tribes of Israel

There Is None Like God

23 And of Naphtali he said,

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.”

24 And of Asher he said,

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil.
25 Your bars shall be iron and bronze,
    and as your days, so shall your strength be.

26 “There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
    who rides through the heavens to your help,
    through the skies in his majesty.
27 The eternal God is your dwelling place,
    and underneath are the everlasting arms.
And he thrust out the enemy before you
    and said, ‘Destroy.’
28 So Israel lived in safety,
    Jacob lived alone,
in a land of grain and wine,
    whose heavens drop down dew.
29 Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you,
    a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help,
    and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
    and you shall tread upon their backs.” – Deuteronomy 33:23-29 ESV

The last two tribes to receive the blessing of Moses are those of Naphtali and Asher. Once Israel entered Canaan and began their conquest and occupation of the land, these two tribes would eventually settle in the northern region, encompassing the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, as well as Dan, the city that would become home to one of the golden calves set up by King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel.

These two tribes would eventually find themselves living on very rich and fertile land with Asher enjoying access to the Mediterranean Sea. The tribe of Naphtali would own the entire eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, providing it with easy access to fresh water and the abundance of fish it contained. The Dan River, emanating from Mount Herman, flowed into the Jordan and on to the Sea of Galilee, providing a ready source of fresh water year-round.  So, these two tribes enjoyed fertile land and access to ample natural resources. In his blessing of them, Moses made reference to their favorable circumstances, even before the Israelites had crossed the Jordan or the land had been allotted.

“O Naphtali, sated with favor,
    and full of the blessing of the Lord,
    possess the lake and the south.” – Deuteronomy 33:23 ESV

“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
    let him be the favorite of his brothers,
    and let him dip his foot in oil.” – Deuteronomy 33:24 ESV

This last phrase is likely a reference to olive oil, a symbol of blessing and prosperity. The land the tribe of Asher would occupy in Canaan was abundant in olive trees and this commodity would be in high demand among the other tribes, providing Asher with a lucrative market.

The blessing Jacob gave to Naphtali is a bit vague and difficult to understand.

“Naphtali is a doe let loose
    that bears beautiful fawns.”
– Genesis 49:21 ESV

Their designation as a “doe let loose” seem to convey a certain freedom they would enjoy as a tribe. And the second half of Jacob’s blessing can best be translated as “he gives beautiful words” (NET). The tribe of Naphtali would live in a large, fertile region of Canaan, and they would have a positive influence on the rest of the tribes.

But for all the abundance of their lands and the positive qualities associated with these two tribes, the book of Judges reveals that neither Naphtali or Asher were successful in driving out the inhabitants of their allotted territories.

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. – Judges 1:31-32 ESV

Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them. – Judges 1:33 ESV

God would bless them abundantly, but they would fail to live fully obedient to His commands. The phrase, “so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites” is meant to convey shock and surprise. They would directly violate the revealed will of God, choosing instead to compromise their convictions and maintain a relationship with their enemies that was based on convenience and concessions. The tribe of Asher was supposed to have become the new inhabitants of the land, but their refusal to eliminate the Canaanites, left them as interlopers in a land that God had provided as their inheritance.

And the author of Judges states that the tribe of Naphtali fared no better, choosing to live among the Canaanites rather than do as God said and eradicate them from the land. 

The book of Judges goes on to tell the story of a future leader from the tribe of Naphtali. This man’s name was Barak, and he had been commanded by God to raise an army of 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, in order to attack the Canaanites. But he refused. Instead, he waited for Deborah, the God-appointed judge over Israel to show up and lead the army. And when Deborah got word, she sent for Barak and questioned why he had refused to obey the Lord.

“Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  – Judges 4:6-8 ESV

Deborah agreed to fight alongside Barak and his army, but she delivered some less-than-encouraging news.

“I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” – Judges 4:9 ESV

God gave them the victory that day, but it was at the hands of a woman named Jael. During the battle, Sisera, a Canaanite general fled from the scene and sought refuge in Jael’s tent. He begged her to keep watch while he rested in her tent, but instead, Jael took matters into her own hands – literally.

But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. - Judges 4:21 ESV

As with the rest of the blessings Moses gave, they reveal that God was going to use these tribes in ways they could not imagine or fully predict. Even the blessings pronounced by Jacob hundreds of years earlier would be fulfilled, but in ways that he could have never understood. These blessings say far more about the sovereignty of God than they illuminate the future of the various tribes. Both Jacob and Moses knew that God was the key to whether Israel survived or thrived.

That is why Moses closes up this section with an emphasis on God and His greatness.

“There is no one like the God of Israel.
    He rides across the heavens to help you,
    across the skies in majestic splendor.
The eternal God is your refuge,
    and his everlasting arms are under you.
He drives out the enemy before you;
    he cries out, ‘Destroy them!’” – Deuteronomy 33:26-27 NLT

All the great things Moses had to say about the tribes were meant to reflect on the goodness of God. He is the one true God who operates from His heavenly kingdom, from where He controls all the affairs of earth. He was going to help Israel by providing them with refuge and driving out the enemies before them. But as Judges 1 reveals, the tribes of Israel would doubt the word of God, refusing to do their part in the elimination of the Canaanites. And their failure to remove the pagan nations from their midst would end up diluting their effectiveness and diminishing their faithfulness.

As Moses wraps up his oration to the people of Israel, his last will and testament, he reminds them that God was their help and hope.

