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NAPHTALI (năf'ta-lī, Heb. naphtālî)

1. A son of Jacob. Naphtali was the second son of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. The name is a play on the word pāthal, “fight” or “struggle.” Of the patriarch himself practically nothing is known. He had four sons (Gen.46.24). Jacob’s blessing for Naphtali was brief and noncommittal (Gen.49.21).

2. The tribe of Naphtali. Naphtali appears in the lists of Numbers as a tribe of moderate size. It furnished 53,400 soldiers at Kadesh Barnea (Num.1.43) and 45,000 at the mustering of the troops across from Jericho (Num.26.50). In the wilderness organization, Naphtali was supposed to camp on the north side of the tabernacle under the standard of Dan, and this group of tribes brought up the rear in marching. Interestingly, they settled together in Canaan. Naphtali’s prince Ahira gave the last offering for the dedication of the altar (Num.7.78). Naphtali received the next to the last lot in the final division of the land (Josh.19.32-Josh.19.39), but in many ways its inheritance was the best.

The territory of Naphtali, as nearly as we can tell, included the fertile scenic area just west of the Sea of Galilee and the sources of the Jordan. It reached from the lower limits of the Sea of Galilee almost up to a point opposite Mount Hermon. On the west it reached halfway to the Mediterranean, being bounded by the tribe of Asher. The chief cities of Naphtali were Hazor, Kinnereth at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, and Kadesh Naphtali. The latter was the northernmost city of refuge in western Palestine.

Kadesh Naphtali was the home of Barak, and Naphtali figured largely in Deborah’s conquest of Hazor (Judg.5.18). Men from this tribe also assisted Gideon (Judg.7.23). Naphtali is mentioned as one of Solomon’s revenue districts (1Kgs.4.15), and the collector was a son-in-law of the king.

Naphtali, lying exposed in the north, was conquered by Ben-Hadad (1Kgs.15.20), and the tribe was later deported after the first inva- sion of Tiglath-Pileser about 733 b.c. (2Kgs.15.29), who settled Gentiles in the territory. This event is mentioned in Isa.9.1 with a prediction of the Messiah, who preached, as Matthew (4:12-Isa.9.16) reminds us, in this same region of Galilee of the Gentiles in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy.——RLH

NAPHTALI năf’ tə lī Heb. נַפְתָּלִי, H5889, a name of the gentilic type formed from the verbal form פָּתַל, H7349, “twist,” “wrestle” (Job 5:13, et al.). The name of the sixth son of Jacob, by his wife’s handmaid, Bilhah, who was presented to Rachel upon her marriage to Jacob (Gen 29:29). Naphtali was the second son of Jacob and Bilhah, his elder brother being Dan. The two full brothers usually are mentioned together in context in the OT.

The person of Naphtali.

In the contest between Rachel and Leah for the affection of Jacob, each offered her maidservant as a concubine to Jacob. The children thus conceived were a credit and comfort to the wives of Jacob although born of their maids. The second such born to Bilhah esp. pleased Rachel and so the events of the infant’s birth and the etymology of his name are described (Gen 30:7, 8). Rachel rejoiced with the outcry, “With intense wrestling I have wrestled with my sister.” For this reason she called the infant “Wrestling.” The life and character of Naphtali are not given in Scripture, and because of the remoteness of the tribe from the center of Israelite history after the settlement in Pal. few legends grew up around the name. The Aram. Targum, Pseudo-Jonathan records the two traditions that Naphtali was a fast runner and that he with four of his brothers was chosen by Joseph to stand before the pharaoh. A tradition preserved in the rabbinical commentaries and the Test XII Pat gives his age at death as 132 years. The person of this patriarch is shadowy and does not seem to have made much impression on either the folk etymologies or the folk lore. In the final prophetic blessing of Jacob (Gen 49) only one short poetic phrase is devoted to Naphtali. He is characterized along with his tribe as, “Naphtali is a hind let loose, he giveth goodly words.” (JPS) The rabbinical traditions are split on the proper relationship of these terms to the later events. The earlier tradition is based on an allusion in the “hind let loose” to the early ripening of the crops in the plains of Galilee. The later tradition refers to the swiftness of Naphtali’s warriors. A divergence also exists regarding the second phrase. The earlier tradition of the Targ. relates the “goodly words” to answering Deborah’s summons to war against Sisera, while the later tradition simply describes it as a reference to Naphtali’s skill in songs of victory. Although not patently expressed these four renderings of this Genesis poem affected the later traditions and feelings toward Naphtali.

History of the tribe.

As with the life of the patriarch the narrative of the tribe is less known than that of the other tribes. The sketchiest information exists in the Pentateuch and Joshua and Judges. In the first census of Numbers 1:43 and 2:30 the men of Naphtali numbered 53,400; in the second census of Numbers 26:48-50 the total was 45,400.

In the patriarchal and exilic narrative.

