“Zebulon and Naphtali”
“The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.” (Matthew 4:16)
Zeb’ulon and Naph’talī. Names which seem to come to us from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Place names which seem as unreal as Tatooine and Alderaan. But notwithstanding their strangeness, they are names which evoke a sacred history and geography. And because of this, I want to show, Zebulon and Naphtali name a landscape as intimate and familiar to us as the back of our hand.
Let’s start with the names themselves. They have a very long history. They are, first, the names of two of the sons of the patriarch Jacob, who was himself the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Jacob, you will recall, had twelve sons. Naphtali was number six, and Zebulon was number ten, of the twelve sons. Little Zebbie and Naphie—as I’m sure their mothers called them—were half-brothers, Jacob’s sons by different wives. When they grew up, they would become, along with their brothers, the heads of the eponymous twelve tribes of Israel. The names of the sons became the names of the tribes.
Much later, when the Lord brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, each of the tribes was given a particular region of the land. It was a bit like the way in which the several Native American tribes have jurisdictional areas in Oklahoma: the Chickasaw along the I-35 corridor, the Choctaw in the southeast, and so on. The areas allotted to Zebulon and Naphtali lay in the northernmost region of Canaan, to the northwest of the Sea of Galilee. And so, the names of the tribes became place names. Just as in Oklahoma, tribal names are also the names of places, like Shawnee and Muskogee.
Later again still, in 722 BC, to be exact, Zebulon and Naphtali were among the ten northern tribes of Israel taken into exile by the Assyrians. And from thence the tribes disappear from history, losing all distinct identity, lost among the nations. Their names became a byword, so that the prophet Isaiah, writing after the exile of the tribes, could speak of their ancestral land, the land of Zebulon and Naphtali, as “the land of deep darkness,” “the land of the shadow of death” (Isaiah 9:2).
By the time of Jesus, all this was ancient history, and the region had become known as Galilee, and many Gentiles were settled there. But St Matthew, in his Gospel, calls the region by its ancient names. This would have been like you or me saying that Paris is in the land of the Franks, or calling Istanbul “Constantinople” or “Byzantium.” —Which, by the way, reminds me of lines from a song by the band They Might Be Giants:
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way
My point is that St Matthew deliberately uses the old place names, Zebulon and Naphtali—names which evoke the whole history of Israel. He does so for a specific purpose: he wants to show that Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost—wherever they may be. He draws our attention to the fact that the Lord Jesus began his ministry in the land of the lost tribes, in the land of unfaithfulness and oppression, “Galilee of the Gentiles,” because he wants us to see that Christ has come to find what has been lost and to collect what has been scattered. He wants us to see that Christ has come to redeem Israel from all her sins, and come also to manifest himself to the Gentiles, to be the savior of the world, to draw all people to himself—come as a light shining in “the region and shadow of death.”
St Matthew uses the ancient place names to invoke the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, found in Isaiah, Chapter 9:
In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zeb′ulun and the land of Naph′tali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light:
they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,
upon them hath the light shined. […]
For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.
The Lord Jesus fulfilled these words when he came into Galilee. He fulfilled them when he preached repentance, when he proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, “God’s Realm.” He fulfilled them when he called his first disciples to follow him and to join in his work of drawing men, as in a fisher’s net, to himself. He fulfilled these words when he “went about all Galilee…healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.” He fulfilled them, above all, when he was crucified for us and rose again. And he fulfills them still, whenever he shines in places of darkness and death.
“The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.” Where is this region of darkness and death? And who are the people which dwelt there? — They are you and me. And we know that region like the back of our hand. Zebulon and Naphtali are regions of the soul. They are the dark places in the geography of our lives. Places of sin and shame, places of oppression and poverty, places of damage and disease.
Where are the Zebulons and Naphtalis in your life? Where are the darkened places in your soul? Can you locate in your soul the slough of despair? or the mountain of pride? or the abyss of anger? or the desert of lust? Maybe your Zebulon is littered with the ruins of your faith. Maybe your Naphtali is overgrown with worldly cares and concerns? Maybe it’s that dark valley where you’ve hidden your secret sin, that exam you cheated on, those text messages your wife would not wish to see, those business deals your conscience has buried. Where are the dark and devastated places of your life?
My beloved sisters and brothers, the good news is that these dark places are precisely the places which Christ has come to redeem and heal. He comes to shine in “the region and shadow of death,” and he would shine even in the deepest, darkest, most hidden corner of your soul. He died for you to set you free from sin and shame. He comes to gather what you have scattered. To find what you have lost. To break the yoke of your burden and the rod of your oppressor. He has come to repair your broken heart and make you whole.
And indeed, as baptized Christians, Christ is already at that work in your life and in mine. His light has already dawned over previously devastated regions of our lives. To be sure, in all our souls there are areas that remain in deep darkness. But there are places where Christ has already scattered the darkness. Where are these places in your life? Where are the formerly broken places that Christ has begun to heal? These are the places to remember and memorialize because they are evidence of God’s amazing grace. They are places where grief has given place to joy, places which show forth God’s praise.
And we ought to give God thanks and praise for these places in our lives. And we ought also to tell others about these places, so that they, too, might join in offering praise and thanksgiving to our blessed Redeemer. It is a deeply encouraging thing to do. The other day I experienced this for myself when I went to visit a parishioner in hospital. She was in a good deal of pain, but she shared with me how Christ had been at work in the midst of her sufferings, shining in that darkness, revealing to her ways in which she had been withholding forgiveness from someone, and in so doing, was already softening her heart and making her capable of forgiving that person. Her hospital bed had become a holy place of prayer, a place from which she humbly proclaimed what God had done for her.
And this bearing witness to what God has done is central to our vocation as Christians. As St Paul says, “Christ sent me…to preach the gospel,” to lift up “the cross of Christ,” to point to “Christ crucified.” We, too, are sent to proclaim Christ crucified—and to do so not merely as a past event, but as a present reality in our lives. Christians, says Michael Ramsey, “are sent to be the place where the Passion of Jesus Christ is known and where witness is borne to the Resurrection from the dead.” And it’s what we recognize in today’s collect, when we ask for the grace “to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.” And it’s what we are called to as a Parish: to proclaim to all souls the good news of God’s salvation.
 Isaiah 9:1–2, 4. vs. 1 (RSV); vss. 2, 4 (KJV).