The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Out of Nowhere

Why is it so important to the author of Matthew’s Gospel that we know what happened in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Matthew 4:12-23

For Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011: Year A – Epiphany 3

Let’s get started!

It is Gospel go time. After six weeks of looking forward to, and then doting on the baby Jesus (however briefly), half of which were spent being reassured that John the Baptist was not the Messiah, we can finally get on with it. John has been arrested and we can put him away until the summer solstice (his feast day, and you don’t want to miss out on celebrating the feast day of a man whose head was served on a platter at a feast).

This is the introduction, the declaration, the thesis statement, the beginning of what we are all about. This is a full portion of scripture this week. There is geography, quotes from Isaiah, the calling of disciples and the inaugural proclamation of the Good News. This is one of those weeks where a preacher sort of has to just pick one.

I’ll have “Geography” for $50, please.

The land of Zebulun and NaphtaliZebulun and Naphtali!? Who are these guys? They sound like a Jethro Tull album and a bar of hippie soap or maybe a hillbilly Italian law firm (apologies to classic rock aficionados and those who self-identify as hippies, hillbillies or Italian lawyers). Zebulun and Naphtali are two of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are sons number two and six of Jacobs. Their mothers are Leah and Bilhah respectively.

But why does the proclamation of the Kingdom of God start in the territories granted to these two centuries earlier? Zebulun and Naphtali? They are to the tribes of Israel what Thaddeus and Bartholomew are to the disciples. Why does the incarnation of the word of God not start in Jerusalem, but instead begins out in the Gentile countryside?

The Text Pushes Back

The text appears to answer this question of course, but really only pushes it back.

He left Nazareth and made his home in… Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

In all four gospels Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, but only in Matthew is the geographical location identified as the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. Only in Matthew is this Isaiah quote included.

The Hardest Question

Why is it so important to the author of Matthew’s Gospel that we know what happened in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Amigo Cowboy says:

    It is early in the week, for sure. But the words Zebulun and Naphtali settle in my mind much the way the Enchanted Forest did in my childhood. The Enchanted Forest was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most sacred places of my childhood. This place dripped with the presence of God. Behind every tree was an adventure. There was an abandoned bridge over a creek. There was a dense bamboo forest behind an old farm house. Walking trails led to fields, creeks…among more trees than I could count! I look back and think God cut those trails and hid behind the trees. Something died within me the day the bulldozers began tearing down the sacred trees. A few were spared and turned into yard ornaments in the new, ugly neighborhood. But the majority of them fell, and with them the spirit of the land went with it. Unimaginative cardboard houses stuck too close together were their replacements. I will never forget the last remnant, a gigantic oak tree that once stood in front of the old farm house. Soon it died as part of someone’s front yard, and it came down unceremoniously…not even noticed for what it was once a part of. Pretty soon no one bothered to remember that the new neighborhood was once sacred ground.

    This reminds me that land holds sacred meaning and once was considered sacred place. It haunts me how often this happens in our land. Maybe that’s why movies and documentaries are made about “land with dew still on it” or “frontiers seen before they disappear,” etc.

    So it is not out of the question that Zebulun and Naphtali endured a similar fate. Much had happened since the first generation of Chosen People set foot in such places, marked by the Divine, residing among the sacred. Errors, mistakes, violations, deep hurts, horrendous acts all piled up over the centuries. With every eroding act, the inhabitants committed deep violence against their Lord, their Sacred King. And the sacred relationship that held them together in sacred trust with their land soon fell apart. Distance between people and God grew. By the time the Romans took the territory, the sacred names Zebulun and Naphtali probably meant nothing more than mere names on a sign.

    My guess is that the people of these places lived in a time when nothing much sacred was recognized or going on. A bunch of spiritual bulldozers turned the land into a crappy cardboard neighborhood. Nothing is going on except people hanging around. They don’t even know who God is anymore. And the few that still do recognize YHWH do not remember what it means. But now they have seen a great, unmistakable, amazing, Spirit-giving act. It would rival the frontier being restored. It would be like the Enchanted Forest suddenly appearing again.

    I hazard only a guess. You ask hard questions. Thanks for providing a place to wrestle.

  2. Rev. Russell says:

    Cowboy, thanks for the image of what a land of darkness and desolation might look like. It is always helpful to remember “what it was like before” When we look around maybe we can imagine what used to be and see with some grace what is to come.

  3. Joe Sellepack says:

    Very interesting question! I like the response above too.

    Issue for me is that redemption and the work of the Gospel is never done in a vaccum and is deeply rooted in time and place. Impossible to get to Jesus without going through the graveyard of his geneology and it’s impossible for redemption to take place without the story of Zebulun and Naphtali… Or the story of Joe Sellepack without Taylor MI where I grew up and Binghamton NY where I now reside. The scripture is firmly rooted in place and in history. Anything else is gnostic.

  4. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Yes…deeply rooted…redemtively rooted. The particular places, situations, locations, histories, etc. all are in various levels of fracture, brokenness, decay, and in dire need of deep healing. Even the land itself bears witness to the condition. As a starting place for the sermon, I thought about going back in time and reading a snippet/paraphrasing from when the tribes received their inheritance, then inviting the imagination to think about the layers of ensuing spiritual garbage that piled up in these places. Or something like this to get at the reference to the “great light” that has appeared in the land….

  5. PastorMom says:

    I love this site. Thank you for asking the tough questions. Still wrestling with “Why didn’t John follow his own damn finger?” Anyway, just wanted to give a shout out to Amigo Cowboy. Great reflection on the question — I didn’t know there were any cowboys in Ellicott City.

