The Tribe of Naphtali (Hebrew: נַפְתָּלִי, Modern Naftali, Tiberian Nap̄tālî; “My struggle”) was one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
From after the conquest of the land by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel in c. 1050 BC, the Tribe of Naphtali was a part of a loose confederation of Israelite tribes. No central government existed, and in times of crisis the people were led by ad hoc leaders known as Judges (see the Book of Judges). With the growth of the threat from Philistine incursions, the Israelite tribes decided to form a strong centralised monarchy to meet the challenge, and the Tribe of Naphtali joined the new kingdom with Saul as the first king. After the death of Saul, all the tribes other than Judah remained loyal to the House of Saul, but after the death of Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son and successor to the throne of Israel, the Tribe of Naphtali joined the other northern Israelite tribes in making David, who was then the king of Judah, king of a re-united Kingdom of Israel. However, on the accession of Rehoboam, David’s grandson, in c. 930 BC the northern tribes split from the House of David to reform a Kingdom of Israel as the Northern Kingdom.
In c. 732 BCE, Pekah allied with Rezin, king of Aram, threatened Jerusalem, and Ahaz, king of Judah, appealed to Tiglath-Pileser III, the king of Assyria, for help. After Ahaz paid tribute to Tiglath-Pileser, (2 Kings 16:7-9) Tiglath-Pileser sacked Damascus and Israel, annexing Aram and a large part of Israel, “including all the land of Naphtali.” According to 2 Kings 16:9 and 15:29, the population of Aram and the annexed part of Israel was deported to Assyria. The kingdom of Israel continued to exist until c. 723 BC, when it was again invaded by Assyria and the rest of the population deported. From that time, the Tribe of Naphtali has been counted as one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
Numbers 1:42-43 lists the men of Naphtali twenty years old or more, “whoever was able to go out to war”. This is the first census taken by Moses upon leaving Egypt. The opening verses of Numbers 1 relates how, in the second year of their wandering, the Lord spoke to Moses ordering him to take a count of the fighting men of Israel.
“Of the sons of Naphtali, their genealogical registration by their families, by their father’s households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Naphtali, were 53,400.”
This was the sixth largest number of fighting men amongst the 12 tribes of Israel. However, the tribe lost men in the desert wandering.
It was after the first census that the Almighty relayed His instructions to Moses concerning the encampment of Israel in the wilderness. This particular tribe, as stated above, was assigned to the camp of Dan, along with the tribe of Asher. These three tribes were to protect the rear of the advancing camp.
Numbers 26 is the second census taken by Moses. This census was taken as the Israelites prepared for the conquest of Canaan. This passage lists the families of each son of Jacob as well.
“The sons of Naphtali according to their families; of Jahzeel, the family of the Jahzeelites; of Guni, the family of the Gunites; of Jezer, the family of the Jezerites; of Shillem, the family of the Shillemites. These are the families of Naphtali according to their families; and those who were numbered of them were 45,400.”
The tribe had lost 8,000 men throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. After the second census, they had slipped to the eighth largest tribe of the tribes of Israel. No reason is given in Scripture as to why they lost so many men. However, it would not be illogical to make the assumption their position as the rear guard may have had something to do with this.
As the Israelites advanced into Canaan, it quickly becomes evident the tribe is known for their fierceness in battle. They were a tribe of warriors, swift and efficient in battle, like a “hind let loose”, to quote the words of Jacob’s Blessing.
Though their land was extremely fertile and productive, and able to support large herds, it’s location in the north of Canaan opened it up to outside threats and influences. This was a tribe surrounded by a circle of nations.
Immediately to the north lie Syria. To the northwest were the Phoenicians, centered in Tyre and Sidon. Immediately to the north and northeast lay Aram-Damascus, always a threat to ancient Israel. To the east, east of the Jordan, was Bashan, former kingdom of the giant Rephaim king Og.
The tribal allotment lay at the northern doorway into Canaan. This fact, coupled with its proximity to Mesopotamia, made it vulnerable to armies on the attack. Indeed, the men of Naphtali were heavily involved in the Northern campaign of Joshua’s Conquest. Judges 1:33 provides Scripture’s first reference of Naphtali in a time of war.
“Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, but lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; and the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath became forced labor for them.”
Even though these men failed to completely drive out the Canaanites, they subjected them to forced labor. Thus, they maintained autonomy in their land while living amongst the Canaanites. It was clear they exerted a degree of control over the majority of their inheritance, although it was not outright.
Scripture makes it clear the Israelites failed to conquer the fortress cities of Jokneam, Megiddo, Taanach, Beth-shan, amongst others (Joshua 17). Though the Northern Tribes appeared to maintain a certain degree of authority in the north of Canaan, it was not unchallenged. They were often engaged in conflict with the Canaanite forces of northern Palestine, as well as with forces from nations east of the Jordan River.
As part of the Kingdom of Israel, during one of the several wars between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, Naphtali was persecuted by Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram-Damascus, on behalf of Asa, the king of Judah, and desolated. Centuries later, the Assyrians invaded Israel, which, though it had been a tributary, had also defaulted, and so Naphtali, one of the most northerly tribes, became one of the first to be conquered. With the land taken, the tribe were exiled; the manner of their exile led to their further history being lost.
There has been speculation that the Bukharian Jews of Central Asia are the descendants of the Naphtali tribe.