Genesis 49:21 “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns.”
This is the briefest of the prophecies. The blessing that Jacob pronounced upon Naphtali was succinct and focused, that this son would be as beautiful as a newly freed deer soaring across the fields, while his descendants would be as lovely as young deer. The men in the tribe of Naphtali would be renowned for being handsome, athletic, strong and intelligent. The women would be beautiful and graceful, like young deer standing on the grass with their fawns following them, those big eyes and all that inquisitive innocence – Bambi the beautiful! So Jacob said to him, “Naphtali is a doe set free that bears beautiful fawns” (v.21) . . . and? And nothing at all. There was no mention of any other virtues or graces like modesty, and purity, and wisdom, and self-denial, and righteousness. The tribe of Naphtali would be renowned for their beauty of form and grace of movement, containing the most good-looking men in all Israel, but for nothing else. Naphtali is the father of all those who believe in beauty without holiness
- THE ORIGIN OF NAPHTALI AND HIS BEAUTY.
Once again we have to return to Jacob’s harem, and the servant girl of Rachel, whose name was Bilhah, and the fantasy Rachel created. Her slave girl gave birth to a son, the father of whom is Jacob her own husband, and she, Rachel herself, instantly laid claim to this baby boy as her own. That was her fantasy; “This is going to be the way that I will become a Mum, and the promised line will continue through my husband and me. It will be through Bilhah my servant girl.” So her maid proceeded to have not one but two sons by Jacob; sleeping with the master was a regular part of a maid’s life in Rachel and Leah’s wretched dysfunctional families. Rachel determined to call this boy ‘Naphtali.’
Now you know what the name Naphtali means. Earlier this year my son-in-law, Gary Brady, sent a couple of questions to the two panels of the Round Britain Quiz, as listeners do each week. The first question in which he defeated them was why is the lion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis called ‘Aslan’ and the answer to that question is that ‘Aslan’ is the Turkish word for lion. They did not know that and neither did I. Gary won a book-token by out-witting them with the question, but he failed with his second question. It was what was the connection between Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the Hebrew tribe Naphtali. The experts worked that out because they knew that Mein Kampf meant ‘my struggle’ and they guessed that that was also the meaning of Naphtali. Rachel gave Bilhah’s second son that name. We read, “Rachel said, ‘I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.’ So she named him Naphtali.” (Gen.30:8). Rachel deluded herself into thinking that she had battled long and bravely with her sister Leah, this fertile sister who had produced one son after another by Jacob, but now Rachel is having the last laugh. She is no longer childless; she has had two sons even though they are both through her servant girl Bilhah. “It’s been a real struggle for me, but I’ve won in the end,” she says and she parades this boy’s presence around. The boy named “My Struggle” would play and run around the compound and Rachel would shout out his name for him to come to her, “My Struggle . . . My Struggle . . .” she would cry, much to the chagrin of Leah her sister.
So here was a woman who dreamed that these human devices, that caused her slave girl to get pregnant by her own husband, were in fact the work of God overcoming her infertility problem. Thus she had prevailed through this sub-Jehovahist ploy – children being born to a servant who has been sent by her into her husband’s bed, that this was “God giving her the victory”! We know that this providence, rooted in her own impatience, was not at all the divine blessing. We are all going to justify sub-Christian conduct just like Rachel did You see it in the life of Jonah the prophet. He defies the Lord and runs away from obediently preaching in Nineveh. He goes down to the harbour and there is a boat at a wharf about to sail, and it is going to Tarshish in the opposite direction to land-locked Nineveh, and there is room aboard ship, a berth for him to sleep in, and he also has enough money to pay the fare. Jonah could say of all that, “This is the Lord. This is God vindicating my defiance. It’s been a struggle coming down all this way to the harbour and paying for a voyage across the sea and setting sail, but how things have worked out shows that God has been approving of what I’ve done.” But in fact, it was all so pitiful, and God had to bring Jonah back to Nineveh to underline what was his will for his servant. Christians may defy the clear will of God and then they seem to have a good time. They proceed to gain friendships, and prosperity, and an increased congregation, and a measure of fame, and they claim, “It was a struggle but in the end I won. God vindicated me,” but the truth is that they failed miserably to do God’s will.
