God built the nation of Israel from the family of Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob. The latter of these patriarchs had 12 sons, whose lineages bore their names and became the way God’s chosen people identified and organized themselves. Each tribe received land or responsibilities based on the blessings or curses Jacob gave to his descendants.
Judah’s blessing was tremendous, and it came to play a role in God’s eternal plan for the restoration of humanity to himself. Understanding the history of the Tribe of Judah can show how God’s eternal sovereignty was working through flawed people to man’s ultimate good - eternal life through the Messiah.
What Is the Tribe of Judah?
The tribes of Israel were constituted when Judah blessed each of his sons, except Joseph, at the end of his life. God led Jacob to bless Joseph’s sons, and they each became the half-tribes. Some of the tribes received blessings, and others curses, based on the behavior of the brother who became the forefather of the tribe.
The man Judah, for whom the tribe was named, lived a complicated life, one that shows both the depravity of the human heart as well as God’s capacity to redeem anyone. He was the fourth born son of Jacob’s first wife, Leah. He joined his brothers in assaulting one of his younger brothers, Joseph, out of jealousy. In fact, it was his idea to sell the boy into slavery.
“Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him” (Genesis 37:26-27).
He grew up after this moment, and had three sons with a Canaanite woman, stepping out of the bounds of God’s will for the descendants of Abraham. He married a woman named Tamar to his oldest son, who died, and then to his second who also died. He promised Tamar his youngest son, but failed to do so. When his Canaanite wife died, he was in the same area as Tamar, who he sent away to live with her father, a shameful thing for him to do. Having been promised a child from Judah’s line, Tamar disguised herself and conceived twins with Judah himself. The moment that Tamar proved the children were his was a turning point in his life; “Then Judah identified them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not know her again” (Genesis 38:26).
After this moment, every time Judah appears in accounts of his life and his brother Joseph, he is seen doing the right thing, being the leader among his brothers.
At the end of Jacob’s life, he gave the greatest blessing to Judah.
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father's sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion's cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk” (Genesis 49:8-12).
The tribe of Judah did become the most preeminent among the tribes, and many began to look there for this king, who would hold a scepter that would never depart.
12 Things to Know about the Tribe of Judah
1. Judah is the anglicized word for Yehuda, which means praise or thanksgiving; it is probably related to what Leah said when her fourth son was born, “And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’ Therefore she called his name Judah” (Genesis 29:35a).
2. It was prophesied the Messiah would come from the Tribe of Judah.
3. When Israel entered the promised land, Judah received extensive lands as recorded in the Book of Joshua.
4. God often called Judah into battle first.
5. At its height, Judah was a separate kingdom and ran almost the whole territory of that kingdom, except for a small portion given to the Tribe of Benjamin.
6. David was from the Tribe of Judah.
7. After David and Solomon’s deaths, Judah was the only tribe that remained loyal to the memory and the ways of David.
8. Just as the line of Judah was continued through children Judah had with someone who was not Hebrew, others in his line would marry outside their culture including Boaz, who married Ruth, a Moabite and a descendent of Lot.
9. The tribe of Judah over time came to be represented through a lion.
10. The modern word for the Hebrew people - Jew - comes from the name of Judah.
11. Jesus was a member of the tribe of Judah both through his mother’s lineage, and even through his earthly step-father Joseph, though Joseph was not his biological father.
12. Jesus fulfills the prophecy and blessing given to Judah at its inception. Even in Revelation, Jesus is referred to as the one who fulfilled those promises: “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals’” (Revelation 5:5).
Despite the importance of Judah throughout the history of Israel, it was not without its faults. Just like the Kingdom of Israel to the north, it fell to conquest, often experiencing bitter battles when they would fall into sin. Jerusalem, which resides within the territory allotted to the tribe, was conquered by other empires, ultimately falling into the hands of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans who ruled over the territory during the life of Jesus.
Ultimately, the true significance of the tribe of Judah was not in the kings who reigned in Judah, or the many battles they won, but in the fulfillment of God’s divine plan to provide a Savior for the whole world. While many looked to the tribe and its great men, God was working through people like Tamar, Ruth, Boaz, and David and Bathsheba to create the family lineage for Jesus’ earthly life. God elevated the fourth son of an unloved wife to lead a family, and Jesus lived a humble, albeit sinless, life while here on earth, but will ultimately reign forever as the rightful king of the whole world.
“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13).
Though Jesus came once already, He did not come with the sword to reign, but to seek and save the lost. Chapter 22 of the Book of Revelation gives humanity a glimpse of the promise of the eternal kingdom of the Son of Judah, and it will be glorious for those who put their faith and hope in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Baxter, J. Sidlow. Baxter’s Explore the Book. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Twelve Tribes of Israel. eBook: Rose Publishing, 2021.
Thangiah, Paul and George Wood. Receiving the 12 Blessings of Israel. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2016.
Walvoord, John F. Every Prophecy about Jesus. Elgin: David C. Cook, 2016.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Ivan Balvan
Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.