The genesis of this post (pun intended, given the subject matter) was actually several years ago in a conversation with a good friend.
In the course of our conversation, he shared that in one of the discipleship programs he’d been a part of, they’d had some teaching on identity and the twelve tribes of Israel. He could explain it better than I, but from what I recall the gist of it was how each of the tribes had its own identity, which was revealed through the tribal blessings given by Jacob and Moses. They each had their place in the camp of God’s people, each had their name and their marching order. And just like that, we each have a God-given identity and purpose that may not be the same as someone else’s. There are different “tribes” within the people of God, and that’s ok.
Since the Bible says that Gentiles are grafted into Israel, the teacher had them each get alone with God and ask Him which of the tribes He was grafting them into. My friend’s was Asher, as I recall.
It’s not important enough to make a big deal out of (“what’s your tribe? If you don’t know, you’re missing out on God’s blessing!”), but this sort of thing appeals to me and I wanted one too. So I prayed and asked God what tribe He wanted to put me in, and to my surprise, what I believe I heard was the tribe of Naphtali.
It seemed an odd choice, especially as I began to study the tribal blessings, their history, their place in the camp. Some parts of it I liked immediately, but a lot of it was almost offensive to me. Kind of weak. Wimpy. Not very forward-looking. This is no identity for a man!
But the more I’ve looked, studied and meditated around it, the more truly fitting I find it is.
What a surprise; God knows what He’s doing.
Anyway, I thought I might share some of what I’ve found.
Naphtali was the second son of Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah, and his name means “my struggle”. Rachel named him, saying that “I have fought a great struggle against my sister, and I have won”.
Not the most promising of identities. A name tied up with that ridiculous baby war between Rachel and Leah. Familial strife; Bronze Age version.
But in many cases, God imbues the rather messily-named tribal ancestors’ names with Divine prophetic import; could this also be true of Naphtali?
His name, as I have said, means “my struggle”, and was associated by the mother who named him with victory therein.
Victorious struggle? Now we’re talking!
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, sometimes I feel like I have the soul of a Mediæval knight trapped in the body and mind of a 21st-Century nerd. A large part of my identity, bedrock-deep, is as a warrior, and this God-given tribal identity of Naphtali affirms that as a Divine imprint, not an accident.
The imprint is one of victory, too. To channel my nerd side and quote the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5: “No hopeless struggle against ancient and terrible forces; we were the good guys and they were the bad guys. And they made a very satisfying thump when they hit the ground.”
Silly, perhaps, but it’s an important point. This isn’t some Viking-style valiant last stand in which everyone dies. There is the real possibility of victory. God is, after all, for us. In Him, I may be stronger than I think, and wiser than I know.
The first of the blessings isn’t all that promising either, at first glance: “Naphtali is a doe set free, that bears beautiful fawns” (or possibly “that speaks beautiful words”). Really, God? A doe? Couldn’t it at least be a stag? Something a bit more masculine and warrior-like?
Nope. It’s a doe. A deer. A female deer.
Gazelles and antelopes have horns. Stags have antlers. But a doe is defenceless.
And as I’ve thought and ruminated on it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s something rather apt about the apparent harmlessness of a doe. You see, for all my warrior self-image, I don’t actually go out of my way to look for conflict. I avoid it if possible; I’ll fight if I have to, but I’m not looking for one. Even my stance on the bearing of arms is doe-like: unarmed by choice. My Defender is the One with the antlers.
A doe is a shy, retiring creature of the forest’s shadows. This seems appropriate to a tribe that’s in the background a lot. They don’t have a lot of time in the limelight; they’re not the visible ones like the Levites and the kings from Judah. The one Biblical hero from the tribe of Naphtali, Barak son of Ahinoam, gets told that “the honour will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman”, and he seems ok with that.
It’s very doe-like. Shy, almost.
There’s an identity here of humility, of shunning the limelight, not thrusting oneself forward, letting the glory go where it may so long as the LORD’s will is done.
I can work with that. More importantly, God can work with that.
Does, too, are swift and have an amazing leaping ability. Not to blow my own trumpet or anything, but I have a pretty swift mind and the ability to “jump” ideas from one area into another. I make weird connections. I do languages; “jumping” fairly easily into the strange sounds of a foreign tongue. Again, doe-like.
Ok, God; I’m beginning to get it.
But that “bearing beautiful fawns” business? “Speaking beautiful words” is somewhat better; as I said, I do languages. I write poetry. I write stories sometimes. I blog. Being a wordsmith is apparently Naphtaline.
But “bearing beautiful fawns” is in the NIV’s main text. As a man, it’s… motherly and feminine-seeming. Not obviously masculine as conventionally understood.
However, it’s one of my pet peeves that the way our culture sometimes defines “masculine” expectations isn’t very helpful. We miss out, and our children miss out, when we relegate child-care exclusively to women, for example. There’s a nurturing aspect to proper masculinity which we seldom see in these days; we’re too busy with our bravado and machismo and that stupid man-card nonsense. Being a man and a father is much more vital and relational than we often make it, and in a culture that has fallen for a whole pack of lies about what manhood is, perhaps it takes a man who is a doe to understand this.
The second blessing, the one in Deuteronomy, is on the face of it far more immediately pleasant, but strangely, it’s this that it’s taken me longest to really get a handle on:
“Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD and is full of His blessing. He will inherit southward to the lake”.
Yeah! Finally something good!