So that is where Naphtali came from, a home where his mother, a slave girl, had to sleep with her master in order that his father’s wife (a different woman) could get one up over her sister. Now, many years later, Jacob is near his death. He gathers around him his sons and he speaks, still aware of the part he played in giving in to his favourite wife’s plans. He looks at this boy and he says, “You and your descendants will be beautiful people. You will stand out amongst the tribes of Israel for handsome men and pretty, graceful women.”
One presumes that Naphtali was the most handsome of all the brothers, his four sons and his whole line of grandchildren possessed his distinctive features. I would think that the land of the tribe of Naphtali must have been the most depressing place in which ordinary people had to survive. Each morning for the women it must have been a daily beauty pageant, whether they liked it or not. Each man and woman was engulfed in a society saturated with images of idealized, air-brushed and unattainable physical beauty. Every man and woman in the tribe of Naphtali was daily pressured from the youngest age to join in the idolatry of male and female beauty.
Don’t we all know something of those pressures? Pursuit of female beauty has risen to fever pitch. Natural beauty is not what is expected. Even make-up doesn’t do the job anymore though America spends $18 billion a year – a billion pounds a month on make-up. Well, thank God for shampoo, but today more is needed, botox and plastic surgeons; we need tan shops, tattoos a
nd personal trainers. Photographers work with an airbrush and reshape portraits. The images of women are slim and tall. Amongst the women of Naphtali and amongst the young women of Aberystwyth you’d find depression about their appearance everywhere. The women feel everyone is so good looking while they are ugly and unattractive. All the women of Naphtali both then and today are addicted to becoming increasingly alluring. The effects are devastating. Physically they include anorexia, self-harming, bulimia and depression. This obsession with the outward appearance impacts courtship so that they are afraid to say no to promiscuous men. It impacts marriage as wives feel they must outdo their celluloid counterparts. They fear that the beautiful images all around them will seduce their husbands. It impacts the workplace as the women who most adhere to society’s standards of beauty are the ones most likely to be hired at job interviews, or to be promoted.
So imagine that you had a number of children, and they each were to receive an infallible prediction of what their futures would be like, like Jacob here was enabled to give his sons in Genesis 49. One of your children was singled out and told that she and all her children after her were going to be beautiful. What would be your response as her parent? Surely first of all delight. You wouldn’t want to hear that this child was going to be Quasimodo. But you also were aware of the kind of pressures on young women in our day, and so, very quickly a new concern would rise in your mind. You would long as a Christian parent that, allied to the welcome beauty given to your daughter, that there would be a modesty, and a purity, and a self-control, and a righteousness. You would also pray that true Christian love would fill her life; “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Cors. 13:4-7). You would believe passionately that that is true beauty. You would pray that she would daily present her body as a living sacrifice to God. That is what you’d want as a parent, and that your daughter would live her life under the demands of the will of God – in whose service is perfect freedom.
There was an older boy who went to the same church as I attended, and he was a particularly handsome man, and the girls found him irresistible, and he’d talk to me about them and his conquests. He did me much harm. Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting but now endures faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is charity. In the Bible there is a robust delight in beautiful objects and beautiful people – David is described as fair and ruddy, but one day he saw Bathsheba and the Holy Spirit alerts us to danger, as it tells us, “the woman was very beautiful” (2 Sam. 11:2). Those words were written by God as his judgment of the appearance of Bathsheba as a ‘daughter of Naphtali.’ God also wrote of the outcome, her unfaithfulness to her husband, the murder of her brave young husband, with which act she must have been complicit; “I will work it out,” said David. Yet she was acknowledged as beautiful by God. Scripture warns us, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Provs. 31:30). So you might expect that the Bible would always be negative about beauty, that it would say that it is unimportant and it would dismiss it, but it does not do that. Christian women are told by the apostle Peter that their beauty should not primarily come from adorning themselves with rings, necklaces, lovely clothing and alluring hairstyles; “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold, jewellery and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (I Pet.3:3). Primary beauty comes from within, and this is Peter’s point that beauty should only adorn beauty, not adorn ugliness. Paul builds up this multi-faceted picture of beauty in his letter to the Philippians; “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Phils. 4:8). That is the beauty of the inner self; all the issues and actions of life come from that.
