Jacob moved in thought steadily from son to son as he gave each his parting blessing. The tenth he chose was Naphtali, leaving the legitimate offspring of Rachel until last. Naphtali’s mother was Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, Gen. 30.7. His only full brother therefore was Dan.
At this boy’s birth Rachel spoke of “wrestling" and this, in fact, is the meaning of “Naphtali”. Wherever we meet the name in Scripture we are reminded that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers”, Eph. 6.12. The dark forces of evil are arrayed against the Christian so that we need to be “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints”, v. 18. Rachel’s “wrestling" included her prayer and agony before God, her mental suffering brought about by the rivalry between the sisters. Does our barrenness cause us anguish of heart? What concern have we when there is a lack of spiritual fruit among us? Are we found labouring fervently in prayer? When the Lord encountered the strong opposition of His enemies, He “went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God”, Luke 6.12.
The Words of Jacob. Jacob, who had once wrestled with the God of hosts, Gen. 32.24-32; Hos. 12.3-4, now speaks in pleasant tones of the boy with whom, perhaps, he had enjoyed many a playful bout in the days before Peniel.
“Napktali is a hind let loose”, Gen. 49.21. When Rachel spoke of her mighty struggles, 30.8, her vocabulary was unusual. She used the words “Naphtali Elohim”. Elohim is, of course, a title of omnipotent God; but Rachel adopted the word to describe tremendous power, the overwhelming motivation energizing her strivings; cf. Ps. 29.1; 36.6; 82.1; etc. Since Rachel looked upon Naphtali as the outcome of her “mighty wrestlings”, we may infer that this boy grew up physically strong and warlike. Lithe, supple and muscular, he could well have resembled a gazelle or hind bounding with rapid stride, Ps. 18.33.
The heading of Psalm 22 is important in this connexion. This Messianic psalm speaks in a unique way of the sufferings of Golgotha and of “the glory that should follow”. David declared: “All the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the Lord’s”, Ps. 22.28. The phrase Aijeleth Shahar in the title means “the hind of the morning”. The sense is that of a hind or roe standing defiant against the shadowy background of the night. As the shafts of the new day burst over the eastern horizon, she lifts her head and brays in triumph and strength, the beauty of her silhouette attracting to golden beams of the sunrise. No artist could better capture the message of Psalm 22 – the Lord’s extremity, the isolation of the sombre cross, giving way to expressions of victory and sovereignty.
This is the pathway of prayer also. The Romans, Rom. 15.30, and men such as Epaphras, Col. 4.12, agonized, wrestled in the heavy darkness of their burden that the will of God might be fully accomplished in the saints. This sort of prayerlife leads to the serene daybreak of spiritual exhilaration “far, far above the restless world that wars below”. Such a disciple is like a hind let loose.
In a military context, Naphtali knew this twin experience of the turmoil of battle followed by the triumph of success. Their part in the war with Sisera was sung by Deborah, Jud. 5.18. With warriors from Zebulun they “jeoparded their lives unto the death" under Barak, the commander from Kadesh in Naphtali. Gideon, too, profited from the help given by Naphtali’s soldiers in his campaign against the Midianites, 6.36; 7.23. The same loyal and brave characteristics were again exhibited in David’s day, 1 Chron. 12.34-40.
“He giveth goodly words”. Some Rabbis hold that Jacob received the news that Joseph was alive and in Egypt from the mouth of Naphtali.
Tradition has it that Jesus was in the hill country of Naphtali when He gave the address recorded in Matthew 5-7. Naphtali lay in Galilee, so it is certain that many of the “goodly sayings" of the Gospels were spoken in the territory originally controlled by this tribe (see Matthew 4.12-17). Many of the apostles also came from this area.
"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings,… that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” Is. 52.7. The feet of the free running hind are vital to its safety as it moves through the highland crags. Our feet are to be shod with “the preparation of the gospel of peace”. In this way alone may we be delivered from the precipices in the world about us, 2 Sam. 22.34; Ps. 18.33.
The Septuagint translates this passage quite differently, supplying other vowel points to the Hebrew text. The weight of evidence, however, seems to be in favour of the commonly accepted translation.
The Words of Moses. "O Naphtali, satisfied with favour, and full with the blessing of the Lord”, Deut. 33.23. The word “favour" that Moses employed means “acceptance"; cf. Is. 61.2. In spite of natural disadvantage, Naphtali had received complete recognition as a brother of Leah’s and Rachel’s sons. Naphtali, in all likelihood, grew up to be a relatively honest, straightforward man whose word could be trusted. He fought with evil and tried to hold to that which is good. The results were satisfaction and blessing. Naphtali’s stone was the jasper. A great variety of jaspers are to be found, the one on the breastplate probably being transparent. Its transparency has suggested to some a symbol of the simple, clean wholesomeness of the man identified with it.
“Possess thou the west and the south”. Naphtali’s land was to the north of Canaan, which fact appears to conflict with this statement. The word “west”, however, is the same as “sea" and could refer to Gennesaret. By “the south" is meant rather “the sunny aspect”. This change of sense would make Moses’ words fit what was actually the situation, namely that Naphtali’s allotment stretched to the Sea of Galilee “where eternal spring reigns" and incorporated, towards the south, an area known as “the garden of Palestine".