JUDAH: Tribe of King Messiah
If a poll were taken as to which of Jacob’s twelve sons is the most famous, certainly either Joseph or Judah would be the favored one. Although more space is given to the personal history of Joseph than any of his brothers (Gen. 37-50), far more is said about the tribe of Judah than any other tribe.
Reuben, through his unstable act of immorality, had forfeited his position as firstborn among his brothers (Gen. 49:3-4). That Joseph and Judah were the benefactors of this forfeiture is clearly stated in 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, “Now the sons of Reuben, the first-born of Israel (for he was the first-born; but, forasmuch as he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given unto the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel, and the genealogy is not to be reckoned after the birthright; For Judah prevailed above his brethren, and of him came the prince; but the birthright was Joseph’s).” Reuben’s right to the double inheritance was forfeited to Joseph. Rueben’s right to be the leader of his brothers was forfeited to Judah.
The two longest patriarchal blessings in Genesis 49 are reserved for Judah and Joseph. Judah’s blessing is found in Genesis 49:8-12. It follows the prophecies on his three older brothers, Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, each of whom had committed questionable acts that affected what Jacob said about them. In contrast to those prophecies of doom is the series of prophetic blessings pronounced upon Judah and his descendants. “Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he crouched as a lion, and as an old lion. Who shall rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Gen. 49:8-10). Four prophecies about Judah appear in these verses.
Judah Will Be The Leader Of His Brothers
“Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: . . . thy father’s children shall bow down before thee” (Gen. 49:8). In this amazing series of blessings Jacob often employed a play on words. It is appropriate that Judah would be praised by his brothers because praise is the meaning of Judah’s name. The account of his birth makes this clear: “And she [Leah] conceived again, and bore a son: and she said, Now will I praise the Lord: therefore she called his name Judah; and ceased bearing” (Gen. 29:35). He whose name means praise will be praised by his brothers who will recognize his leadership.
Even during Judah’s lifetime he seemed to assume this leadership. In Genesis 37:26-27 he helped to spare Joseph’s life by suggesting that the brothers sell him to the Ishmaelites instead of killing him. When the brothers later had to go down into Egypt and were unknowingly cared for by their brother Joseph, it seems that Judah was the spokesman for the group (Gen. 44:14-34).
In subsequent years when the tribes were marching through the wilderness, it was the tribe of Judah that went first in the march (Num. 10:14). After the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan and began to possess it, “the lot of the tribe of the children of Judah” was received first (Josh. 15:1). The tribe of Judah possessed one of the largest and most important sections in the southern part of the land of Canaan. Numbers, chapters one and twenty-six, list two censuses that were taken of the tribes of Israel at the beginning and at the end of the forty-year wanderings. In both of those censuses Judah had the largest population of any tribe.
A Jewish commentator provides an interesting insight into this leadership position of Judah. He states that whenever a son of Jacob today is asked, “Who are you?” he does not say, “I am a Reubenite or a Josephite,” but he says, “I am a Judahite,” or in other words a Jew. The name Jew is really a shortened form of Judah. This name came to be used for the Israelites after their return from the Babylonian Captivity. Although there were representatives of all the tribes in the land at that time, the dominant tribe was Judah, and the land was called Judea. The people, therefore, were Judeans or, in a shortened form, Jews. In the New Testament the words Hebrew, Israelite and Jew are synonymous terms to describe the people of Israel. The Apostle Paul applies all three terms to himself at various times (Acts 22:3; Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5). Thus, Jacob’s prophecy that Judah would be the leader of his brothers was literally fulfilled.
Judah Will Be A Great Conqueror
Jacob says of Judah, “thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies” (Gen. 49:8b). This is a graphic reference to the humiliation of one’s enemies in battle. To expose the neck of one’s enemy was a symbolic act that the enemy had been conquered (Josh. 10:24).
