ColumnsSunday’s Word

Land of Zebulun; land of Naphtali

January 26, 2020


Is 8:23—9:3

Land of Zebulun; land of Naphtali

Ps 27:1, 4, 13-14

The Lord is my refuge

1 Cor 1:10-13, 17

Rivalries are reported among you

Mt 3:12-23

Jesus begins his mission 012620.cfm


Once again an Old Testament passage quoted in the Gospel reading is included as the first reading for the day. So what is happening here? Let’s look.

The passage from Isaiah is part of that section of his book relating the “Emmanuel” (Isa 6-12). It is a psalm or poem written for the arrival of a new king in the David family. The poem proper begins with the words “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The poem continues on to say “a child is born to us, a son is given to us,” but the full poem (9:1-8) is not included in today’s selection. This is because the liturgy is more interested in the introduction to the poem, in Isaiah 8:23, where it talks of Zebulon and Naphtali.

By the way, this is one place in which different Bibles number verses differently. In Catholic Bibles the poem is listed as Isaiah 9:1-8; but in Protestant Bibles it is Isaiah 9:2-9. And this is because the latter includes the introduction as part of the chapter.

Presumably, the introduction was added to explain the meaning of the poem. But in our case, we need to have the explanation explained. As the map at the back of your Bible will show, Zebulon and Naphtali were the northernmost of the tribal territories of early Israel. After the division of the kingdom at the death of Solomon, ten of the northern tribes formed their own nation, which they called Israel. It lasted until 721 B.C., when Sargon II Assyria captured it and dissolved the nation. He displaced the population, resettling the land with peoples of five other nations captured by Assyria (2 Kings 17:24). This was the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Meanwhile, Isaiah was carrying out his prophetic call in Jerusalem, the capital of the southern of the two kingdoms, Judea. It would seem that his efforts contributed to the survival of Judea during the time of jeopardy that saw the fall of the north. Judea lasted until the Babylonian siege of 587 B.C., then it too fell, beginning the time of the Babylonian exile.

But earlier than all of this, Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria had already targeted the northern kingdom, taking over the territory of the two northernmost tribes, Zebulon and Naphtali. This was in 732 B.C., about a decade earlier that the fall of the rest of the northern kingdom. Isaiah is referring to this early loss, when he says, “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.” But the prophet anticipates a reversal of fortune, when “the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles is glorified.

Matthew quotes the introduction and the first line of the poem in his account of the beginning of Jesus’ public life. There are some slight changes in wording. “District of the Gentiles” becomes “Galilee of the Gentiles.” But it the same place. For the territory of Galilee was the same as the ancient tribal lands of Zebulon and Naphtali.

Archeologists have found that this northernmost territory was not resettled by Israelites in the time between 732 and about 104 B.C., when the Hasmoneans, descendants of the Maccabees, retook the land. It was resettled by Judeans, presumably including the families of Joseph and Mary, the foster father and the mother of Jesus.

So what is Matthew saying by using this quotation? One good surmise is that he shows Jesus fulfilling an ancient prophecy by beginning his public ministry in Galilee. He will eventually work his way down to Judea, and Jerusalem. But for the present, first lost is first regained.

For reflection: The New Testament often leans on the Old Testament to makes its points.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.