Jacob on his deathbed calls for his 12 sons. As he stands on the threshold of eternity, he evaluates each son in turn, summing up his character in a few pithy lines. He then applies the lesson not just to his son but his descendants after him. Jacob’s words however, are more than the spiritual insights of a godly old man; he speaks as a prophet foretelling what is to come. During a winter holiday we climbed Snowdon. The last hour of our descent was in darkness. As we trekked along the path in the misty blue light, there were strange shapes. Were they people, ghosts or even monsters? They were in fact large stones, but in that light, the line between what is and what isn’t, is not always easy to see. The same can be said of Jacob’s words. Much of Redemption’s story has yet to be told and as we view these prophecies in the twilight, it is sometimes hard to make out what is and what isn’t there. Is there more to Jacob’s words than meets the eye?
Grace and beauty
Jacob describes Naphtali as a deer, literally a doe. Biblically speaking, does are famed for their grace and beauty. Proverbs describes a wife as ‘a loving deer and a graceful doe’. A deer also speaks of fleetness of foot. David says of the Lord, ‘He makes my feet like the feet of a deer’. We might object to being told we have feet like an elephant, but who could be upset to hear they’re as swift and agile as a deer? So these are beautiful qualities, but we read on.
‘Naphtali is a deer let loose’ or ‘free-running’. Have we watched deer run? They have a grace and freedom. A little while ago, the actor Patrick McGoohan died. He was best known for that extraordinary 60s series, ‘The Prisoner’, where for 17 episodes he sought to escape from the Village. In the Village people do not have names; on the contrary they are assigned a number. Our hero is told ‘You are number six’, to which he replies, ‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’ And in that moment we know whose side we’re on. We are aligned with this man, against the system and we feel his struggle to be free. And if Naphtali is a free-running, free-spirited deer then we gladly take his side. These are beautiful qualities.
Furthermore what strikes one about deer is their approachability. There is something in those large eyes and kind, gentle features which make deer unthreatening. Approachable, graceful, free-spirited Naphtali, and finally, ‘He uses beautiful words’. His speech is attractive, engaging, joyful even disarming; he is a bearer of good news.
Disciples are made
Some Christians can be described as Naphtalis. They are graceful, free-spirited does. They tread on no-one’s toes and their joy, approachability and spiritual beauty wonderfully adorn the gospel. Wherever these people are, others are drawn to them. Naphtalis are the Christians we want our unconverted friends to meet.
The NKJV translates the second half of verse 21 as ‘he uses beautiful words’, but an equally valid translation reads, ‘he bears beautiful fawns’. Naphtali gives birth to fawns. Do we have to choose between beautiful words and beautiful fawns? No. It is because these people are so attractive and unthreatening, their speech so full of the beauty of Jesus, that wherever they go, disciples are made – they bear beautiful fawns.
Therefore we need to understand our Naphtalis. Some churches do not. Churches with an overriding work ethic, where everyone knows their place in the great scheme, do not always make the best use of these people. Indeed a Naphtali can end up leaving the church (seen as their problem) or else this free-spirited deer is captured, subdued and put to work in a way for which they were never designed. This is a tragedy. Instead of the church benefiting from its Naphtalis, the beautiful dimension they bring to our corporate life is lost. What might have been, if the attractiveness that draws the unconverted and the gracious approachability that builds a sense of family had been encouraged to flourish?
We need to understand our Naphtalis. The triune God has made them. Therefore in church life there must be space for the diversity which a Naphtali brings. They don’t have the strength of an Issachar, or the guile of a Dan or the leadership of a Judah or the organisation of a Joseph, or the fighting qualities of a Gad, or the resoluteness of a Levi, but they do have the beauty and freeness of a deer.
So we don’t put them in positions of leadership – they’re too free-spirited. We don’t get them to carry heavy loads – they’re not strong enough. We don’t put them in charge of organisation – it will never get done. We don’t launch them into attack – they’re deer! We don’t expect them to fight in the last trench – they’re a deer let loose. But we do give them opportunities, where they are free to do what they do best: cultivate relationships both with the unconverted and the people of God, where those lovely qualities and beautiful words are let loose, so that under God, they reproduce disciples after them. They bear beautiful fawns. So for example in a children’s club, one leads, another organises, another deals with discipline issues, leaving space for the Naphthalis to build relationships and draw people to the Friend of sinners.
Committed to his church
Are you a Naphtali? Well, recognise there is a mild rebuke in these words. Verse 21 can also be translated, ‘she gives birth to fawns of the fold’. Isn’t that interesting? She doesn’t give birth on the mountains running free, but in the fold. Her fruitfulness is tied to being settled. So if you are a Naphtali, do you see where the rebuke lies? Some Naphtalis are so free-spirited that they never commit. They run from one thing to another. They’re never settled long enough to cultivate those relationships which will lead to fawns. Their freedom crosses over into unreliability. Now can you stop the free-spirited nature of a Naphtali? Of course not, that’s part of the attraction. But it must be yoked to Christ and accountable to brothers and sisters so that all those beautiful qualities are harnessed for the Kingdom of God in the life of the church.
Dear Naphtali, are you hearing the rebuke? How can you bear fawns, how can you make disciples if you never commit anywhere long enough for relationships to develop? You can’t run wild. The Lord has called you as a Naphtali, but a Naphtali committed to his Church. And if we have any doubt, who came to Naphtali speaking beautiful words?
And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness saw a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. Matthew 4.13-17
Do you see? Your free spirit has been given to you to make Jesus known; to be the bearer of good news, to bear beautiful fawns.
Gerard Hemmings is the pastor of Amyand Park Chapel, Twickenham.back