ZEBULUN ISSACHAR: Merchant and Servant
“ZEBULUN shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships, and his border shall be unto Sidon” (Gen. 49:13).
The aged patriarch, Jacob, continued his series of prophetic blessings on his twelve sons with brief but significant statements about Zebulun, Leah’s sixthborn, and Issachar, her fifthborn.
The birth of Zebulun is recorded in Genesis 30:19-20. At that time his mother Leah expressed the hope, “now will my husband dwell with me . . . .” The name Zebulun means dwelling. Nothing of significance about the man Zebulun is recorded in Genesis. Evidently he simply joined with his brethren in their common actions such as the selling of Joseph into Egypt and their later trips to Egypt during the famine.
Jacob’s prophecy about Zebulun’s descendants speaks of maritime traders. They will live near the “seas” (plural in Hebrew), a reference to their tribal allotment between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee (see Josh. 19:10-16 and map). Located in the western end of the Valley of Jezreel, the tribe of Zebulun was traversed by one of the great trading routes of antiquity, the Via Maris (way of the sea). This caravan route reached from Damascus in the northeast to Egypt in the southwest. Thus, lying between two seas and on a trade route, Zebulun was heavily involved in commercial ventures. Moses’ later blessing on the tribes in Deuteronomy 33 reflects this characteristic of Zebulun. Among other things he says, “. . . for they shall suck the abundance of the seas, and treasures hidden in the sand” (Dt. 33:19).
The second truth about Zebulun in Jacob’s prophecy is the statement, “and his border shall be unto Sidon.” Sidon (or Zidon) was a great northern Canaanite city in the land that was later called Phoenicia, and today is called Lebanon. According to the tribal allotments, Zebulun’s territory was actually separated from Sidon by the tribe of Asher (Josh. 19:24-31). Asher was never able, however, to dislodge the Canaanites who dwelt in that coastal area north of Mount Carmel and Haifa Bay. Evidently, according to this prophecy, Zebulunites in later days began to filter into this coastal area bordering Phoenicia, thus fulfilling this prophecy. An interesting modern confirmation of this is the valley paralleling this northern coast which is called the Valley of Zebulun, although it is in the area allotted to Asher but not conquered by that tribe.
The later history of Zebulun does not reveal any notable individuals. The most famous Zebulunite in Scripture was Elon, who Judged Israel for ten years (Jud. 12:11-12). What is recorded about the tribe as a whole, however, is quite notable. Zebulun is memorialized in the “Song of Deborah and Barak” recorded in the fifth chapter of Judges. This song was composed to memorialize God’s deliverance of the Israelites from the army of Jabin, king of Hazor, whose commanding officer was Sisera. The battle, recorded in Judges 4, took place in the Valley of Jezreel — right in Zebulun’s backyard! Evidently each tribe had the opportunity to send a contingent of volunteers to the conflict. The tribes of Reuben, Gilead (Gad), Dan and Asher failed to respond to the call and were censured in the song (Jud. 5:15-17). Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali were noted for their willingness to volunteer for the battle (Jud. 5:14-15, 18). Particular honor was accorded to Zebulun: “Zebulun and Naphtali were a people who jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field” (Jud. 5:18). This testimony of the Zebulunites’ bravery and willingness to risk their own lives for God’s cause serves as a stirring example to today’s soldiers for Christ. A New Testament parallel is found in that noble word of commendation for Paul and Barnabas issued by the Jerusalem church: “Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26). The trail of those saints willing to sacrifice their lives for the Lord reaches from notables of the early church like Stephen and Justin Martyr through such modern martyrs as the Auca missionaries and others who suffer the ultimate human sacrifice because of their willingness to lay down their lives for the gospel.