And then you dig a little deeper, and you begin to wonder. Really? Is that really… me?
Does “abounding with the favour of the LORD and full of His blessing” really characterise my life?
Well, yes, actually.
Even as I write, this feels like boasting, but it’s not. None of it is my own doing, after all. I have a wonderful wife who may be even smarter than I am and is certainly better to look at, three lovely children (here’s that doe-like familial nurturing side coming out), I have a home, a job, a church. I live in a place where I can follow Jesus without getting thrown into prison for it. I’m smart, gifted at languages, I have many talents. My family isn’t in debt. Full of His blessing sounds like a fair description.
The favour of the LORD. “Favour” in the Bible is the same word as “grace”; it’s not something I merited or earned, but because God is gracious. I’ve focused a lot in this blog on grace and works; perhaps this might explain why. Naphtali is abounding with the favour of the LORD.
Graciousness is also something I strive for in my dealings with others. Generosity of spirit; largesse, courtesy and giving the benefit of the doubt. It’s perhaps another expression of the Naphtaline “abounding with the grace of the LORD”.
“He will inherit southward to the lake” I’m still less certain about, but that’s ok. Even the NASB’s rendering of it as “Take possession of the sea and the south” is still unclear as to how, or whether, it actually means anything personally. So much of the rest of the tribal identity I find meaning and resonance in that I’m reluctant to write it off, but on the other hand, this is Bible application not fortune-telling.
Naphtali’s place in the tribal camp of the people of Israel in the wilderness was on the north side of the Tabernacle, in the division of Dan. They camped and marched under the serpent standard of the tribe of Dan, and in setting out to march, it was the division of Dan which set off last, and Naphtali last of all.
Again, this is uncomfortable reading. I’ve heard people connect the marching order of the tribes with the idea of heart-willingness to follow God’s leading: “Don’t be like the tribe of Dan. Be swift to set out to go where God is leading”. The idea that I’m the last of the last in that isn’t a good one.
And a serpent standard? The animal representing Satan in the Garden? Eek.
Let’s deal with the serpent first, shall we?
The tribe of Dan’s emblem is a serpent the way Naphtali’s is a doe. It’s connected with the tribal blessing in Genesis 49. “Dan” means “He has judged”, or “He has vindicated”; the name expresses the Divine characteristic of justice, and the serpent emblem may remind us that justice plays no favourites but bites everyone equally.
Being someone with a deep concern to see justice done, I can live with being part of the camp of Dan.
Then, too, the serpent in the Garden of Eden isn’t the only serpent in the Bible. There was also the bronze serpent on a pole, lifted up in the wilderness so that those afflicted by snake bites could look on it and be healed. And Jesus likened Himself to this serpent, so even Jesus isn’t afraid to use snake imagery for righteousness at times. In the Middle Ages, Jesus was even occasionally referred to as “the Good Serpent” in reference to this.
Maybe there’s something here speaking to my love of the oddball, the unexpected image, the weird way of looking at things. I’ll find expressions of God’s goodness and truth in unlikely places. Even a snake.
Then, too, in the ancient world snakes were associated with wisdom. The prophet Daniel (whose name includes the same “Dan” element that the tribe is named after) had wisdom from God to interpret the king’s dream; and was deemed wiser than the king’s wise men. So maybe a snake isn’t so bad after all.
And the “last of the last” business. When the people of Israel broke camp, the division of Dan set off last, and Naphtali last of all. And though some preachers may connect the tribal marching order with willingness to follow the LORD, it’s something God Himself never does. He never turns to the division of Dan and says “and because you’re so wishy-washy, you have to go at the back”.
Given the tribe of Dan’s association with Divine justice, I’ve begun to wonder whether this position at the tail end of everything isn’t connected to God’s self-declaration to Moses in Exodus 34, in which justice (“Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished…”) is the last-mentioned of God’s attributes. Grace, mercy and forgiveness lead the way; justice follows. This is right. The camp of Justice ought to set off last.
The other main aspect of this tail-end position that I want to mention is something that understanding of which I owe to my wife’s Texan perspective and knowledge of the world of cattle ranching:
Naphtali are the eaters of everyone else’s trail dust.
All of the rest have already gone ahead, with their sheep and cattle and donkeys and people raising such clouds of dust as to probably blot out the pillar of fire and cloud. At the rear end of the trail, all you can see is the rear ends of those in front of you, and the great dust-cloud that says “the people of God passed this way”. You get occasional glimpses of the pillar of God way off in the distance, but mostly it’s just dust.
And this is my place: with the eaters of trail dust. I’ll put up with huge amounts of metaphorical trail dust if I know I’m following the LORD. Inconveniences, uncomfortable circumstances, stuff that would set an Issachar or a Levite screaming – to me it’s all part and parcel of following. The price of faith, and it’s worth paying, because even Naphtalis are following the same LORD as the other tribes. We camp around the same Tabernacle, and God is far less interested in when you get there than in whether.
There’s one other time the tribe of Naphtali is mentioned, of course. We hear it every Christmas: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea; Galilee of the Gentiles… The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, and on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”
It can get pretty dark down here in the trail dust of everyone else. But we’re by no means dishonoured or forgotten by God. It was the land of Naphtali that God Himself came and lived in, taking the low place, at the end of the line. The humble King, down and dirty in the trail dust along with even the last of us all.
So this is “my” tribe. Naphtali. A doe set free. Abounding with grace and blessing. Eaters of trail dust. Followers of the Lord.