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Issachar was the fifth son of Leah, and Zebulun was her sixth that she bore to Jacob (Gen. 30:18-20). We have already shown how Issachar got his name (“hire”) in the story of how Reuben found the mandrakes. There is no background story behind Zebulun, but we read in Gen. 30:19, 20,
19 And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob. 20 Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good gift [zebed, “dowry, gift”]; now my husband will dwell [zabal, “to honor, exalt, to dwell exaltedly”] with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun.
In those days, when a man had multiple wives, each wife had her own separate tent. The husband lived with his favorite wife, which was considered an honor. When Leah bore her sixth son, she hoped that this would cause Jacob to honor her by moving into her tent and dwelling with her instead of Rachel.
This did not happen, but Leah’s hope was perhaps an inadvertent prophecy, as we will see shortly.
When Jacob later blessed his sons, he says very little of Zebulun and Issachar. We read of their blessings in Gen. 49:13-15,
13 Zebulun shall dwell at the seashore; and he shall be a haven for ships, and his flank shall be toward Sidon. 14 Issachar is a strong donkey, lying down between the sheepfolds. 15 When he saw that a resting place was good and that the land was pleasant, he bowed his shoulder to bear burdens, and became a slave at forced labor.
Jacob prophesied where Zebulun’s land inheritance would be located. This was seven years before the boundaries of the tribes were fixed by lot (Joshua 19:10, 17). But Moses knew by the Spirit that the tribe of Zebulun would be given land in the north “toward Sidon.”
Nearby was the land of Issachar, not far from the Sea of Galilee. Issachar, whose name means “hire,” was pictured as “a strong donkey” who “became a slave at forced labor.” This metaphor makes him a sign of Pentecost, wherein believers learn to be God’s obedient servants. On the downside, they never really inherited the land allotted to them. In Pentecost we receive the “pledge” of the Spirit, but not the full inheritance, which can come only through the feast of Tabernacles.
The people of Issachar, representing Pentecost in a positive light, came to be known for their study of the word and by the gift to know prophetic timing. Hence, many years later, we read in 1 Chron. 12:32,
32 And of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do, their chiefs were two hundred…
It appears that the men of Issachar were the ones who had the revelation that the tribes of Israel ought to crown David king over all Israel. They convinced the other tribes, and so David became king over more than just his own tribe of Judah (1 Chron. 12:38). Hence, Issachar was led by the Spirit as a “strong donkey.” He became an example of a true Pentecostal who learned obedience to the Spirit of God, but also knew when to act.
With this in mind, let us look at the blessing of Moses upon these two tribes. We read this in Deut. 33:18, 19,
18 And of Zebulun he said, “Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going forth, and Issachar, in your tents; 19 They shall call peoples to the mountain; there they shall offer righteous sacrifices; for they shall draw out the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand.”
Moses links the two tribes in the fulfillment of their prophetic destiny. Being near Sidon, they soon had commercial links to the Phoenicians, and many became fishermen and traders along the seacoast. Moses says “they shall draw out of the abundance of the seas.” This refers to both the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.
In fact, the commercial ties became so strong that the Greeks referred to the entire region (Tyre, Sidon, Israel, and Judah) as Phoenicia. The Phoenicians ruled the seas and set up colonies throughout the Mediterranean Sea and around the world, and many of these colonists were Israelites who had found themselves landless in Canaan, in spite of the allotment given to them. Much of the land was not fully conquered until three centuries later in the time of King David.
Years later, Isaiah prophesied of Zebulun, linking it with Naphtali—another tribe that was given land in the north of Israel. Isaiah 8:3 speaks of the prophet’s son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which means “haste-spoil-speed-prey.” His name prophesied of Israel’s soon demise, on account of their violation of the covenant. God was soon to send them to Assyria in captivity (Isaiah 8:4).
Yet in the midst of this prophecy, the prophet speaks of Immanuel (Isaiah 8:8), which is defined in verse 10, “For God is with us.” Isaiah’s children were named prophetically as signs to the house of Israel, as verse 18 says,
18 Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.
The chapter ends with Isaiah 8:22,
22 Then they will look to the earth, and behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be driven away into darkness.