God says to Job, “Adorn yourself with glory and splendour, and clothe yourself in honour and majesty” (Job 40:10). In Ezekiel 16 God describes the lavish adorning of a bride. This is taken up by the psalmist; Psalm 45 describes the princess all glorious in her beauty preparing for her husband. And that desire becomes a picture of the psalmist’s desire for his beautiful Lord. He longs for God to come to him in something more than his omnipresence. He wants God to draw near and reveal himself to him. He tells us that he wanted “to behold the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4), and then his longing went further, “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Ps. 90:17). He desires God. Let me turn that in two ways;
i] Firstly, here is a Christian full of God; you can say of him that he is clothed with the beauty of God. There are some Christian men we have much admired. I think of a Scotsman, Professor John Murray, and a Welshman Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and an American, President Edmund Clowney. I believe that they were all men on whom rested the beauty of the Lord. You were drawn to them, and to have a conversation with them was an honour. To walk with Professor Murray and have his arm through yours as he spoke, for example, of a new psalm tune that on the previous Sabbath he had learned (singing it to you), or he told you of his sisters and brother back home in Badbea, Sutherland, what a discovery of beauty to be with him! You may have members of your family whom you have known intimately for 40 to 50 years, and they are beautiful in Christ and you look at them and at times can be quite overcome by the sight.
ii] Then I can turn that desire for the beauties of God in another way. Often, I must confess, I am so blind. I see my diary for the week, and my deadlines. I see things to be fixed. I see obstacles lying in my path. I see bills to be paid. I see things to be done. I see . . . but I fail to see God’s beauty. There’s more; I call things beautiful that are not beautiful to God. I am attracted to things that God calls ugly. I even begin to believe that there are things more beautiful than God, and I want those things more than I want God. So I have to pray, “Correct my vision. Make my judgments true and right. Let me love God as the angels love him. Make the days I have left days of beauty because my heart is filled with visions of you.”
2. NAPHTALI AND HIS BEAUTY WERE TESTED.
The tragedy of Naphtali was that his physical beauty was not allied to the beauty of his character. Does the apostle Paul ever urge the churches when they are choosing leaders, deacons, elders or th
eir wives, that it’s essential that they look out for strikingly beautiful people? Never. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” That’s what he was to look for. Did Naphtali have the strength to stand up for the Lord?
There was, for example, the time when Jael the king of the Canaanites dominated Israel for twenty years, and God raised up a woman to deliver them because the men were weaklings. The woman was named Deborah and she became the judge holding court under the Palm of Deborah. One day she was sure that the time had come to drive the Canaanites out of the land, and so she sent to Naphtali, to the leader of the tribe, no doubt a good looking man, and his name was Barak. You can read about this in Judges chapter four, how she set it all up for him, for fame from a great victory; “She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, ‘The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: “Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands”’” (Judg.4:6&7). But what was Mr. Pretty Face’s response? “Barak said to her, ‘If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.’ ‘Very well,’ Deborah said, ‘I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honour will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.’ So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh,” (Judg. 4:8&9). Barak was being taught that he needed to trust God, and experience the obedience of faith and prayerful dependence on God if he were to win victories for the Lord. A makeover was not enough. Then when they rejoiced in the victory the adoration and exultation all came from Deborah. She had to speak for him; she sang the praises of God.
