In Deut. 33:23, we read,
23 And of Naphtali he said, “O Naphtali, satisfied with favor, and full of the blessing of the Lord, take possession of the sea and the south.”
Other than linking Naphtali with the sea, Moses says little about him. However, it is an actual blessing, rather than just a prophetic statement. Jacob had said even less about him in Gen. 49:21,
21 Naphtali is a doe let loose; he gives beautiful words.
Ferrar Fenton gives us a better sense of the meaning:
21 Naphtali is a nimble stag. He has the gift of eloquent speech!
Naphtali, the Nimble One
The book of Jasher portrays Naphtali as a long-distance runner and compares him to a stag. In its account of Jacob’s burial in the cave of his fathers, it says that Esau and his men stood in the way, claiming that the cave belonged to them. The sons of Jacob objected, saying that they had written proof that Esau had sold Jacob this burial place in exchange for the rest of the wealth of the estate.
Esau demanded to see the documents, so Naphtali was sent back to Egypt to retrieve those records. Jasher 56:57-59 says,
57 And Joseph called to Naphtali his brother, and he said, “Hasten quickly, stay not, and run I pray thee to Egypt and bring all the records; the record of the purchase, the sealed record and the open record, and also all the first records in which all the transactions of the birthright are written, fetch thou. 58 And thou shalt bring them unto us hither, that we may know from them all the words of Esau and his sons which they spoke this day. 59 And Naphtali hearkened to the voice of Joseph and he hastened and ran to go down to Egypt, and Naphtali was lighter on foot than any of the stags that were upon the wilderness, for he would go upon ears of corn without crushing them.
Naphtali was a tremendous long-distance runner. This compares him to a stag. But the other description about running on “ears of corn without crushing them” is either an idiom or it simply has a double meaning. To have “the gift of eloquent speech” is the equivalent of not “crushing” one’s ears when a speech is given. In other words, it was a pleasure to listen to him speak, as opposed to being burdensome and boring.
Naphtali, the Wrestler
Going back to his birth, we read in Gen. 30:7, 8,
7 And Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8 So Rachel said, “With mighty [elohim] wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and I have indeed prevailed.” And she named him Naphtali [“my wrestling”].
Rachel had her own personal reasons for naming him “my wrestling.” But his name became prophetic in another way. First, the word “mighty” is from the Hebrew word Elohim, “God or gods.” Secondly, “wrestlings” is from the Hebrew word naphtuwlim, the plural of naphtuwl, “contention, battle, fight.” Naphtuwl is from the root word pathal, “to twist, wrestle.”
It is unclear if Rachel’s thought was that she was wrestling God or if God was working with many twists and turns in their lives. Certainly, it runs parallel to a later time when Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, which he thought was a man until something supernatural occurred (Gen. 32:24). So both Jacob and Rachel “wrestled” with God in their own way, and each “prevailed” (yakol). The same word is used in Gen. 32:28 when it says that Jacob “prevailed.”
Even as Jacob and Esau had contended for the birthright, so also did Leah and Rachel contend (“wrestle”) in their child-bearing competition, each having the goal of bringing forth the son who would inherit the birthright.
Rachel thought she was wrestling with her sister, while Jacob thought he was wrestling with his brother. In the end, they both discovered by revelation that they had been wrestling with God, and through this they learned the sovereignty of God.
By these stories we see how Naphtali’s life was a prophecy. He pictures a long-distance runner—a stag—who endures to the end to become an overcomer. Jacob was a “heel-catcher” who caught up to Esau and passed him in the end. Rachel was childless and was soon far behind Leah in the competition for children, but in the end she too prevailed by bringing forth Joseph, the inheritor of the birthright.
Naphtali’s Inheritance in Canaan
In the time of Joshua, when the twelve tribes received their inheritance, Naphtali was given land in the north above Zebulun. Asher was to the west, “Judah upon Jordan” to the east (Joshua 19:34, KJV). The main tribe of Judah was located far to the south, but apparently there was a settlement that went by the name of “Judah” that was located at the Jordan River as it flowed out south from the Sea of Galilee.
One of their fortified cities was Chinnereth (Joshua 19:35), which is the Hebrew name for the Sea of Galilee. It means “harps.”
So the prophecy in Isaiah 9:1 about the darkness that was to come upon Zebulun and Naphtali and “Galilee of the nations” applied to the tribe of Naphtali. For this reason Jesus moved to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. The light of Christ thus came not only to Zebulun but also to Naphtali (Matt. 4:13-16). Zebulun was given the “gift” of light, but Naphtali shows how Christ “wrestled” with the people in His call to repentance (Matt. 4:17).
By combining the two tribal blessings, Isaiah sees Galilee of the Nations as a long-term “marathon” project, where the light eventually wins over the darkness. Though Christ was the contender for the throne, He understood the long-term divine plan, and in this way he differed from both Jacob and Rachel, who thought that they had to force the issue in order to inherit. Jesus acted like a lamb and did not fight to obtain the scepter.
Christ’s wrestling was in the area of preaching and teaching, for He had to contend with long-established traditions of men. His preaching, however, was eloquent, and He did not “crush their ears.” Yet He spoke in parables that most of them did not understand. Even so, the multitudes came to hear Him, and many followed the light that He presented to them as a gift from God.