Scripture’s record of the tribe of Issachar is most interesting. There are several surprises as well as other details which are just plain obscure and difficult to unravel with any certainty.
What we know for sure is that Issachar’s birth is recorded ninth in the list given in Genesis chapter 30. In the wilderness, they camped east of the Tabernacle alongside Judah and Zebulun, Num. 2. 5. If your Bible has maps at the back, then they might show how they inherited a small but fertile stretch with Jordan on the east, Manasseh to the south and west, and Zebulun and Naphtali to the north. As well as being joined with Zebulun in camping order and land allotment, Moses’ blessing seems to be a joint one. We shall look at Zebulun in our next article. These are by no means minor details – nothing in God’s word is – but they do not help us particularly in distinguishing Issachar as a tribe.
For this we should note that:
Two other matters bear special attention. First, the tribe of Issachar actually rose to power over the northern kingdom. Their first king was Baasha. He ended the dynasty of Jeroboam, 1 Kgs. 15. 27, and was followed by his son Elah. Like all the northern kings, they were bad kings. Yet the point remains that this is something which nobody would have seen coming.
Second, Judges chapter 1 verses 18 to 36 provides a list of all the tribes west of Jordan that failed to completely drive out the inhabitants. Issachar is not mentioned. In our previous article on Asher, we noted that many tribes opted for compromise. Was Issachar the exception? Perhaps they fought for their inheritance, like Naboth, though that is making an argument from silence.
But hadn’t Jacob prophesied that they would opt for an easy life in Genesis chapter 49? Most translations lean that way, though the original Hebrew is very complex; ‘Issachar … saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute’.
Commentators are divided, but most follow suit and suggest that Jacob foresaw Issachar’s compromise and bondage. It’s easy to go from there to spiritual lessons about how we too might trade spiritual compromise for material ease. But the complexities of the original Hebrew and the fact that Old Testament history is at odds with a negative reading of Jacob’s words, mean we need to be cautious. Readers will need to draw their own conclusions. It’s true that Israel at large conforms to this; they most certainly did become slaves unto tribute, 1 Kgs. 15. 19.
It is also true that Issachar’s name can mean ‘man of hire’. Leah named him so after hiring Jacob for one night; a deal agreed by selling some mandrakes to Rachel. Mandrake plants were superstitiously connected with improving fertility. When Rachel heard of Leah’s possession of the plant, she bought them off her in exchange for Jacob. She had long forgotten God’s role in it all. It’s all rather messy and it pays to read the account itself and quietly ponder once again on the grace of God, intervening amidst the dreadful turmoil of this family.
Do we read this aspect of Issachar’s identity into Jacob’s words – that the tribe of Issachar could be bought if it meant rest in the land? Again, readers will need to draw their own conclusions. Much has been written about Issachar which is highly speculative. Perhaps one of the deductions from a survey of this tribe is that when things are not clear in scripture, we need not feel obliged to wrest a practical application out from the text. Application from speculation will not result in edification.
How wonderful that we need not speculate about their future. God will preserve them through tribulation, Rev. 7. 7, and God will apportion them land, Ezek. 48. 25. When God begins a good work, He brings it to completion – that much is certain for Issachar and that much is certain for us, ‘Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ’, Phil. 1. 6.