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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?

enter image description here

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  • Deuteronomy 33:23 also speaks of Naphtali's portion being in the south
    – b a
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 17:09

7 Answers 7

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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 in the descriptions. I propose that Naphtali filled that narrow strip of land and reached down to Judah. I find some support for this in Deuteronomy 33:23, in which Moses blessed Naphtali, saying that they would possess "the lake and the south".

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

An updated version of this map (along with interactive layers showing more information), can be found here.

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
    Commented May 22, 2020 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
    Commented May 22, 2020 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
    Commented May 22, 2020 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
    Commented May 22, 2020 at 16:03
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Or maybe the land east to Nephtali indeed once belonged to Judah. Seems like no one has noticed this verse, 2 Kings 14:28 "Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam and all that he did, and his might, how he fought, and how he restored Damascus and Hamath to Judah in Israel, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? "

The land that King Solomon used to control is several times bigger than the land allotted in Joshua. Maybe the extra land to the east and north of Nephtali, comprising of Damascus and Hamath, indeed belongs to his own tribe, Judah. But this land later was lost to the King of Syria (1 Kings 20:34).

enter image description here

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וּבִ֣יהוּדָ֔ה הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן מִזְרַ֥ח הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ

ûḇîhûḏâ hayyardēn mizraḥ haššāmeš

and to "Judah on the Jordan" to the East.

Most commentators believe this to be a placename, similar to "Bethlehem-judah" to distinguish from other Bethlehems - the name clarifies that this isn't the area of Judah, but Judah-on-Jordan, some city whose location has been forgotten, but one that is on (or near) the Jordan river.

From WBC[1]:

the Preliminary and Interim Report (2:55–56) considers it “the corrupt form of a place name which at present cannot be reconstructed,” suggesting the translation “Jehuda at/on the Jordan.” [...] Barthélemy (Critique textuelle, 1:59) points to Wadi el-Yehudiyeh less than ten kilometers northeast of the mouth of the Jordan on the Sea of Tiberias.

[1]Trent C. Butler, Joshua 13–24, ed. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Second Edition., vol. 7b, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).

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If one accepts the text of Joshua 19:34 as witnessed by the LXX (and, I think, the Old Latin), then there is no reference to Judah in that verse. So, in that case, there is no issue.

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review
    – agarza
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 21:59
  • Please reconsider. Since there is no reference to Judah in the verse, then there is no reasonable basis for the question in the first place. That constitutes the "answer" to the question.
    – Todd Moore
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 22:22
  • I will be more than glad to reconsider your "answer" if there was more there. If you could provide other sources that could corroborate your statements then yes, your "answer" could be substantiated. As it stands, your "answer" is more of a comment. Please take a look at the Help Center's post "How do I write a good answer? for additional guidance.
    – agarza
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 23:56
  • My answer was a brief statement of fact, not opinion or comment. My source for the Septuagint (LXX) is the Ralhlf's Sepuaginta. The reference to the Old Latin was based on checking the apparatus of the Larger Cambridge Septuagint (1906, edited by Alan E. Brooke, Norman McLean, and Henry St John Thackeray).
    – Todd Moore
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 3:40
  • Please forgive me if my sourcing is insufficient. In that case I will be sure to review the "How to" link to better understand your objections.
    – Todd Moore
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 3:58
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Authenticity-proven-by-ambiguity

To the people of Joshua's time, they knew what they were talking about. They should write accordingly, not as if writing to us 3,500 years later. So, this passage goes into my library of references that prove the authentic nature of the Bible. It was obviously written by an ancient people because they make the assumptions of an ancient people.

Ambiguities like this occur in the text all the time. It doesn't prove that the text was invented or made up. Actually, it proves that the text was realistic because history rarely makes perfect sense to those who weren't there to witness it themselves.

That stated, I still want to understand as much as I can. When I run across things like this, I often run to consult:

  • figures of speech
  • substitute meaning (Sometimes Judah and Ephraim and Jacob all refer to the twelve tribes.)
  • possible error in that copy of the text (not the original, all we have are copies; AKA 'lower criticism')
  • historical/archeological evidence

Application to the Question here

I will keep this passage in mind when studying other passages that include territories north of the Sea of Galilee. I will come back to this passage and keep it ready for cross-references, as a tool to understand other Bible passages.