But out of darkness, hope is given by the light of Immanuel. Isaiah 9:1 says,
1 But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles [goyim, “nations”].
Something was to happen to make the land “glorious.” But what is meant by the name, “Galilee of the Gentiles”? Wayne Blank writes:
When the Assyrians took Israelites away, they brought in foreigners to tend the land. In the case of the Galilee captivity, they brought in Gentiles to settle there (2 Kings 15:29, 17:24), which resulted in Galilee later being sometimes known as "Galilee of the nations," or "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Isaiah 9:1, Matthew 4:13-16). It was also from those immigrants that the Galilean accent of later times originated, even among the Hebrew and Aramaic speaking people of Judah (including Jesus Christ and most of His apostles) who then lived in Galilee, which was very noticeable to the other people of Judah who lived in the south (e.g. to Peter, "your accent betrays you" in Matthew 26:73 RSV).
In other words, the land allotted to Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali, later became known as Galilee. Because the land included many other ethnic groups who had been resettled there by the Assyrians, it was a cosmopolitan area and was influenced by many other surrounding cultures. In the time of Christ, there were Greek and Roman cities in Galilee. The Jews from the southern area of Judah (or Judea) viewed Galileans with suspicion.
But Isaiah continues his prophecy of this area, saying in 9:2, 3,
2 The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. 3 Thou shalt multiply the nation, Thou shalt increase their gladness; they will be glad in Thy presence as with the gladness of harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
Isaiah says that Zebulun (and the whole region of Galilee) would rejoice at the light that was to shine into the darkness. This tells us how to interpret Moses’ blessing when he said in Deut. 33:18, “Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going forth.” Moses does not give us the cause of such rejoicing, but Isaiah fills in the details. It is the light of Immanuel, “God with us,” which was to shine in Galilee of the Nations. Isaiah 9:6, 7 continues,
6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.
We know this as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, who was to come to Galilee of the Nations.
When Jesus began His ministry, we are told in Matt. 4:12-14,
12 Now when He heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in region of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying….
Matthew then quotes the prophecy in Isaiah 9 about Immanuel coming to Galilee of the Nations. Jesus moved to Capernaum after being expelled from his home town of Nazareth. Matthew, in writing to a Jewish audience, refrains from giving us the underlying reason for Jesus’ move to Galilee. It is left to Luke to tell us.
In Luke 4 we learn that after Jesus came out of the wilderness where he had been fasting, “He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all” (Luke 4:15). But then He was asked to teach in the local synagogue in Nazareth, a “settler” community occupying a ridge in the land of Samaria. When Jesus read Isaiah 61:1, 2 (no doubt one of their favorite passages), He left out the last portion that they loved the most, “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2).
The Nazarenes were much like the modern Jewish settlement at Hebron today, in that they were there to occupy and take back the land from the Samaritans. Their very existence was bound up in taking vengeance upon the “gentiles.” Luke says that Jesus brought up the stories of Elijah and Elisha and how God sent them to other nations to minister. “Elijah was sent to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon to a woman who was a widow” (Luke 4:26). Further, Elisha, his successor, healed only Naaman the Syrian when “there were many lepers in Israel” (Luke 4:27).
28 And all in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they rose up and cast Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. 29 But passing through their midst, He went His way. 31 And He came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee….
As a Greek doctor, Luke’s purpose was to show how Jesus healed the breach between Jew and non-Jew as well as between men and women. Christ had broken down the dividing wall to make one new body (Eph. 2:14-16). Matthew’s gospel was written specifically for a Jewish audience, and so he refrained from such inflammatory stories. Matthew’s purpose was to present Jesus as the King, not as the healer of the breach.
At any rate, we see from Luke how Isaiah’s prophecy of Zebulun was fulfilled. Zebulun’s name means “dwelling, habitation.” Jesus thus made His home in Capernaum in Galilee of the Nations. The “great light” of Christ shined from His headquarters in Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The light could not be headquartered in Judah, because the Jews sought to kill Him. At first He traveled to Judea on speaking tours, but at some point even that became too dangerous. Hence, John 7:1 reads,
1 And after these things Jesus was walking in Galilee; for He was unwilling to walk in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill Him.
Thus, the land of Zebulun was able to rejoice prophetically, because Immanuel had come to them, giving the light of His presence and His teachings to all who would hear. This also foreshadowed the gospel going to all parts of the world, for it followed Jesus’ example of spreading the light in “Galilee of the Nations.”