A friend of mine, Tom Boulting at Charter Films, Ltd. (they’re the folks producing the Zion Oil movie) sent me a note this week about a passage of scripture – Deuteronomy 33:23. “And of Naphtali he said, ‘O Naphtali, sated with favor, and full of the blessing of the Lord, possess the lake and the south.’”
This was Tom’s question: “I know that the next verse refers to Asher and dipping his foot in oil and I may be stating the obvious, but isn’t naphthalene a hydrocarbon and where is ‘the lake’ and ‘the south’? This may be irrelevant, but I just came across it and wondered if you had noticed the Naphtali/naphthalene connection.”
Tom is a wonderful guy and a great filmmaker, but he’s not a scientist or a theologian. My first impression was that he saw the name of the ancient Israeli tribe ‘Naphtali’ and made a connection (that wasn’t there) with the modern term ‘naphthalene’ – a hydrocarbon solid. It’s just a coincidence that Naphtali and Naphthalene sound the same; the two words are separated by centuries, languages and cultures. But Tom is a friend and I wanted to explain the difference between the words. I didn’t want him making connections where there weren’t any. To prove my point I researched the words, their meanings and their root … boy, was I surprised! That ‘Naphtali’ and ‘Naphthalene’ sound the same may be a coincidence, but the more I looked into it, the more the ‘coincidences’ stacked up. At this point I’m not sure what to think of the Naphtali/Naphthalene connection but it’s a pretty interesting point to ponder.
Pulling apart the words
In Hebrew “Naphtali” means “my struggle” or “I wrestle”. It was the name Jacob’s wife, Rachel gave to her second son through her maid-servant Bilhah. Rachel was “wrestling” with big sister Leah in a baby making contest. Between the two sisters and their maid-servants, they produced twelve offspring for husband Jacob, all of whom would eventually become (with a little rearranging by G_d and Joseph’s two boys) the twelve (or thirteen) tribes of Israel.
“Naphthalene” is a two part ‘scientific’ word – “naphtha” (a broad term referring to any number of liquid hydrocarbon mixtures) and “lene” (a suffix defining the object as a derivative of the root preceding). In street terms, “naphthalene” means literally “derived from naphtha”.
Stay with me – we’re about to discover something interesting!
The word “Naphtha” (a broad term for liquid hydrocarbon products) comes from a Latin term for what we know today as petroleum (which is also Latin – petro = rock, oleum = oil). The Latin “naphtha” comes from the Greek “naphtha”, again, meaning petroleum. Want to guess where the Greek “naphtha” comes from? The Greeks got their word for petroleum from the Arabs (“naft”) and Hebrews (“neft”)!
But you’re not going to find “neft” in the Bible. The ancient Hebrews knew about petroleum oil but they called it “chemar” – the closest English translation we have today is “bubblin’ crude”, Jed Clampett style. I kid you not, that’s what the ancient Hebrews called oil from natural seeps in the Promised Land – ‘bubblin’ crude’. Jed would have been proud.
As far as I know the word “neft” didn’t come into Hebrew usage until after the Babylonian captivity. Liquid hydrocarbon seeps were also a natural phenomenon in Babylon (modern day Iraq) and the Jews brought the Babylonian term back with them. Israeli’s still use the term today.
So, does the ancient tribe of ‘Naphtali’ have any connection at all with the modern term for a petroleum product? Or is the similarity in sound just a coincidence?
Here’s where the ‘coincidences’ start to stack up.
1. The name ‘Naphtali’ is still around; but it’s now spelled ‘Neftali’.
2. The tribe of Naphtali was given land in the far north, above the Sea of Galilee (the lake of Deut 33:23) and west of the Golan Heights. On Naphtali’s western border lies Asher (“he shall dip his foot in oil”) and on its southern border lies Zebulun (“he shall suck of the abundance of the seas and of treasures hid in the sand”) – both neighboring tribes with a prophesied promise relevant to our search for oil.
3. Today Naphtali’s land is home to the Hula Valley, the suspected site of significant gas reserves and currently under exploration license with Adira energy.
4. Naphtali’s territory sits next to Asher’s and its blessing (Deut 33:23) is recorded next to Asher’s (Deut. 33:24). Naphtali’s blessing states that he will be ‘sated’ (filled up) with ‘favor’ and ‘full of blessing’.
Add those ‘coincidences’ up and we may have another piece to the Great Treasure Hunt puzzle! As I said earlier, I’m not sure what to think of the Naphtali/Naphthalene connection at this moment, but it’s a pretty interesting ‘coincidence’. I’ll keep you posted as exploration unfolds in the land of Naphtali.
P.S. In her 1997 novel The Jewish War, Tova Reich’s character Heshie Finkel, a young mathematical genius, is charged with the task of deciphering the mystical significance of ‘neft’ in order to bring oil to Israel. After extended study and the counsel of an aged rabbi he has an epiphany that ‘neft’ will come to Israel with the coming of the Messiah. Reich, a secular satirist, was poking fun; she didn’t mean for the connection between ‘neft’ and the Messiah to be mystical or prophetic. But some truths have a way popping up even when you’re not looking for them. If she turns out to be right I’ll drop her a note.