Important: The border of Naphtali is not in question, only the meaning of "Judah" at the Jordan. So, we know what we need to know about the thing we need to know about: Naphtali.

Honestly, I like Mac's answer, mainly that reference to "Judah" could mean that there was a shared border of "Judah" or "Israel"—that it meant "to the national boundary of Israel". The commentary's answer also seems attractive, that an offshoot of Judah had a satellite territory across the Jordan from Naphtali. The "shared border" was my initial thought on the text, even without reading Mac's answer.

But, as much as I like those answers, the meaning is not cut and dry. I have to keep this one as an "open case, not yet closed". I have a "likely" answer or two, not finality.

I take away three ideas:

  1. I've learned the description manners and culture of Joshua's time. This is how the Bible will likely describe borders here and elsewhere—either the edge of the national boundary or that an adopted territory may be presumed and described this way. So, I'll expect and recognize more talk like this in the future: vague, presumptive, maybe 'Judah = Israel', don't expect much detail beyond the main object being described (Naphtali).

  2. Stay on topic. Naphtali is the topic, the object being described. I shouldn't expect a passage about Naphtali's border to describe all of its surroundings. The border is the Jordan, period. It's good practice and self-discipline to remember to stay on topic. The purpose of this passage has indeed been achieved without question. Whatever "Judah" is at the Jordan is interesting, but technically non sequitur.

  3. What a wonderful passage to revisit to challenge myself! ...

It's one thing to talk about the Socratic virtue of "remembering that we don't know what we don't know" in hermeneutics. Having a passage, like this, where we must actually employ that hermeneutic and have "I don't yet know" as part of the interpretation is a good habit.


Appended several years later:

From Biblia.work Exegetical and Hermeneutical Commentary of Joshua 19:34

Judah upon Jordan ] So our Version renders it, following the Vulgate, Et in Juda ad Jordanem. Others, following the Masoretic punctuation, would put a colon at Judah, so that it would run, “and Judah; the Jordan was toward the sunrising” i.e. the eastern boundary of the tribe. The word Judah here has been explained by the fact that the sixty cities, Havoth-jair (Num 32:41), which were on the eastern side of Jordan opposite to Naphtali, were reckoned as belonging to Judah, because Jair their founder was descended on the father’s side from Judah through Hezron. Comp. 1Ch 2:21-24. Others would identify it with a village el-Jehidijeh, marked on Dr Smith’s map, north of Tibrin, but this is not satisfactory.

...

To Judah upon Jordan – i. e. to the Havoth-jair Num 32:41, which were on the opposite side of Jordan. Jair, from whom these towns or villages were named, traced his ancestry in the male line through Hezron to Judah Num 27:1; and it is likely that he was assisted by large numbers of his kinsmen of that tribe in his rapid conquest of Bashan. Hence, the Havoth-jair were, in all likelihood, largely colonised by Judahites, especially perhaps that portion of them nearest the Jordan. Thus, that part of the river and its valley adjacent to these settlements was spoken of as Judah upon Jordan, or more literally Judah of the Jordan (compare Num 22:1).

So, with a deeper dive into the language and history, we get two good explanations:

  1. It indicates Judah as a separate list item, based on Masoretic pronunciation.
  2. The "Judah" which Naphtali supposedly touches may have been cities populated by descendants of Judah, but not in the actual proper tribal territory.

Note, it still stands that my long-worded answer above from a few years ago is a matter that many Bible scholars have also considered during the long history in which this text has posed the same problem to the brilliant minds who have gone before us.

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    Jesses Steel - I fully agree with your approach and you have made an excellent point. Another thing it shows is that such "apparent" errors shows that the sacred text is a product of both the divine and human efforts for the reason you have stated.
    – user25930
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 21:02
  • Yes, also very true!
    – Jesse
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 22:24
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    While this is a good encouragement, you haven't said anything relating to the specific question asked about.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 7:38
  • @curiousdannii actually, I did. Dealing with things like this directly relates to the perspective necessary to implement good hermeneutics with Bible. This is one of those times.
    – Jesse
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 19:44
  • No you haven't. This is generic advice, applicable to any question.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 6:00

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