(Naphʹta·li) [my wrestlings].
1. The second son born to Jacob by Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah in Paddan-aram. (Gen. 35:25, 26; Ex. 1:1, 4; 1 Chron. 2:1, 2) Since Bilhah had substituted for her mistress Rachel, Naphtali, like his older full brother Dan, was considered by barren Rachel as her own son. Although her sister Leah by then already had four sons (Gen. 29:32-35), Rachel was elated over her success in getting a second son through her maidservant and exclaimed: “With strenuous wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister. I have also come off winner!” The name given to this son, “Naphtali” (my wrestlings), appropriately expressed Rachel’s feelings at the time of his birth.—Gen. 30:2-8.
Later, Naphtali himself became the father of four sons, Jahzeel (Jahziel), Guni, Jezer and Shillem (Shallum). (Gen. 46:24; 1 Chron. 7:13) When the dying patriarch Jacob related to his sons what would happen to them in the “final part of the days,” his statement about Naphtali, though one of the briefest, was favorable.—Gen. 49:1, 2, 21.
2. The tribe of Israel named after Naphtali and composed of four tribal families descended from his sons Jahzeel, Guni, Jezer and Shillem. (Num. 26:48, 49) About a year after the Israelites left Egypt, the fighting men of this tribe from twenty years old upward numbered 53,400. (Num. 1:42, 43) While in the wilderness, the tribe of Naphtali, under the leadership of its chieftain Ahira, encamped N of the tabernacle alongside the tribes of Asher and Dan. As part of the three-tribe division of the camp of Dan, the tribe of Naphtali, along with Dan and Asher, was last in the order of march and occupied the important position of rear guard.—Num. 1:15, 16; 2:25-31; 7:78; 10:25-28.
By the time a second census was taken about four decades after the exodus from Egypt, the number of able-bodied men in the tribe had dropped to 45,400. (Num. 26:50) Among the men lost to the tribe was Nahbi, one of the ten spies who brought back a bad report and discouraged the Israelites from entering the Promised Land.—Num. 13:14, 16, 31-33; 14:35-37.
After finally crossing the Jordan and sharing in the conquest of Jericho and Ai under Joshua’s leadership, Naphtali was one of the tribes ‘standing for the malediction’ in front of Mount Ebal. (Josh. 6:24, 25; 8:28, 30-35; Deut. 27:13) When the time came for apportioning the land into tribal inheritances, Pedahel, as divinely appointed representative of the tribe of Naphtali, assisted Joshua and Eleazar the priest in this.—Num. 34:16, 17, 28; Josh. 19:51.
The territory assigned to the tribe of Naphtali was situated in the northern part of the Promised Land. (Deut. 34:1, 2) On the E it was bounded by the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. For some distance the territory of Asher extended along the W border. The region assigned to Zebulun bounded Naphtali both on the W and S, and Issachar lay to the S. (Compare Joshua 19:32-34.) The reference to Naphtali’s boundary reaching to “Judah at the Jordan” (Josh. 19:34) evidently does not mean that it extended to the territory of the tribe of Judah, situated a considerable distance S of Naphtali. In this case “Judah” probably refers to the region E of the Jordan occupied by the family of Jair. Although reckoned as a Manassite by reason of his maternal ancestry (Num. 32:41; Josh. 13:29, 30), Jair, through his father, was a descendant of Judah. (1 Chron. 2:5, 21, 22) So the region given to the family of Jair might appropriately be called “Judah” on the basis of Jair’s paternal ancestry.
Included in the territory of Naphtali were nineteen fortified cities and their settlements. (Josh. 19:35-39) One of these cities, Kedesh, was given to the Levites and assigned a sacred status as a city of refuge. (Josh. 20:7, 9) Two other cities, Hammath (Hammoth-dor or Hammon) and Kartan (Kiriathaim), were likewise designated for the Levites. (Josh. 19:35; 21:6, 32; 1 Chron. 6:62, 76) From Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath, two other cities of Naphtali, the Canaanites were not driven out but were subjected to forced labor.—Judg. 1:33.