Naphtali was then weighed in the balances and in courage and decisiveness he was found wanting, but there were other gifts in which he excelled, for example, where his sense of beauty was an asset. When Solomon was overseeing the building of the Temple in Jerusalem he searched for someone who could paint and decorate and design significant artistic features. It took him thirteen years to complete the Temple and to do so he needed to send for a man called Huram of Tyre. We read about this man in I Kings 7 and verse 14; “whose mother was a widow from the tribe of Naphtali and whose father was a man of Tyre and a craftsman in bronze. Huram was highly skilled and experienced in all kinds of bronze work. He came to King Solomon and did all the work assigned to him” (I Kings 7:14). He obeyed the king, and that in itself was an achievement. This is the man who was brought to Jerusalem, a man of art, with an eye for beauty and design, and he devised and created all the brass work in the temple. There is clearly considerable interest in his handiwork. The Holy Spirit records it all in about thirty verses. It begins with a description of two bronze pillars that he made (I Kings 7:15) and then on it goes, down through the remainder of that chapter, describing interwoven chains of brass, two hundred bronze pomegranates, designs like lilies, a great bath called a Sea standing on the backs of twelve bulls; there were bronze lions and cherubim and movable baths, pots, shovels and sprinkling bowls. On and on you see the description of what Huram from Naphtali made. That was his strength; the work was needed and God blessed him with the gifts to do it. Things of beauty Naphtali could appreciate and design, and that compensated for his wretched origins, that this whole tribe was descended from the illegitimate child of a slave girl who couldn’t call her sons her own. The tribe of Naphtali is now like a beautiful deer followed by its fawns.
3 NAPHTALI CANNOT HAVE BEAUTY WITHOUT HOLINESS.
Naphtali can look at his handiwork and if he lacks holy eyes all he will see is beautiful work and beautiful craftsmanship, and that is typical of him and typical of ever so many others. These works of bronze praise their own maker and nothing more than that. And throughout the history of Israel there his a struggle between holy worship and creations of beauty. There is the beautiful Tower of Babel and the holy worship of the Lord. There is the beautiful golden calf and the holy worship of the Lord. There are the beautiful Baals and the Ashtoreth poles and the holy worship of the Lord. There is even the beautiful Temple and all its adornments and feasts and rituals and there is the holy worship of the Lord. That is the struggle throughout Israel’s history, because Israel is not the seat of beauty. Israel is the place of holiness. If you want beauty you go outside Israel. You go to Greece and its temples; you go to Egypt with its pyramids and Sphinx, you go to Rome and its buildings; you go to Tyre, and to Nineveh, and to Babylon. There you see the monuments and the beauty that man has designed, but in Israel is something different.
In Israel is an entirely different kind of beauty not seen anywhere else, and never seen before. It is a beauty designed by God as a frame for what is central. The building is a frame. The garments the priests wear are a frame. The Holy Place is a frame. The Holy of Holies is a frame, and what they all frames is the true beauty of Israel. They frame atonement made day after day, all kinds of sacrifice constantly offered to God. Let me describe this beauty, a lamb without a blemish is taken and its throat is gashed across, its entrails are laid open, its insides are visible to all, its impurities are steaming in the sunlight, and all that is gathered together and thrown onto the fire blazing on the top of the altar, mixing there with the wood and the ashes. The stench of burning sheep and head and fleece and horns fill the air, bringing tears to your eyes, and the smell clings to your clothes, and finally what is left of the sacrifice, the ashes and burned bones are carried on a cart and dumped outside the camp with all the other refuse. It was vile and horrid. You couldn’t look at the process of dismemberment, and the lamb becoming a holocaust without feeling emotions of disgust, experiencing defilement by what you’d had to witness. The scene was too vivid; even to talk of what actually happened broke the rules of good taste. It seemed a thing to ignore, not to describe, and never to exhibit. The frame of bronze pillars and pomegranates, lilies and chains surround this portrait, and it is a portrait of sin, our sin, the worshippers’ sin, and the holy beauty of that ugly scene is simply showing this, that our sin has been dealt with once and for all, consumed by the majestic rectitude of the God whose abode is that Temple. And redemption and reconciliation and mercy all are ours as the free gifts of God because everything is done there as God required. His holiness now embraces us because he has taken away our guilt and sin and we shall never see it again.
