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In describing the borders of every inherited piece of land in the book of Joshua it is said that the border of Naphtali touches Judah at the Jordan on the east.

Then the border turned westward to Aznoth-tabor and ran from there to Hukkok, touching Zebulun on the south side, Asher on the west, and Judah at the Jordan on the east. (Joshua 19:34)

But when I look at a map I see the land of Naphtali to be way up north in Israel and Juda in the deep south. How should I read the phrase 'touching borders', since the only thing these two tribes had in common is the river Jordan?

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  • Deuteronomy 33:23 also speaks of Naphtali's portion being in the south – b a Jun 13 '19 at 17:09
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An excellent question that has been discussed at length and caused untold consternation for thousands of years. Here is my suggestion as to its resolution.

The text MIGHT be read that the eastern border of Naphtali was the same as that of Judah, namely, the Jordan River. This does not violate the text but allows the two territories to be separated as the map correctly suggests. That is, both had the same border (Jordan River) but did not touch.

The Pulpit commentary has another suggestion which is equally plausible:

We have it here clearly stated that Naphtali was bordered on the south by Zebulun, on the west by Asher, and on the east by "Judah upon Jordan." To Judah. These words have caused great trouble to translators and expositors for 2,000 years. The LXX. omits them altogether, rendering, "and the Jordan to the eastward." The Masorites, by inserting a disjunctive accent between them and the words that follow, would have us render, "and to Judah: Jordan towards the sun rising," or, "is towards the sunrising," a rendering which gives no reasonable sense. They unquestionably form part of the text, since no version but the LXX. omits them. A suggestion of Von Raumer's has found favour that the cities called Havoth Jair, which were on the eastern side of Jordan, opposite the inheritance of Naphtali, are meant. Jair was a descendant of Judah by the father's side, through Hezron. So Ritter, 4:338 (see 1 Chronicles 2:21-23). It would seem that the principle of female inheritance, having once been admitted in the tribe of Manasseh, was found capable of further extension. But to the majority of the Israelites this settlement would no doubt be regarded as an offshoot of the tribe of Judah.

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While I agree that this passage gives a problematic description and appreciate user25930's answer, I think that the map you are using is not a particularly good one and that if you had a better map there might be a better explanation (maybe).

The biggest problem with the map you have (as concerns this case) is that it has Manasseh (both East and West) both running through the middle in one big impenetrable blob, but this is, I think, inaccurate.

The text, at Joshua 13:27 describes Gad as "having the Jordan as a boundary, to the lower end of the Sea of Chinnereth". So Gad's territory ran up the Jordan River to the sea of Chinnereth (Galilee), making a distinct break between the Manassehs. Your map also presumes that West Manasseh filled the space running South along the West side of the Jordan to Gilgal, but so far as I know, Joshua 16-17 doesn't describe this. In 17:7 it says that West Manasseh reached as far as Micmethath (the northernmost point of Ephraim), and verse 10 says that the Eastern border is Issachar (not the Jordan). So the West side of the Jordan river valley is left open and cartographers have little choice but to creatively guess at who got that area.

So, it is possible that there's a strip of land running down the west side of the Jordan which is unoccupied by any other tribe. I propose that Naphtali filled that narrow strip of land and reached down to Judah. I compiled the map below using resources from BibleAtlas.org and many hours of other personal study. The tribal border outlines are my own:

Most accurate map of 12 tribes of Israel land allotments

You can see here that Naphtali is East of Judah. This works with the King James translation that Naphtali was "to Judah upon Jordan toward the sunrising"

The big problem with that proposal is that the text does say that both Issachar and Ephraim reached the Jordan (your map doesn't show that for Ephraim). If both of them touched the Jordan, it seems that Naptali wouldn't have had room to fit past them. I propose the following possible solutions:

  1. Naphtali's territory was broken into pieces along that strip. You'll note that with many of the tribes, the borders aren't even really listed so much as the cities are listed. Our firm conception of strict borders doesn't really mesh with the ancient Hebrew idea. If Naphtalites were living in a place, it became part of Naphtali, whether or not it was all one contiguous land mass.

  2. The borders of Ephraim and Issachar didn't so much reach the border as they had an easement though Naphtali to make use of the Jordan, because it was a valuable resource. My reading of Joshua 16 describes Ephraim that way, and you can see that on my map Ephraim has only a finger reaching down to meet the Jordan.

  3. Ephraim and Issachar did reach the Jordan, but only in the sense that they reached major tributaries of the Jordan (as I have above for Issachar), giving them access to the river without blocking Naphtali's Southern strip.

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  • +1 for Impressive work. Just wanted to note, you write "Our firm conception of strict borders doesn't really mesh with the ancient Hebrew idea. If Naphtalites were living in a place, it became part of Naphtali, whether or not it was all one contiguous land mass." If that's true, then why propose that Naphtali's border had an awkward strip running along the Jordan touching Judah on the south. Since as you say the land mass must not be contiguous, shouldn't we agree with the standard maps and propose that Naphtali owned a separate piece of land alongside Benjamin and touching the land of Judah? – Bach May 22 at 16:01
  • @Bach Is there a standard map? I've seen different variations. It is definitely true that these borders weren't strict - much of this territory (Dan particularly) was never conquered, so when we're talking about this map we're really talking ideals, not actual outcomes. Also note that the descriptors in Josh. 18-19 are really just lists of cities and not border outlines at all. – Truth May 22 at 22:58
  • @Bach - But concerning the "separate piece" theory, you'll note that it isn't my favorite solution (my map doesn't reflect it). But I wouldn't go so far as to Sandwich Naphtali between Benjamin and Judah because all of that land is already pretty clearly accounted for. This strip of land West of the Jordan is never really described as being anyone's, unless the one verse in question is intended to say that Naphtali belongs there. I'm trying to draw the most likely conclusion that takes all of the text into account, rather than doing what's easy and force fitting. Hopefully I've done that. – Truth May 22 at 23:02
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The reason those and other similar verses are confusing is because when it says that the border of a certain tribe continues on to some distant point then while the border may indeed continue to that point it may no longer be the border of that tribe but becomes the border of some other tribe.

A bit like saying that the border between Kansas and Oklahoma continues westward all the way to Nevada. It does indeed but neither Kansas nor Oklahoma continues all the way to Nevada.

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  • "while the border may indeed continue to that point it may no longer be the border of that tribe but becomes the border of some other tribe." How do you define a border? Can you elaborate? – Bach May 22 at 16:03

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