  6. Beach Walkin says:

    When Jacob gave his last blessings to his sons… he gave Zebulun these words: ‘Zebulun shall settle at the shore of the sea; he shall be a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.’… and… he gave Naphtali these words: ‘Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears lovely fawns.’

    Does Zebulun’s blessing point to Jesus as a safe harbor… a place of healing water? Does Naphtali’s blessing point to Jesus as mothering God… willing to lay down her life… for her young? At the same time… do these two blessings point to us… as ships which will sail into certain destruction unless guided to a safe harbor… and as fawns incapable of truly understanding what can harm us (or save us)?

    Just wondering… in the shalom of God’s in-breaking reign.

  7. Christian says:

    Napthali brings to my mind Tobit 1. Clearly there was a significant amount of intertestamental shame about being from the north:

    “When I was in my own country, in the land of Israel, while I was still a young man, the whole tribe of my ancestor Naphtali deserted the house of David and Jerusalem. This city had been chosen from among all the tribes of Israel, where all the tribes of Israel should offer sacrifice and where the temple, the dwelling of God, had been consecrated and established for all generations forever. All my kindred and our ancestral house of Naphtali sacrificed to the calf that King Jeroboam of Israel had erected in Dan and on all the mountains of Galilee. But I alone went often to Jerusalem for the festivals, as it is prescribed for all Israel by an everlasting decree. I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first fruits of the crops and the firstlings of the flock, the tithes of the cattle, and the first shearings of the sheep.”

    The turnabout in Matthew 4, must have felt like a pretty radical expression of grace as far as the Jews were concerned. Tobit’s THQ could have been something like: Why doesn’t God just turn out the lights and shut the door on Naphtaleans.

  8. RevD says:

    Much thanks to Beth Lewis and her webinar that pointed me to this site!

    Am I oversimplifying the significance of Zebulun and Naphtali to say that perhaps they are lifted up for the reader for purely symbolic reasons? It seems pretty clear that one could point to any land or people and witness the ways they have cast themselves into darkness.

    In this way, it seems less about prophecy fulfillment and more about context and identification… if Jesus would consider beginning his ministry even in such places as Zebulun and Naphtali (with all the history and its attendant baggage) then perhaps this light of hope and new life could be for me as well!

    Just thinkin’… (thanks for putting Locomotive Breath in my head! now I gotta go find it on iTunes or something!)

  9. Christian, thanks for the Tobit and the notion of the shame of the North. It really does make it seem radical and almost an insult, that this is where it begins.

    RevD, God took the handle and it couldn’t slow down, no it couldn’t slow down.

  10. It’s Saturday afternoon, what am I still doing here reading even more good, hard questions about this text? Like I didn’t have enough to consider already? Thanks to all for many excellent angles…

    Similar to the shame notion, one commentary I read suggested that Z & N were akin to the bad part of town, the wrong side of the tracks. Perhaps Matthew’s Jesus begins ministry there because the need is great there? (Admittedly, that’s not exactly a radical idea.)

    If we accept the notion that Matt. is the “most Jewish” of the gospels – and further, that Jesus is in some way the new Moses – perhaps the liberation Jesus brings (his Exodus, if you will) needs an Egypt parallel? If so, does a place where Jews and gentiles live under an oppressive gentile king (which, as I understand it, is one way to describe the land of Z&N), fit the bill?

    But I can’t make that argument strictly from the text, so maybe that’s out of bounds here.

    I think my hardest question of this text is (and it may very well be that this is simply another way of stating Russell’s question): How does where Jesus is affect the meaning of the gospel he proclaims?

    And the fairly obvious follow up would be: Whatever the answer to that question is, what are the implications for we who would follow Jesus today?

  11. Rev. Russell says:

    Dave, your questions brings to mind, a really hard question that comes up for me a lot. If it is clear that Jesus’ project is all about bringing the Good News to the outsiders, the others, the powerless–how do we hear it when we are not in Z & N we are not even in Jerusalem, but are the elite at the center of the Roman Empire. I better get to work on my sermon too.

  12. Russell, for me too, that really is the $64,000 question. (How old is that reference? Ergo, how old am I? Yikes)

    How do we who enjoy hegemony hear a message meant for those we oppress? How do we hear it without co-opting it for our own purpose, without removing the revolutionary notes?

  13. therevmom says:

    Wow… great fodder for this last minute sermon writer. I love Cowboy’s image of the sacred forest turned ticky-tacky neighborhood. Add to that Christian’s Tobit reference, and you’ve helped me put the gospel to this Interim Pastorate very well…. Thanks y’all.

  14. Samuel says:

    Brothers and Sister;

    Read carefully the book Mathew & Empire: Initial Exploration, by Dr. Warren Carter of Brite Divinity School. The author explain accurately this point.


  15. Rev. Russell says:

    I actually just started the book. I am going to use it for a Bible Study. I think it will be a great grounding for this year in Matthew.

  16. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Christian, thank you for the Tobit reference…that underscores the history behind the “present and darkened captivity” of the land. And Beach Walkin, nice imagery that reminds me that the darkness and captivity is not the vision for the land or the people.

  17. Bill Schlesinger says:

    Check out the Ezekiel passages in ch. 47 & 8; this was a seaside area that had been devastated and to which healing was promised — and a land where the ‘strangers who sojourn there’ are promised a share in that healing.


  1. […] than that, we don’t know a whole lot about them as they occupy little of Israel’s history. As a friend of mine says, “They are to the tribes of Israel what Thaddeus and Bartholomew are to the […]

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