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What About Jacob’s Prophecy Regarding Zebulun?

When Jacob pronounced the blessings upon his sons near the time of his death, he said of Zebulun: “Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for a haven of ships; and his border shall be upon Sidon” (Genesis 49:13).

The alleged “problem” with this prophecy is that, purportedly, the tribe of Zebulun never realized the territory specified in the text. What should be said regarding this matter?

There are a number of possible solutions to the seeming difficulty, some of which, curiously enough, are suggested even by liberal writers.

(1) Some argue that the Genesis text does not demand that the tribal allotment for Zebulun actually border the Mediterranean Sea. Leupold, for example, contends that the grammar of the text can suggest that the tribe was to live near the Sea. “[I]t is not definitely stated that he is to dwell at or on the seashore but ‘toward’ it — lechoph yammim” (p. 1185). Kidner agrees, “the prepositions in the verse could mean ‘towards’” (p. 219).

(2) Another view, suggested by Kidner, is that both the seacoast and Sidon were near enough to Zebulun’s territory “to be enriched by the seaborne trade” (p. 219). Of both Zebulun and Issachar, it was said: “they draw from the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand” (Deuteronomy 33:18-19, ESV).

In connection with this passage, Keil thought that Jacob’s intention was “not so much to show the tribe its dwelling-place in Canaan, as to point out the blessing which it would receive from the situation of its inheritance” (p. 402).

(3) One theory contends that the prophecy refers to an early period in Israel’s settlement of the land when Zebulun, along with Issachar, was attempting “to become established” on the Sea of Galilee (Elliger, p. 941). Hamilton inclines to the “Sea of Galilee” view as well (p. 664).

(4) Another idea is that the prophetic utterance “could refer to the tribe’s Solomonic borders, which extended to the Mediterranean” (Jeansonne, p. 1056; cf. 1 Kings 4:21).

(5) Professor Livingston seemed to think that the language of the Genesis text was somewhat symbolic, hinting merely that Zebulun would be associated “with sea commerce. These people would be energetic traders” (p. 162).

(6) It may be the case that the descriptive in Genesis refers not so much to the actual tribal boundaries, but to where the descendants of this tribe might have roamed and lived from time to time. Alders notes that it is possible that “later shifts in the population of that area did place Zebulun on the coast,” even though such is not explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament (p. 282).

The tribes did, in fact, tend to wander. Josephus wrote: “The tribe of Zebulon’s lot included the land which lay as far as the Lake of Genesareth [Sea of Galilee], and that which belonged to Carmel and the sea [Mediterranean]” (Antiquities, 5.1.22). Some scholars believe there is evidence that the tribe of Zebulun penetrated into the Plain of Acco, likely under the patronage of several Canaanite cities (Aharoni, p. 18).

One may recall that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth (in the territory of Zebulun), even though they were descended from the tribe of Judah.

With so many possible solutions proffered concerning the puzzling declaration of Jacob, it is wholly unrealistic to suggest that the prophecy was never fulfilled, and so to conclude that the biblical record is in error.

It is an odd circumstance that some scholars claim Zebulun never did attain the land prophesied by Jacob, while other equally competent authorities argue that the tribal settlement did satisfy the language of the Genesis text. In the meantime, all admit that the boundary specifications of Joshua 19:10-16 are quite vague — some cities not being mentioned by name, while others still lie buried in the dust of antiquity — not yet identified!

Finally, there is this important point. “The language here used, though in all material points fulfilled in the subsequent history, is just what would not have been written by a forger in after times” (Browne, p. 229). This fact tends to discredit the liberal theory of a late-date for Genesis.

Scripture references: Genesis 49:13; Deuteronomy 33:18-19; 1 Kings 4:21; Joshua 19:10-16

  • Aalders, G.Ch. (1981), “Genesis,” The Bible Student’s Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), Vol. II.
    Aharoni, Y. (1979), The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography (Philadelphia: Westminster).
    Browne, E. Harold (1981 ed.), “Genesis,” The Bible Commentary, F.C. Cook, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker).
    Elliger, Karl (1962), “Zebulun,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, G.A. Buttrick, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon), Vol. 4.
    Hamilton, Victor P. (1995), The Book of Genesis — Chapters 18-50, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
    Jeansonne, Sharon Pace (1992), “Zebulun,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, ed. (New York: Doubleday), Vol. VI.
    Keil, C.F. (1980), “The Pentateuch,” Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. I.
    Kidner, Derek (1967), Genesis — Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity).
    Leupold, H.C. (1950), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. II.
    Livingston, George H. (1969), “Genesis,” Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Press), Vol. 1.