The greatest conqueror in the history of Israel was King David. Second Samuel 8 records that David extended the boundaries of Israel when he succeeded in subduing the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites. David himself composed a beautiful song that is recorded both in 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18. In it he praises God for giving him strength, particularly in battle. It is interesting that he uses the very phrase employed by Jacob in his prophecy, “Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies, that I might destroy them who hate me” (2 Sam. 22:41 and Ps. 18:40). David was a member of the tribe of Judah. Under David’s son, Solomon, the boundaries of the kingdom were extended to their greatest limits as he consolidated his father’s conquests (1 Ki. 4:20-25).
In this regard Judah is compared to a lion. “Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he crouched as a lion, and as an old lion. Who shall rouse him up?” (Gen. 49:9).
It is interesting to note that five different animals appear in Jacob’s blessings as being associated with various tribes. A donkey is associated with Issachar (Gen. 49:14), a serpent with Dan (Gen. 49:17), a deer with Naphtali (Gen. 49:21), and a wolf with Benjamin (Gen. 49:27). In Numbers 2 the arrangement of the tribes around the camp is described. It is stated there that each tribe had a standard outside the camp to identify their tribe. Although, unfortunately, we are not told what symbol was on each standard, it is probable that a lion was on Judah’s. The lion of Judah has become a very prominent symbol. On ancient coins discovered in the Holy Land there is portrayed a lion, the lion of Judah. On the modern Israeli shekel there is displayed the lion of Judah.
The kingly character of Judah which is mentioned in verse 10 is appropriately symbolized by the lion who is often called the king of beasts. This theme is carried right through the Scriptures even into the New Testament. Revelation 5:5 describes a scene in the throne room of Heaven where the lion of the tribe of Judah is the main character. This is a messianic reference to the Lord Jesus Christ, who by descent was a member of this tribe.
Judah Will Produce A Royal Line Of Kings
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be (Gen. 49:10). Although the early history of Israel was not marked by a monarchy, the Lord anticipated that there would be kings in Israel someday (Dt. 17:14-20). In later years the first king of Israel, Saul, was of the tribe of Benjamin (1 Sam. 9:1-2). However, God rejected Saul and sent His prophet Samuel to anoint His choice for king, young David in the town of Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah (1 Sam. 16:1-13). All the legitimate kings of Israel throughout her history were descendants of David. Jacob’s prophecy stated that the symbols of royalty would never depart from Judah. Those two symbols were the scepter and the ruler’s staff (“lawgiver” in the Authorized Version). This teaches that the right to reign as king will always be with the tribe of Judah. No legitimate king could arise from another tribe.
The succession of twenty kings in the Northern Kingdom, beginning with Jeroboam in 930 B.C. and ending with Hoshea in 721 B.C., were illegitimate and were rejected by God. Even though some of Judah’s kings were wicked, they were still in the royal line of succession. This prophecy does not mean that a king will always be reigning in Judah but that the right of kingship will always be in the tribe.
Verse 10 further states that the scepter will not depart “until Shiloh come.” Many have interpreted this phrase to mean that when Shiloh comes the scepter would depart. However, this is not what the verse is teaching. The verse does not mention any time when the scepter would depart from Judah. The word “until” in the phrase “until Shiloh comes” does not imply termination. The same word is used in God’s promise to Jacob in Genesis 28:15, “And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places to which thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.” God’s assurance that He would not leave Jacob until He fulfilled the promise does not mean that He left him when the promise was fulfilled. In reality, the scepter has never departed from Judah. The promise in Genesis 49:10 is not that the scepter will depart from Judah, but in Shiloh the scepter will reach its greatest glory and extent.
This brings us to a consideration of the last promise given to Judah.
Judah Will Produce The Messiah
Genesis 49:10 promises that one day “Shiloh” will come. As a result of His coming there is an additional prophecy: “. . . and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” Who, or what, can possibly be meant by the term “Shiloh”? There have been a number of attempts to interpret the meaning of this word. To simplify matters, let us consider the three main approaches to “Shiloh” that are mentioned in most of the commentaries.
