Over the next several weeks we will be discussing “The 12 Tribes of Israel”. We are seeking to familiarize ourselves with the origin, history, and importance of each of these tribes. In so doing, we hope to broaden our understanding and appreciation of Scripture. Because the 12 tribes are such a central part of the Biblical narrative, it is important for all Christians to have some basic knowledge about them.
Already in this series we have seen the dangers of being inconsistent and undependable in our faith and practice. We’ve been warned about the damaging and far-reaching effects of unrestrained anger. Fortunately, we’ve also learned that repentant sinners can find restoration and forgiveness. We’ve discovered that God chooses those who are devoted to Him to be His ministers and messengers in all the world. All of these lessons have had a direct implication on our lives.
Today’s message focuses on Judah. There are actually 7 references to different men in the Old Testament by this name, but 6 of them are pretty obscure. The only major character in the Bible named Judah is in fact the son of Jacob. The tribe that he fathered is the third in our study so far, seeing that the Levites are formally not counted as one of the 12.
I. JUDAH - THE SON OF JACOB
Jacob and Leah came together again, she conceived, and bore him a fourth son. She named him Judah, which means “Praise”. When her previous sons were born Leah had lamented over her lackluster marriage to Jacob, but after Judah’s birth she simply wanted to praise God (Genesis 29:35). As a young man, Judah persuaded his brothers not to kill their younger sibling Joseph but rather to sell him to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:26-27). Apparently, they respected and willingly consented to his leadership.
The most developed passage in the the Bible about a scene in Judah’s life involves his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38). Judah’s eldest son Er married her, but he died before having a son. Thus, Tamar was remarried to Judah’ second-born son Onan, but he dishonored his deceased brother by refusing to giving him an heir. As a result, Onan also died. So Judah promised Tamar that his third-born son Shelah, who was quite young at the time, would marry her when he got older. Together they could continue the family name. But as the years passed by, Judah never made good on this promise and Tamar grew impatient. Sometime after Judah’s wife had died, Tamar disguised herself as a harlot, slept with her father-in-law, became pregnant, and had twins by him. When Judah later realized what had happened, he confessed his wrongdoing, apologized for not keeping his promise, and forgave Tamar for deceiving him.
During the worldwide famine, Judah travelled back and forth from Canaan to Egypt with his brothers (Genesis 42-45). On their second trip, Jacob entrusted his youngest son Benjamin into Judah’s care (Genesis 43:8-9). When Benjamin was accused on stealing a silver cup, Judah impassionately offered to receive the punishment himself in place of his brother (Genesis 44:32-33). Later, when the entire family of Jacob moved to Goshen, Judah lead the way (Genesis 46:28). Though not the oldest, Judah was clearly the leader and most highly esteemed among the sons of Jacob.
II. JUDAH - THE TRIBE OF ISRAEL
In the years of the Egyptian captivity, the descendants of Judah multiplied greatly and became the most prominent of the 12 tribes of Israel. During the first census of Moses taken at Mt. Sinai the population of Judah was numbered at 74,600 (Numbers 1:27). By the second census of Moses taken in Moab, the tribe had grown slightly to 76,500 (Numbers 26:22). To put this in perspective, they were larger than the Reubenites and Simeonites combined.
The tribe of Judah camped on the eastern side of the tabernacle. This was the most notable position because the tabernacle opened to the east toward the sunrise. They also served as the leader of the eastern camp, which included the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun. Judah was the first tribe to set out whenever the Israelites broke camp, and thus they were the leaders of the entire procession (Numbers 2:3-8).
During the days of the tabernacle and temple, the high priest wore a breastplate that displayed 12 gemstones which represented the 12 tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:15-21). Though the exact correlation between the stones and the tribes is disputed, some believe that the ruby (or carnelian) represented Judah. If so, the color of the tribe of Judah is red.
After the conquest, the conquered Promised Land was divided among the 12 tribes. The descendants of Judah were given an unusually large section of land which covered most of southern Canaan (Joshua 15). Their inheritance was larger than the others. It included several important cities such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Gaza.
For the next 350 years various regional judges ruled over the respective tribes of Israel. Eventually they all united to form a single nation, but after the reign of King Solomon the young nation split into 2 kingdoms. The southern kingdom, which consisted almost entirely of land once assigned to the tribe of Judah, simply reinstated its tribal name. Thus, the nation of Judah was formed. Several kings and prophets served in Judah from the time of its creation in 930 BC until its fall to the Babylonians in 586 BC. A remnant of exiles later returned to Judah after the Babylonian exile. By the time of the New Testament, the region was known by it Greco-Roman name Judea. It had become a province of the Roman Empire.
Many notable people in the Bible belonged to the tribe of Judah. These included great leaders and kings such as Caleb, David, and Zerubbabel as well as mighty prophets such as Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Zephaniah. However, the most important descendant of Judah is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:2-3). Scripture refers to Him as the Lion of Judah, a title which cites His ancestral lineage. Jesus is both a Prophet and a King.
III. THE LESSON FROM JUDAH
The symbol for the tribe of Judah is a lion. This image comes from Jacob’s blessing (Genesis 49:8-12), in which he compares his son Judah to a lion because of his strength, courage, and leadership skills. Jacob prophesied that Judah would rule over his brothers like a lion reigning as “the king of the beasts”. This blessing also foretold that Judah would prosper abundantly and enjoy great wealth. Most significantly, Jacob stated that the scepter would remain with Judah until Shiloh came. This prophecy refers to Jesus, the coming Messiah.
Judah was a servant-leader. His life serves as an example for all of those who are called to lead in whatever capacity it might be - at work, within the family, at church, at school, etc. He convinced his brothers to spare young Joseph’s life, he volunteered to take the punishment on behalf of Benjamin, and he took responsibility for his misconduct regarding Tamar. In each of these instances, Judah demonstrated impeccable character. In the same way, Christians should lead by example. True leaders valiantly defend the helpless, willingly accept the consequences even when they are not deserved, and courageously admit their mistakes rather than cowardly blaming others.
The bountiful wealth and riches enjoyed by the tribe of Judah portray the abundant spiritual blessings that redeemed believers have in Christ. God’s love, mercy, protection, and providence are continuously showered upon His children. Even after we leave this earth, the immeasurable goodness of the LORD will not cease to be lavished upon Christians for all of eternity.
There is much more we could discuss about Judah the man, the tribe, and even the kingdom. For example, did you know that term “Jews” was first used to describe the inhabitants of Judah, but its meaning gradually broadened to include all of Israel? Anyway, let us conclude the message today by again emphasizing the major lesson of Judah. In some form or fashion, we are all called to be leaders. Other people look up to us for wisdom and direction. As we lead, may we exhibit the courage and character of Christ so that others might see Him on display in our lives and be inclined to follow. Furthermore, may we rest in the fact that God is for us and His blessings are never-ending.