Naphtali comes with his artwork to the Temple, but the people come there with their sacrifices, and in that way beauty and holiness come together. No one amongst the children of Israel was invited to the courts of the house of Jehovah as tourists to admire the Temple building and comment on i
t as a thing of splendour, an object of beauty. The people came with their sacrifices, which were the very opposite of beauty, to make atonement. They did not come as the crowds who gathered on Mars Hill, or on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon before a huge new idol, but here in Jerusalem they gathered on an entirely different plane where mercy and judgment met in sacrifice, and in that is seen the beauty of holiness. And I ask you have you seen that and understood it? That all a sinner’s hope lies in the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are living in days of a temporary upsurge of humanism, and humanism speaks constantly of the dignity of man. The deeper the humanist digs into the nature of man, the more he is convinced of his dignity, but gospel Christianity, as it digs into the nature of man, becomes more and more convinced of man’s need of atonement. I am saying that it is because man does not know God that he does not know man, for man is made in the image of God, and the only beauty there is, that which truly may be called beautiful, is that which comes not from within man but from right outside, from heaven itself.
4. IN THE LAND OF NAPHTALI PERFECT BEAUTY IS AT LAST SEEN.
The prophecy comes that one day he will come who will bruise the head of the serpent. The prophecy is enlarged. He will come of the seed of Abraham and he will bless all the nations of the earth. The prophecy comes that he will be one of the brethren of Moses and of the line of David. The prophecy gets a sharper focus, that he will be born in Bethlehem and minister in Galilee of the Gentiles. The prophecy comes that he will have no beauty that we will desire him, that he will be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, that Jehovah will lift his rod against him, that it will please the Lord to bruise him.
So he comes, and he is born in a stable, fit only for beasts. He lives in an unknown cluster of houses in a place called Nazareth, despised and rejected among men. Finally he begins to preach, and where is his ministry? He bids farewell to the carpenter’s shop and the home of Mary, but where does he go? Listen to what Matthew tells us; “Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali – to fulfil what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:13-16). It was to the land bordering the Sea of Galilee that Jesus came. That was the place where his mightiest works had been done. The people there were beautiful, but they lived in the darkness of ignorance and superstition until he came and one day he gave sight to one born blind – what beauty to see the eyes of one who had never seen light now surveying the glories of creation. He heals the man so paralyzed that four friends must carry him everywhere, and now his limbs are supple, and he can walk and leap for joy. What grace and beauty! It was to the people of Naphtali that he preached the Sermon on the Mount; “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” What beauty!
What illumination as to what true beauty is. The people of Naphtali are shown true beauty, but most of them did not to receive it. “Away with him! Crucify him!” they shout.
He says to the cities of Naphtali where most of his mighty works were done, “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you” (Matt. 11:21&22). Do you see the irony of this? That Huram, the designer of the Temple’s bronze artifacts came from Tyre, and if Jesus had done in Tyre what the people of Naphtali had seen him do in their cities there would have been revival there, but Naphtali does not repent. It failed to recognize the true beauty of the life of the incarnate God, and the true beauty of the changes he wrought in dying men and women, and the true beauty of his words, but they turned against him. 10,000 swords did not flash under the Syrian sky when soldiers came to arrest him. No, they cried for Barabas. “Crucify Jesus,” they shouted. That country of Naphtali was finally made glorious when Jesus the Messiah walked its lanes, ate and drank in its home, and showed them true beauty. And they saw it not.
So the Lord Jesus who had loved them and spoken to them and healed them and delivered them from the devil dies, naked and nailed to a cross. He had no comeliness; no sinners would look at him hanging there and say to one another, “Isn’t that beautiful!” Yet his people see the beauty of holiness on Golgotha. We glory in the cross of Christ! We never thought we would see God’s glory in such a place. There hangs the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, crucified and dying in darkness, taunted by the crowds redeeming the unlovely that he loved. The fairest of ten thousand is attached with nails to a cross. The rose of Sharon hangs there. Such beauty and holiness have come together there; mercy and judgment have united in the royal death of J
Do you long, even groan at times, for a continual, perfected, physical beauty? Then you can ask God to do this in your life with a confident hope that he will answer you above all your expectations. Though now your beauty is fading with age the Lord plans to change our weak bodies like unto his glorious body. If Adam and Eve lost their beauty we will gain a more glorious beauty than theirs that will never be taken from us. When we see the Lord Jesus we shall be like that altogether lovely one, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. An eternity of beauty in a new heavens and earth redolent with the righteousness of Christ.
20th November 2011 GEOFF THOMAS