1. Since “Shiloh” is also the name of a town in Israel, there are some who believe that it is that town that is referred to in this verse. The most recent Jewish translation of the Scriptures entitled The Torah, states that a literal translation of this verse is “until he comes to Shiloh.” The town of Shiloh was a place where the Israelites set up the Tabernacle after the conquest (Josh. 18:1). It was the center of Israelite worship until the days of Samuel (1 Sam. 1:3). However, to take “Shiloh” in Genesis 49:10 as referring to this town simply results in confusion in understanding the verse. This interpretation is a reflection of the desire to prevent this verse from referring to the Messiah. It has no basis in the text itself.
2. The second interpretation of “Shiloh” sees it as meaning “to whom it belongs.” This view sees a reference to the Messiah to whom the scepter belongs. Oftentimes the parallel passage of Ezekiel 21:27 is cited as support of this view: “I will overturn, overturn, overturn it, and it shall be no more, until he comes whose right it is; and I will give it him.” The ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint actually did interpret “Shiloh” in this way. However, to translate “Shiloh” as “to whom it belongs” requires a change of one letter in the consonantal text of the Hebrew word. When interpreters begin to alter the text of Scripture to favor their interpretation, they are certainly on dangerous ground. Although this interpretation does see the verse as referring to the Messiah, it cannot be accepted for this reason.
3. The best interpretation views “Shiloh” as a personal name of the Messiah, i.e. the right of kingship will always be with Judah until the Messiah comes. To Him, that is the Messiah, will the nations submit. The Talmud lists “Shiloh” as one of the names of Messiah (Sanhedrin 98b). The most ancient Jewish commentary on the Book of Genesis also adopts this interpretation (Bereshit Rabba 99). This is the view of the Authorized Version and of most evangelical commentators. Many interpreters see the name “Shiloh” as related to the word Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. This would be in accordance with the prophecy about Messiah’s coming in Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace,” as well as Micah 5:5, “And this man shall be the peace . . .” This interpretation is to be preferred above the others.
Whatever one thinks of the meaning of the word “Shiloh,” there can be no reasonable doubt that it refers to the Messiah. This prophecy is one more stroke in the developing portrait of the Messiah in the Old Testament Scriptures. From this time on, people looked for the Messiah to come from the tribe of Judah. In Genesis 3:15 we are told simply that the deliverer will come from mankind (the seed of the woman). In Genesis 9:26 a further characteristic is mentioned: He will be a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Years later God further delineated His genealogy by saying that among the descendants of Shem, Abraham would be the progenitor of Him in whom all families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). That messianic line was further narrowed to one of the two sons of Abraham, namely Isaac (Gen. 21:12). The messianic line was further narrowed to one of the two sons of Isaac, namely Jacob (Gen. 25:23). Of Jacob’s twelve sons, Judah is chosen as the one through whom Messiah will come (Gen. 49:10). Later in Israel’s history God chose a descendant of Judah, namely David, to be the family through whom the Messiah would come (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Then the genealogy was narrowed further when one town within Judah, Bethlehem, was chosen as the site of Messiah’s birth (Mic. 5:2).
The above is just a brief outline of the messianic credentials. Anyone who would ever claim to be the Messiah must present these credentials to Israel. Jesus possessed these credentials. In Matthew 1:1-16 the genealogy of Jesus is listed and clearly shows Him as one who qualifies to be the Messiah. The marvelous account in Matthew 2:1-10 of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was in accordance with Micah 5:2. These and many more credentials Jesus presented to Israel as their Messiah.
But someone may ask, Could not a Jewish person appear yet in the future who would have these same credentials and be Israel’s Messiah? No, he could not, because there are simply no records available to back up his claim. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Temple with all of its treasures and archives was completely destroyed as well. One of the treasures of the Temple was the genealogical records that were so important to validate the family and tribal genealogies. Since that fateful day, no Jewish person has been able to prove by records his or her genealogy.
If Jesus is not the fulfillment of the “Shiloh” passage in Genesis 49:10, then the awful fact facing Israel is that there will be no Messiah who can prove that he fulfills the prophecies.