 25, 26. More than Simeon and Levi, they remain closely associated throughout. In their blessings, Jacob and Moses link them by contrasting their futures.
Jacob contrasts Zebulun’s busy maritime business with Issachar’s preference for mundane labour, Gen. 49. 13, 14. Moses contrasts Zebulun’s business in the world, his ‘going out’, with Issachar’s business at home, ‘in thy tents’, Deut. 33. 18. 1 Despite these contrasts, they would complement each other in calling people to worship and offering ‘sacrifices of righteousness’, v. 19. This is a reminder that, though God’s people are made with varying personalities, in spiritual service they are joined by the Spirit, gifted by God’s grace and enabled to complement each other as a unified whole, cp. Eph. 4. 3-16.
Zebulun’s land allocation meant that the tribe was landlocked. 2 So, how would Jacob’s words regarding their maritime future come to pass? And what of Moses’ reference to them sucking of the ‘abundance of the seas’? Some commentators resolve this by pointing out that a major ancient trade route lay within his territory. This would have made the tribe’s territory a haven of sorts for the ‘abundance of the seas’. It is also interesting that Zebulun is connected with the Galilee region and the ‘way of the sea’ in Isaiah chapter 9 verse 1. Matthew would go on to make this connection when the Lord settled in Capernaum, and the historian Josephus also upholds the idea, Matt. 4. 13-15. 3
Dwelling under God’s man
According to Judges chapter 1 verse 30, Zebulun settled for compromise with the inhabitants of the land. On the other hand, they risked their
‘lives unto the death’ when called up to serve Barak against Jabin, 5. 18. How like us this is – the battle against the enemy is rarely fought consistently! Some days we are walking by faith, other days by sight; one day we have our affections set in heaven, the next set on earth.
But the writer of the book of Judges is likely getting at something more salutary. God’s people in Judges go in and out of a state of being under leadership. When God raises up a leader, they pull together and defeat the enemy. When the leader is removed, they fall apart, and the enemy defeats them. Zebulun’s compromise is written in the context of the vacuum of leadership that was left behind after Joshua’s death, Judg. 1. 1. The lesson may be twofold: first, that all of God’s people should be praying for Him to provide a succession of servant-leaders that can shepherd God’s flock in spiritual conquest; and, second, that those whom God has placed as shepherds over the flock must not underestimate the crucial role they play in the wellbeing of God’s people as a whole.
When God finally found a man after His own heart worthy of leading His people, Zebulun was there in droves to support his accession to the throne, 1 Chr. 12. 33-38. 50,000 seasoned troops were sent to Hebron from the tribe to make David king; the largest single battalion from any of the tribes west of Jordan, practically an army in its own right. It is wonderful to see the effect on God’s people when they are drawn to God’s man on the throne – read chapter 12 verses 38 to 40 – it’s a rare picture of national unity that has millennial undertones.
Zebulun’s dwelling will come. Our privilege is that ours already has. As J. Denham Smith wrote:
‘God now brings thee to His dwelling,?
Spreads for thee His feast divine,
Bids thee welcome, ever telling,?
What a portion there is thine’.
1 Moses may have phrased it this way more for poetic effect than saying anything concrete about the tribes’ individual destinies.
2 This is our best guess based on limited knowledge of the locations mentioned in Josh. 19. 10-16.
3 Josephus, Ant. 5.1.22.