So Israel will live in safety,
    prosperous Jacob in security,
in a land of grain and new wine,
    while the heavens drop down dew.
How blessed you are, O Israel!
    Who else is like you, a people saved by the Lord?
He is your protecting shield
    and your triumphant sword!
Your enemies will cringe before you,
    and you will stomp on their backs!” – Deuteronomy 33:28-29 NLT

They could trust God. And, as long as they did, they would experience the blessings of God. His provision and protection, as well as their prosperity, were tied to their trust in God. As long as they stayed fully reliant upon His power and fully committed to keeping His commands, they could enjoy His favor and faithfulness. But time would reveal that each of the tribes would turn their backs on the very one who had saved them and was ready, willing, and able to bless them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Here We Go Again.

But Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul's army, took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim, and he made him king over Gilead and the Ashurites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel. Ish-bosheth, Saul's son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David. And the time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months.

Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. And Joab the son of Zeruiah and the servants of David went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. And they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool. And Abner said to Joab, “Let the young men arise and compete before us.” And Joab said, “Let them arise.” Then they arose and passed over by number, twelve for Benjamin and Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. And each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent's side, so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, which is at Gibeon. And the battle was very fierce that day. And Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David. – 2 Samuel 2:8-17 ESV

The fact that verse 8 starts with with the word “but” should tell us something. The is something about to happen that is going to stand in direct contrast to the events of the first seven verses. David had received a warm welcome from the people of Judah, but that was to be expected, since he was of the tribe of Judah. David knew he was going to have a more difficult time winning over the rest of the tribes of Israel and convincing them to make him their king. That’s part of the reason behind his overtures to the men of Jabesh-gilead, because they were of the tribe of Gad. The nation of Israel, while having been united under the leadership of Saul, was still little more than a loose confederation of 12 tribes. Their relationships with each other were typically fractious and contentious. Now, David was attempting to unite them under his leadership and sovereignty as king.

But that’s not the only “but” in these verses. There was yet another facing David’s quest to become the king of Israel. It seems that not all of Saul’s sons died with him on the battlefield. There was one name left out: Ish-bosheth. He was the youngest of Saul’s four sons and would have been about 40-years old when his father and brothers fell at the battle of Gilboa. His given name was Eshbaal,which provides us with an interesting insight into King Saul. Baal was a Canaanite deity. And the name Eshbaal means “man of Baal”. So Saul names his youngest son after a false god. Interestingly enough, the Jews would not repeat the name of this pagan idol, so they substituted the word, “boshesh”, which meant shame of confusion. So, Eshbaal became known as Ish-bosheth. And the son Jonathan, who will appear later on in the story, was known as Mephibosheth.

But back to Ish-bosheth. It seems that this one son of Saul either survived the battle at Gilboa or was not even present. And Abner, the commander of Saul’s armies, decided to use this sole surviving son as a tool to keep David from ascending to the throne. Keep in mind that Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin, as was Abner, his uncle. So it seems that Abner was attempting to keep the crown within the ranks of the Benjaminites.

So, Saul “appointed him king over Gilead, the Geshurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel” (2 Samuel 2:9 ESV). This would have been way out of Abner’s area of responsibility as Saul’s former commander in chief. It was not up to him to choose and appoint the king. The Israelites were to be a theocracy, ruled over by God Almighty. It was up to Him to choose their king, just as He had chosen Saul. Abner did not have authority or permission from God to do what he did. But he didn’t let that small detail stand in his way.

Lest we think this was small matter that was of little or no significance, notice that Ish-bosheth was made king over Geshur. That was an area within the territory belonging to the tribe of Manasseh. Jezreel was in the land belonging to the tribe of Issachar. And then the text goes on to include the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and “all Israel”. So effectively, Abner crowned Ish-bosheth as king over all Israel, even countering David’s claim to be king over Judah. And we’re told that Ish-bosheth reigned for two years. This was no short-lived, flash-in-the-pan event. Once again, David found himself with serious opposition and facing another enemy from within his own nation. Saul was dead, but his son was alive and so was Abner. And Abner had probably never forgotten the little lecture David had given him at Gibeah, after David had snuck into their camp and taken Saul’s spear and water jug as he slept.

“Well, Abner, you’re a great man, aren’t you?” David taunted. “Where in all Israel is there anyone as mighty? So why haven’t you guarded your master the king when someone came to kill him? This isn’t good at all! I swear by the Lord that you and your men deserve to die, because you failed to protect your master, the Lord’s anointed! Look around! Where are the king’s spear and the jug of water that were beside his head?” – 1 Samuel 26:15-16 NLT

Abner even led his troops into battle against David and his men, meeting them at the pool of Gibeon. The initial conflict was an agreed-upon battle between 24 men, 12 from each side. This mini-battle ended in a draw, with all 24 men dead. But that was not the end of the hostilities. It was followed by a pitched battle between the forces of these two opposing kings. Many would die that day. Like our own Civil War, this battle represented brother fighting against brother. It characterized the divided nature of the kingdom at that time. And this was the contentious atmosphere in which David was forced to begin his reign.

David’s path to the throne had been anything but easy, and it was not getting any smoother. He had been anointed by Samuel years earlier, but it had taken a long time before a crown was placed on his head. And even when it was, it represented the allegiance of a single tribe, his own. Winning over the other 11 tribes and solidifying his God-appointed position as King of Israel was going to be difficult and drawn out. There were still lessons for David to learn. And God was providentially shifting the mindset of the tribes of Israel from autonomous people groups living in isolation and under self-rule to that of a single nation united under one king. God was unifying what had been fractious. He was solidifying what had been disparate. He was making of the divided tribes of Israel a great nation that would be ruled by a great king who was a man after His own heart. The days ahead would be rocky. They would be filled with disappointment. Many would die. Others would loose loved ones as a result of the battles that followed. David’s fledgling kingdom would suffer before it ever experienced any success. But it was all part of God’s sovereign plan.

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson