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The Tribe of Zebulun: Sailing the Waves of History

The story of Israel can be confusing for many modern believers. We don’t have much of a frame of reference for understanding the tribes, the meaning of their names, and what each tribe brought to the nation of Israel as a whole.

But once we sit down and study each tribe, we start to notice some very interesting things!

Each tribe had its victories, accomplishments, and disasters, and the tribe of Zebulun is no exception.

This tribe consisted of the descendants of Jacob’s 10th son, the 6th from his first wife, Leah. Let’s take a closer look at the history and prophetic relevance of the tribe of Zebulun.

Key Takeaways

• Descended from Jacob’s 10th son, Zebulun, born to Leah.

• Zebulun means “To honor” or “Exalted dwelling,” reflecting Leah’s desire for Jacob’s honor.

• Settled in a strategic location between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.

• Played a role in major battles like against the Canaanites under Deborah and Barak.

• Known for maritime trade and wealth, but also susceptible to idolatry.

• Eventually lost to Assyrian invasion, becoming one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

• The region of Galilee (former Zebulun land) was where Jesus began His ministry.

The Tribe of Zebulun

The Origin Of The Tribe Of Zebulun

Leah was Jacob’s first wife, whom he married through deception while he thought he was marrying her sister, Rachel.

Because of this, Jacob rejected Leah for much of her life. It was so bad that Leah had to “pay” Rachel in exchange for the privilege of spending a night with him (Genesis 30:14-16).

Though Leah had already given Jacob five sons, she kept on hoping that the next son would be the one who would make Jacob love and appreciate her.

Holding on to this hope, she gave Jacob a sixth son and named him Zebulun.

The Meaning Of The Name Zebulun

Genesis 30:20 says, “Then Leah said, ‘God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.’ So she called his name Zebulun.”

The name Zebulun is a combination of two Hebrew words.

The first is “zabal,” which means to exalt or honor. The second is “zebul,” which refers to a lofty abode designed to honor its occupants.

Other interpretations also include the word “zeved,” which means “gift.” 

זְבוּלוּן Zᵉbûwlûwn, zeb-oo-loon’; or זְבֻלוּן Zᵉbulûwn; or זְבוּלֻן Zᵉbûwlun; from H2082; habitation; Zebulon, a son of Jacob; also his territory and tribe:—Zebulun.

זָבַל zâbal, zaw-bal’; a primitive root; apparently properly, to inclose, i.e. to reside:—dwell with.

 [זָבַל] verb probably exalt, honour (Assyrian zabâlu COTGloss and id. on Genesis 30:20; 1 Kings 8:13, 

“The Hebrew word zeved is understood to be a somewhat rare word and appears just once in the Pentateuch in Genesis 30:20 where Leah offers thanks to God for the birth of Zebulon. The Hebrew word used in the verse may mean “gift” or “dwelling”. [1]

Leah gave Zebulun a name that combined these words to convey the fact that she hoped her husband would honor her for her gift of another son and dwell with her rather than with Rachel, who was Jacob’s favorite.

It is a name that speaks of the hopes and unfulfilled desires of a woman who wasn’t loved by her husband.

The Blessing of Zebulun

On his deathbed, Jacob (or Israel, as he was then known) spoke blessings or prophecies over each of his sons. These words were highly prophetic and spoke about the future of each son.

Genesis 49:13 tells us the words that the patriarch spoke over Zebulun:

Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.”

Here is a table tracing the fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy over Zebulun:

ProphecyBiblical ReferenceFulfillment
“Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea”Genesis 49:13Zebulun was allocated territory between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea (Joshua 19:10-16).
“he shall become a haven for ships”Genesis 49:13Zebulun became wealthy and influential due to their strategic location for maritime trade and shipping activities.
“and his border shall be at Sidon”Genesis 49:13The territory of Zebulun extended near the Phoenician city of Sidon (Joshua 19:10-11).
The Blessing Of Zebulun

These words were incredibly accurate, as we will soon see.

Jacob blessing Zebulun in the Bible

The History Of The Tribe Of Zebulun

Though Zebulun goes largely unnoticed throughout the Bible, God ensured that it had its role in the future of Israel.

We see the first occurrence in Deuteronomy 27:13. God chose Zebulun as one of six tribes to stand on Mount Ebal as the Levites spoke curses that would fall on people when they become guilty of idolatry and other trespasses.

There were twelve such curses that Zebulun helped deliver to the people of Israel.

When Israel conquered the Promised Land, Zebulun got a portion of land located perfectly between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.

However, Judges 1:30 tells us that Zebulun did not entirely conquer the Canaanites in their region, leaving many people alive and not enslaving them. 

They weren’t fully obedient to God’s instructions, which would be part of their downfall centuries later. However, the tribe remained faithful to the Lord and contributed much to Israel’s history and battles.

From Judges 12:11, we can see that one of the judges, Elon, came from the tribe of Zebulun. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about him or the things he did, except that he led Israel as a judge for ten years and then passed away.

Zebulun in Hebrew

Judges 5 tells us about the song Deborah and Barak sang after Israel defeated the Canaanites. The song is full of praise for the people of Zebulun.

In Judges 5:14, we can see that they carried the Lieutenant’s staff (though there is some doubt about that precise translation, most scholars agree that it indicated strength and authority).