In the Pentateuch Naphtali never is separated from the list of other patriarchs and tribes. However, in the lists of organization of the tribes Naphtali has very few persons named. In the order of march and encampment during the Exodus, Naphtali came at the rear while it camped N of the Tabernacle close by Dan and Asher. In the prophetic vision of Moses in his last exhortation before his death (Deut 33:23), Naphtali is assigned the land around Lake Chinnereth and the territory to the S of it. In the drawing of lots for the area of the Canaanites, Naphtali drew next to last. The list of towns and cities allotted them is given in Joshua 19:32-39. In Jewish tradition the banner of Naphtali bore the inscr., “Jehovah returns to the multitude of Israel.” They did not, however, drive out the Canaanites but lived among them (Judg 1:33). Traditionally this has been understood as one of the reasons why the tribe so soon apostatized to Baal worship. When Barak summoned the tribes to battle at the urging of the prophetess Deborah, Naphtali was the first to come to Kedesh to fight the armies of the Canaanites under Sisera. Under Gideon they again were summoned to battle and fought against the Midianites.

In the monarchy.

In the time of the early monarchy the major campaigns were still in the S of Pal. and against the coastland Philistines. In most of the statistics of the kingdom nothing out of the ordinary is stated about Naphtali. At the end of David’s reign a certain Jeremoth, the son of Azriel, ruled over the tribe (1 Chron 27:19). In the list of the Solomonic administration (1 Kings 4:7-19) Naphtali is mentioned as ruled over by one of the twelve officers, an Ahimaaz, a son-in-law of the king. Little more can be added to the chronicles of the tribe.

Location in Palestine.

The actual boundaries of the tribal territory of Naphtali are given in Joshua 19:32-39. The problem is that the text does not list a consecutive set of place names in any clearly defined geographic order. In this and other passages a great number of towns are named, all of them in the area W of the Lake of Chinnereth, along its shore, N to Kedesh-Naphtali above and to the NW of Bahret el-Huleh. One of the problems is that of the location of Ramah, whether it was S near the modern Rama at the head of the Shezor valley or farther to the N around the modern Ramié in Lebanon. The Western boundary also is difficult to discern. The tribe of Asher was along the coast but Beth-shemesh belonged to Naphtali. The northern border must have varied from the time of Saul until the divided monarchy but it certainly extended N of Tyre. The exact boundaries of Solomon’s kingdom are still under dispute. The land of Naphtali is a series of plains to the W of Chinnereth through which flow many streams. To the N are the mountains which reach up to the E around the N shore of the lake, on the summit of which is Sefad, the “city set on a hill [which] cannot be hid” (Matt 5:14). To the S of the rolling hills and sloping fields lies the triangular mountain, Tabor. The openness of the valleys allowed frequent invasions from the N and E. And it was the tribe of Naphtali which was led off first into captivity (2 Kings 15:29).

Naphtali in the NT.

Since the area of Galilee, the home of Jesus and His apostles lay in the ancient area of Naphtali, it is no wonder that its traditions would have been strong among the Jews of the Inter-testamental and NT period, who lived in the northernmost expansion of the monarchy. During the early days of Jesus’ public ministry He retired to Galilee, “the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,” and there fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1 (Matt 4:13-16). The mention that it was “across the Jordan” is important since the OT also recognized the vulnerability and proximity of Naphtali to the Gentiles. The last mention is the citation of the tribe in the list of the groups of servants of God sealed with the forehead seal in Revelation 7:6. Thus the final end of God’s provision of history sees the continuance of the redeemed theocracy. This theme accords well with the blessing promised through the twelve tribes. See Location of Tribes.


M. Noth, Das System der Zwölf Stämme Israels (1930); C. U. Wolf, “Terminology of Israel’s Tribal Organization,” JBL, LXV (1946), 45-49; Y. Yadin, The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light (1962), 38-64.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(naphtali; Nephthaleim):


1. Name

2. Circumstances of His Birth

3. Historical and Traditional Details


1. Its Relative Position

2. Its Location in Palestine

3. Physical Features

4. Distinction of the Tribe

5. Sites and Inhabitants

6. Labors of Jesus in This District

I. The Patriarch.

1. Name:

The 5th son of Jacob, and the 2nd born to him by Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah. He was full brother of Da (Ge 30:7 ).

At his birth Rachel is said to have exclaimed, naphtule ’Elohim niphtalti, "wrestlings of God"--i.e. "mighty wrestlings"--"have I wrestled."

2. Circumstances of His Birth:

Her sister’s fruitfulness was a sore trial to the barren Rachel. By her artifice she had obtained children, the offspring of her maid ranking as her own; and thus her reproach of childlessness was removed. The name Naphtali given to this son was a monument of her victory. She had won the favor and blessing of God as made manifest in the way yearned for by the oriental heart, the birth of sons.

