In our series on the twelve tribes of Israel readers will have sensed that we reached a mountaintop whilst looking at Judah, so far as the purposes of God are concerned. We gave the reasons and background for this in the series introduction and in the article on Judah itself.12 Many of the remaining tribes inevitably exist somewhat in Judah’s shadow and that would certainly be true of Naphtali.
Of the twenty-or-so listings of the tribes throughout scripture, Naphtali brings up the rear in eight of them. The same could be said of its position in the camp of Israel as they journeyed. We know precious little about Naphtali himself, unless we stray into rabbinical writings. They were the last tribe to have their land allotted and one of the first to succumb to Assyrian invasion, Josh. 19; 2 Kgs. 15. 29.
Why would this be? Why do only some tribes get the limelight? No-one likes to be last or overlooked; is God in some-way partial? Far be the thought. He may well order affairs so that some are placed towards the forefront with others bringing up the rear. He will isolate Peter, James and John; he will order the church with comely and uncomely parts, and he will order the family with headship. But leadership and responsibility are unenviable things and limelight can be a burden. Naphtali was no less a tribe for their place in the big scheme of things and, like them, we need to accept how God chooses to order his affairs. It is a happy thing to be simply doing what God wants us to be doing, where and how he wants us to be doing it.
Naphtali was Rachel’s second surrogate son of Bilhah. Literally, his name means‘wrestling’ because, as Rachel said, ‘With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed’, Gen. 30. 8. True to form, then, Naphtali’s beginnings are steeped in the ongoing struggles of Jacob’s family. Hardly a surprise really. After all, Jacob came into the world wrestling with his brother and he would later wrestle with God. It was the story of his life, although we would have to say that, on balance, his struggles were wrought in faith. It is not so clear-cut with Rachel, though her words concerning Naphtali could be translated, ‘With wrestlings of God [elohim] have I wrestled with my sister’. Wrestling isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it draws us out of the mediocrity of walking by sight into a battle that contends for us to walk by faith.
Fast forward from Rachel’s words at his birth to Jacob’s words at the family conference in Genesis chapter 49 and we have some very different sentiments being expressed, ‘Naphtali is a hind let loose: He giveth goodly words’, v. 21. Moses’ words are similarly pleasant, ‘O Naphtali, satisfied with favour, and full with the blessing of the Lord; possess thou the west and the south’, Deut. 33. 23. We can only speculate as to why these words were so favourable, but what is certain is that in the process of time, Naphtali certainly would know the blessing of the Lord. When we come to the New Testament, the Lord’s primary ministry was not in Judea but in Galilee, the territory of Naphtali, Matt. 4. 13. What a privilege, what a glorious blessing for the peoples of Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida! How sad they lacked faith and were rebuked by the Saviour – it had not always been that way.
Men from Naphtali ‘willingly offered themselves’ and valiantly supported Deborah’s confrontation with Jabin, king of Canaan, Judg. 5. 9, 18. They also responded to Gideon’s call and fought courageously against the Midianites. These were significant victories that demonstrated great faith and it is heartening to see the willingness of the tribe to step forward when needed. Even though for the most part they were out of the spotlight, they did not allow that to define them when God needed them out up-front. In a similar way, at one point or another, we may be called to serve God in different capacities. We must not talk ourselves out of stepping up to the fore when required. Rather, we must be ever open to the call of God upon our lives in whatever direction it may take us. Easy to write, easy to say, not so easy to do – but if Naphtali can, then with God’s help so can we.
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