The Lion of the Tribe of Judah

If a poll were taken to determine which of Jacob’s twelve sons were the most famous, certainly either Joseph or Judah would be the favored one. Although more space is given in the Scriptures 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 firstborn; 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, and his right to the position of leadership over his brothers was forfeited to Judah.

The two longest patriarchal blessings in Genesis 49 are reserved for Judah and Joseph. Judah’s blessing is recorded 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 affecting Jacob’s commentaries regarding them (see Gen. 35:22 and 34:25-31). 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 on 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

In this amazing series of blessings, Jacob often employed a play on words. Judah means praise, thus, he will be praised by his brothers who will recognize his leadership.

Judah seemed to assume this leadership role during his lifetime. In Genesis 37:26-27, we are told he helped to spare Joseph’s life by suggesting that the brothers sell him to the Ishmaelites rather than kill him. When the brothers later went down into Egypt and were unknowingly cared for by their brother Joseph, Judah was the spokesman for the group (Gen. 44:14-34).

In subsequent years, as the tribes were marching through the wilderness, it was the tribe of Judah that went first (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 taken of the tribes of Israel at the beginning and the end of the forty-year wanderings. In both censuses, Judah had the largest tribal population. Judah, therefore, was the leading brother and later the leading tribe.

Judah Will be a Great Conqueror

Jacob said to Judah, thy hand shall be on 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 signifying that the enemy had been conquered (Josh. 10:24).

The greatest conqueror in the history of Israel was King David, a descendant of Judah. David himself composed a beautiful song, recorded in both 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18, in which he praised God for giving him strength, particularly in battle. It is interesting that he used 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).

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).

The kingly character of Judah mentioned in verse 10 is appropriately symbolized by the lion who is often called the king of beasts. This theme is carried through the Scriptures, even into the New Testament. Revelation 5:5 describes a scene in the throne room of Heaven in which 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 government of Israel was a theocracy rather than a monarchy, the Lord anticipated that there one day would be kings in Israel (Dt. 17:14-20). In later years, the first king of Israel, Saul, was from 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, from 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, the scepter and the ruler’s staff (“lawgiver” in the Authorized Version), would never depart from Judah. 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.

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 will depart. This, however, is not what the verse is teaching. No mention is made of a time when the scepter will 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 recorded 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 given in Genesis 49:10 is not that the scepter will depart from Judah, but that 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 which there is an additional prophecy: “and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” Who, or what, is meant by the term “Shiloh”? Of the many attempts which have been made to interpret the meaning of this word, let us consider the three main approaches to “Shiloh” mentioned in most of the commentaries.

  1. Since “Shiloh” is also the name of a town in Israel, there are some who believe it is that town which is referred to in this verse. The most recent Jewish translation of the Scriptures entitled The Tanakh, states that a literal translation of this verse is “until he comes to Shiloh.” The town of Shiloh was the 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 render “Shiloh” in Genesis 49:10 as referring to this town simply results in confusion. 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 school of thought interprets the meaning of “Shiloh” as to whom it belongs, and presents a reference to the Messiah to whom the scepter belongs. Often, 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 interpreted “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 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) the nations will 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 many evangelical commentators. The name “Shiloh” easily could be related to the word Shalom the Hebrew word for peace. This would agree with the prophecy of the 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 preferred above the others.

Undoubtedly, the word “Shiloh” refers to the King Messiah – an interpretation affirmed even by the great medieval Jewish commentator Rashi. This prophecy is one more stroke in the developing portrait of the Messiah in the Old Testament Scriptures. From that time on, people looked for the Promised One 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, another characteristic is mentioned: He will be a descendant of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Years later, God again 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 again narrowed to one of the two sons of Isaac, namely Jacob (Gen. 25:23). Of Jacob’s twelve sons, Judah was chosen as the one through whom Messiah would come (Gen. 49:10). Later in Israel’s history, God chose a descendant of Judah, David, to be the family through whom the Messiah would come (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Then the genealogy was narrowed once more when a specific town within Judah, Bethlehem, was chosen as the site of Messiah’s birth (Mic. 5:2).

This is but a brief outline of the messianic credentials. Anyone claiming 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 genealogically 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. Jesus presented to Israel as their Messiah these and many more credentials.

But someone may ask, Could a Jewish person appear in the future who would have these same credentials and be Israel’s Messiah? No, he could not, because there are no records available to substantiate such a 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 records necessary 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.

When this author was doing graduate work at a Jewish college in Philadelphia, I was privileged to study under an Orthodox Jewish professor with a Ph.D. from Harvard University. She taught me medieval Jewish history for 30 consecutive weeks through the school year. The most interesting fact about that experience was that I was the only student in class!

Each week I was required to read 400 to 500 pages on a given topic. My professor and I would then discuss the issue in class. About halfway through the year, the subject for the week was “The Messiah in Medieval Judaism.” When I arrived for class, my professor, knowing my evangelical convictions, said, “Well, Mr. Varner, I guess you’ve been waiting for this week for quite a while. Mr. Varner, let me explain one thing: in my opinion, Christianity is totally irrational and highly mystical, and I cannot see how any thinking person can believe it.” Since she threw down the gauntlet, I decided to pick it up and accept the challenge. I answered, “Do you mind if I take a few minutes and share with you the reasons why I believe the Christian faith has solid reasons for its validity?” She said, “Sure, go right ahead,” and for the next half hour she allowed me to make my case for the messiahship of Jesus and the truth of the New Testament.

I mentioned each messianic prophecy and fulfillment I could think of. I brought out arguments for the resurrection and the validity of the New Testament. God gave me great boldness.

I finished by telling her, “If Jesus is not the Messiah, then Orthodox Jews will be very disappointed because there will be no future Messiah for Israel.” Shocked at this, she asked what I meant by such a conclusion. I reminded her of that which she already knew, that the genealogical records had been destroyed, and no one claiming to be the Messiah today can authenticate it by producing the genealogical records. Then my learned professor answered, “Certainly somebody somewhere had kept the records.” Even though she had no idea who or where that “somebody” was who supposedly has the records, she expressed the hope that they some day could be produced to authenticate the claims of her future Messiah. Again she remarked, “I certainly hope somebody has kept the records because I sure want to know Him when He comes.”

I then concluded, “But you know that nobody has kept the records. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah before the records were destroyed. No one at that time questioned His descent from Judah and David. The only credentials He will bring with Him at His second coming will be the wounds which He received at the first coming” (cf. Zech. 12:10).

If Jesus is not the fulfillment of the “Shiloh” passage in Genesis 49:10, the awful fact facing Israel is that there never will be anyone who can prove that he fulfills the prophecies of Messiah’s royal lineage. But there is one who meets all of these qualifications – the Lion of Judah who is also the Lamb slain to redeem Jews and Gentiles from sin’s bondage (see Rev. 5:5-10).


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