Verse 18 also tells how Zebulun’s soldiers risked their lives to defend their land and free its people from Canaan. It’s clear that Zebulun made quite an impression in the war to be mentioned in the song so often.

The only prominent member of the tribe that’s mentioned in some detail is the prophet, Jonah, though the fact that he was a Zebulunite is never explicitly stated in the Bible. 

The tribe of Zebulun was wealthy and influential because it settled between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.

This was in line with Jacob’s prophecy, as the tribe was active in the shipping industry. Its people received goods from merchant ships and distributed these goods throughout Israel.

However, this fact likely also contributed to Zebulun’s downfall. When the kingdom of Israel split, Zebulun was cut off from Judah and formed part of the idolatrous Northern Kingdom. Zebulun might have been influential in the idolatry, or at least more susceptible to it, because of two reasons:

  • Its constant dealings with gentile nations would have exposed Zebulun to the traditions and gods of other nations. Too much exposure to such things tends to numb us to it, making it easier to fall into that sin ourselves. The same is true today.

  • The fact that Zebulun left the Canaanites alive in its territory meant that there were idols and other things that were contrary to God’s laws. Having these things so easily accessible would have had the same effect as their exposure to idols through the shipping industry.

Eventually, when the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, Zebulun fell with it. Its people were killed, and those who survived were taken into exile.

The tribe eventually disappeared entirely and is now one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

Here’s a table summarizing the key events and roles of the Tribe of Zebulun mentioned in the Bible:

Event/RoleBiblical ReferenceDescription
Deliver CursesDeuteronomy 27:13Zebulun was chosen as one of six tribes to stand on Mount Ebal and deliver curses for idolatry and trespasses.
Settlement in Promised LandGenesis 49:13, Judges 1:30Zebulun settled in a strategic area between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea, but did not fully conquer the Canaanites there.
Contribution in BattleJudges 5:14, 5:18Zebulun’s soldiers played a significant role in the battle against the Canaanites, praised for their bravery and strength in Deborah and Barak’s victory song.
Judge ElonJudges 12:11Elon, from the tribe of Zebulun, served as a judge over Israel for 10 years.
Wealth and Maritime TradeGenesis 49:13Fulfilling Jacob’s prophecy, Zebulun became a “haven for ships” and was wealthy and influential due to its strategic location for maritime trade.
Idolatry and Downfall2 Kings 17Zebulun was part of the Northern Kingdom that fell into idolatry, leading to their eventual conquest by the Assyrians and exile.
Lost TribeAfter the Assyrian exile, Zebulun became one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, disappearing from history.
Breakdown of the History of the Tribe of Zebulun

Hope For Zebulun

Isaiah 9:1 has an interesting statement about the region where the tribe of Zebulun settled:

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

The region of Zebulun and Naphtali became known as Galilee in later years. We know it was a scene of destruction after Assyria invaded, showing how far the tribe of Zebulun had fallen. But here we see a promise: God would make it glorious!

When we look at all the mentions of Galilee in the New Testament, we see that it was where Jesus preached for the first time and performed countless miracles.

Zebulun Tribe

Galilee features prominently in almost everything that Jesus did in His earthly ministry, and it was the first region to see the Light of the World in action! What a privilege.

Zebulun is evidence that there is always hope and God is always there, ready for us to return to Him. The tribe of Zebulun was blessed and prosperous, but its people eventually rejected their God and chased after idols.

In their pride, they were struck down along with the rest of the Northern Kingdom. We know this was the judgment that God promised would come upon them.

And yet, this region was where Jesus chose to start His earthly ministry and preaching. Out of all of Israel, He chose Zebulun and Naphtali to bring light and hope into the world.

Similarly, we often fall. We don’t follow God’s instructions as completely as we should, causing us to stumble.

We get tempted and allow things into our lives that will pull us further away from the Lord, which inevitably leads to sin and stumbling. 

But we know that God’s grace is beyond any evil that we may have in our lives. If we are willing to humble ourselves and allow God to bring His light into that darkness, He will shine through us and bring life where once there was only destruction.

We are never too far gone for God’s salvation. The sacrifice of Jesus is more significant than any and every sin that has ever existed. 

If you find yourself distant from God and amid darkness and destruction, it’s not too late. Turn your Zebulun into Galilee. Allow the Lord of Lords to turn your darkness into light.

Zebulun, though not mentioned very often, was an influential tribe in Israel. It was centrally located and offered a convenient shipping line between merchant ships and the rest of the nation. Unfortunately, its success would not last.

Zebulun was destroyed because of its idolatry and affiliation with the Northern Kingdom, and the tribe no longer exists.

However, we also know that Jesus’ first acts of ministry happened in the Galilee region, where Zebulun once was. In the place of destruction, He brought life, hope, and promise.

The same can be true for everyone: we don’t have to live in the destruction we see around us if we embrace Jesus Christ.

The Tribes of Israel

Unlock the fascinating histories & profound legacies of the 12 Tribes of Israel in our epic Bible study series! From Reuben's birthright to Levi's priestly roles, Judah's kings to Joseph's prominence - explore in-depth the unique paths, impacts & symbolic meanings of each tribe.

Gain revelatory insights into their conquests, failings, blessings & destinies across this comprehensive journey through Scripture. Prepare to have your understanding of Israel's tribes forever transformed!

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