3. Historical and Traditional Details:

Personal details regarding the patriarch North are entirely wanting in Scripture; and the traditions have not much to say about him. According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, he was a swift runner. It also tells us that he was one of the 5 brethren whom Joseph chose to represent the family of Jacob in the presence of Pharaoh. He is said to have been 132 years old at his death (Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, viii, 1, 1). When Jacob and his family moved to Egypt, Naphtali had 4 sons (Ge 46:24). In Egypt, he died and was buried.

II. Tribe of Naphtali.

1. Its Relative Position:

2. Its Location in Palestine:

In the allocation of the land, the lot of Naphtali was the last but one to be drawn (Jos 19:32-39). The boundaries are stated with great fullness. While it is yet impossible to trace them with certainty, the identification of sites in recent years, for which we are mainly indebted to the late Col. Conder, makes possible an approximation. The territory was bounded on the East by the Sea of Galilee and the upper reaches of the Jordan. Josephus makes it extend to Damascus (Ant., V, i, 22); but there is nothing to support this. The southern boundary probably ran from the point where Wady el-Bireh enters the Jordan, westward along the northern side of the valley to Mt. Tabor. The western border may have gone up by way of Chattin (Ziddim) and Yaquq (Hukkok) to Kerr `Anan (Hannathon), bending there to the West, including the land of er-Rameh (Ramah) until it reached the territory of Asher. Running northward again until nearly opposite Tyre, it bent eastward, and once more northward to the LiTany (Leontes), taking in the larger part of what is called by the Arabs Belad Beshdrah and Belad es-Shukif. Nineteen cities in Naphtali are named in Jos 19:32 ff. Among them was the famous city of refuge, KEDESH-NAPHTALI (which see), on the heights to the West of the Waters of Merom, where extensive ruins are still to be seen (20:7). It, along with Hammoth-dor and Kartan, was assigned to the Gershonite Levites (21:23; 1Ch 6:76).

The land lying around the springs of the Jordan was included in the lot of Naphtali. It is clear that from this part, as well as from the cities named in Jud 1:33, Naphtali did not drive out the Canaanites. These the Danites found in possession at the time of their raid. There is no indication that Naphtali resented in any way this incursion of their kindred tribe into their territory (Jud 18).

3. Physical Features:

The district thus indicated includes much excellent land, both pastoral and arable. There are the broad, rich terraces that rise away to the North and Northwest of the Sea of Galilee, with the fertile plain of Gennesaret on the seashore. The mountains immediately North of the sea are rocky and barren; but when this tract is passed, we enter the lofty and spacious lands of upper Galilee, which from time immemorial have been the joy of the peasant farmer. Great breadths there are which in season yield golden harvests. The richly diversified scenery, mountain, hill and valley, is marked by a finer growth of trees than is common in Palestine. The terebinth and pine, the olive, mulberry, apricot, fig, pomegranate, orange, lemon and vine are cultivated to good purpose. Water is comparatively plentiful, supplied by many copious springs. It was one of the districts from which Solomon drew provisions, the officer in charge being the king’s son-in-law, Ahimaaz (1Ki 4:15).

4. Distinction of the Tribe:

The free life of these spacious uplands, which yielded so liberally to the touch of the hand of industry, developed a robust manhood and a wholesome spirit of independence among its inhabitants. According to Josephus, who knew them well (BJ, III, iii, 2), the country never lacked multitudes of men of courage ready to give a good account of themselves on all occasions of war. Its history, as far as we know it, afforded ample opportunity for the development of warlike qualities. In the struggle with Sisera, Naphtali was found on the high places of the field (Jud 5:18). To David’s forces at Hebron, Naphtali contributed a thousand captains "and with them with shield and spear thirty and seven thousand" (1Ch 12:34). Their position exposed them to the first brunt of attack by enemies from the North; and in the wars of the kings they bore an important part (1Ki 15:20; 2Ki 12:18; 13:22); and they were the first on the West of the Jordan to be carried away captive (2Ki 15:29).

See Galilee.

5. Sites and Inhabitants:

The largest town in Mt. Naphtali today (in 1915) is Safed, on the heights due North of the Sea of Galilee, often spoken of as the "city set on a hill." It is built in the form of a horseshoe, open to the North, round the Castle Hill, on which are the ruins of the old fortress of the Templars. This is a position of great strength, which could hardly fail to be occupied in ancient times, although, so far, it cannot be identified with any ancient city. It contains between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants. Over against it to the Northwest, beyond the deep gorge of Wady Leimun, rises Jebel Jermuk, the highest mountain in Palestine proper (circa 4,000 feet) which may be the scene of the TRANSFIGURATION (which see). The inhabitants of Safed were massacred by Sultan Bibars in 1266. The city suffered severely from earthquake in 1759; and it shared with Tibefias, also a city of Naphtali., the disaster wrought by the earthquake of 1837. It is one of the holy cities of the Jews.

6. Labors of Jesus in This District:

In the land of Naphtali Jesus spent a great part of his public life, the land of Gennesaret, Bethsaida, Capernaum and Chorazin all lying within its boundaries (compare Mt 4:15).