Perhaps the characteristic that enabled Zebulun to be so bold is found in an obscure verse hidden away in that little known but enlightening pair of books called the Chronicles: “Of Zebulun, such as went forth to battle, expert in war, with all instruments of war, fifty thousand who could keep rank; they were not of double heart” (1 Chr. 12:33). Singleness of heart and mind enabled Zebulun to be stable and successful. They kept rank and did not flee the battle because their attitude was the same as that of the Apostle Paul: “. . . but this one thing I do . . .” (Phil. 3:13). A divided heart and mind results in instability: “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:8). This is the great lesson from Zebulun: courage to face the conflict due to an unswerving commitment to the goal.
“ISSACHAR is a strong ass crouching down between two burdens; And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto forced labor” (Gen. 49:14-15).
Jacob closed his series of prophetic blessings on his sons through Leah by comparing her fifthborn son, Issachar, to a burden-bearing donkey. Issachar means hire or wages, and he was named this because of his mother’s exclamation at his birth. “And God hearkened unto Leah, and she conceived, and bore Jacob the fifth son. And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband: and she called his name Issachar” (Gen. 30:17-18). Nothing specific is known of the man Issachar. Because of this lack of information, the ancient rabbis developed traditions about each of the brothers. In Jewish tradition, therefore, Issachar was a student of the Torah, while his younger brother Zebulun toiled as a merchant supporting Issachar in his studies. Although there is no scriptural warrant for this tradition, the rabbis based it on Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 33:18, “And of Zebulun he said, Rejoice, Zebulun, in thy going out; and, Issachar, in thy tents.”
“Issachar is a strong ass crouching down between two burdens” (Gen. 49:14). In twentieth century terminology, to call someone a “donkey” would not be a compliment (unless he was a Democrat!). However, no criticism was implied in Jacob’s statement. Donkeys in ancient Israel were most valuable animals of service. This was particularly true since it was an age without trucks and trains. Donkeys carried most of the cargo that had to be transported (cf. Dt. 5:14; 22:10; 2 Sam. 19:26). It should be noted that the donkey was also associated later with the Messiah (Zech. 9:9). The additional characteristic of Issachar is that he will be a “strong ass, crouching down between two burdens.” The word “burden” can also be understood as saddlebags, the picture being a graphic one of the large saddlebags placed on each side of a crouching donkey.
There is a further geographical characteristic of Issachar portrayed in this vivid word picture. An examination of the tribal allotment to Issachar in Joshua 19:17-22 will reveal that he was assigned the fertile eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. His boundary on the north was Mount Tabor and on the south Mount Gilboa. Thus, these two mountains served as the large “burdens” on the sides of Issachar.
Jacob’s final statement about his son has been misunderstood by many commentators. “And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto forced labor” (Gen. 49:15). One modern writer has said, “It is apparent that this pronouncement is caustic rather than complimentary” (Speiser). This interpretation views the tribe as lazy cowards who were content to enjoy their land without fighting to keep its independence. This trait, however, is not characteristic of the few Issacharites which are mentioned in Scripture. According to Judges 10:1-2, Tola, a man of Issachar, judged Israel for twenty-three years and was evidently a brave leader. The references to the tribe as a whole are few but all commendatory. The great commentator Adam Clarke has summarized these references well. “The cowardice that is attributed to this tribe, certainty does not agree with the view in which they are exhibited in Scripture. In Judges 5:15 they are praised for their powerful assistance. In 1 Chronicles 7:1-5 they are said to have been ‘valiant men of might in all their families, and in all their generations.’ It appears that they were a laborious, hardy, valiant tribe, patient in labor, and invincible in war, bearing both these burdens with great constancy whenever it was necessary.”
The only other reference to Issachar is also complimentary, “. . . men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do . . .” (1 Chr. 12:32). Rather than criticizing Issachar, Jacob portrayed him as being a burden bearer — a trait sorely lacking and sorely needed in God’s people today. The apostle reminds us, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Dear reader, are you a “burden creator” for others or a “burden bearer”? Do you shoulder the heavy burdens that some of God’s children labor under, or do you add additional burdens to already weary shoulders? God, grant us a host of Zebuluns and Issachars in our midst!