The land once occupied by the tribe of Naphtali, though mountainous (Josh. 20:7), is fruitful. Especially fertile are the triangular plain (of Gennesaret) on the NW side of the Sea of Galilee and the Huleh region. Moses’ blessing directed to Naphtali perhaps alludes to the land inheritance of the tribe. “Naphtali is satisfied with the approval and full of the blessing of Jehovah. Do take possession of the west and south.” (Deut. 33:23) “West” may also be rendered “sea” (AS, ftn.) or “lake” (RS) and therefore could denote the Sea of Galilee, and “south” perhaps designates the southernmost territory of Naphtali bordering on that sea. There is also a possibility that the text, though alluding to the Sea of Galilee, should read: “The sea and its fish are his possession.”
FROM THE TIME OF JUDGES TO THE EXILE
In his deathbed prophecy Jacob had referred to Naphtali as a “slender hind.” (Gen. 49:21) This may have alluded to the tribe’s swiftness and skillfulness in warfare, and the history of the tribe appears to bear this out. Ten thousand men from Naphtali and Zebulun courageously responded to Barak’s call to battle against the well-equipped forces under the command of Sisera and, thereafter, were blessed with victory. Barak himself evidently was of the tribe of Naphtali, as Kedesh in Naphtali was apparently his home. (Judg. 4:6-15; 5:18) The tribe of Naphtali also gave support to Judge Gideon in the fight against the Midianites.—Judg. 6:34, 35; 7:23, 24.
Years later a thousand chiefs and thirty-seven thousand other warriors of the tribe of Naphtali came to Hebron to make David king over all Israel. From as far as Issachar, Zebulun and Naphtali food was brought for the feasting done in connection with that event. (1 Chron. 12:23, 34, 38-40) Under the leadership of King David, the tribe of Naphtali appears to have had a notable part in subduing the enemies of Israel.—Ps. 68 superscription, vss. 1, 27.
Over thirty-five years after the division of the kingdom of Israel, Naphtali experienced harassment from Syrian King Ben-hadad. (1 Ki. 15:20; 2 Chron. 16:4) About two centuries later, during Pekah’s reign, inhabitants of Naphtali were taken into Assyrian exile by Tiglath-pileser (III). (2 Ki. 15:29) Nearly a century after the overthrow of the northern kingdom, Judean King Josiah boldly extended his destruction of appendages of idolatry as far N as the devastated places of Assyrian-dominated Naphtali.—2 Chron. 34:1-7.
The humiliation suffered at the hands of the Assyrians may well be referred to at Isaiah 9:1: “The obscureness will not be as when the land had stress, as at the former time when one treated with contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” Next Isaiah indicates that at a later time honor would be bestowed on what had been treated with contempt, and continues: “The way by the sea, in the region of the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people that were walking in the darkness have seen a great light. As for those dwelling in the land of deep shadow, light itself has shone upon them.” (Isa. 9:1, 2) These very words were quoted by Matthew (4:13-17) and applied to Christ Jesus, “the light of the world,” and to his activity. (John 8:12) Since Jesus made Capernaum in Naphtali’s territory “his own city” (Matt. 4:13; 9:1), he could in a sense be regarded as belonging to Naphtali. Therefore also Jacob’s prophetic words concerning Naphtali, “He is giving words of elegance,” could reasonably apply to Jesus. (Gen. 49:21) The Son of God truly gave “words of elegance,” prompting even officers sent to arrest him to exclaim: “Never has another man spoken like this.”—John 7:46.
REFERRED TO IN VISIONS
In Ezekiel’s vision, Naphtali’s land assignment lay between Asher and Manasseh (Ezek. 48:3, 4), and one of the gates of the city “Jehovah Himself Is There” was named after Naphtali. (Ezek. 48:34, 35) Also in vision, the apostle John heard that 12,000 had been sealed out of the (spiritual) tribe of Naphtali.—Rev. 7:4, 6.