“Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.
– Genesis 49:8-12
WARNING: This story isn’t all “G” rated.
It’s undeniable in the blessing of Judah above that Judah is expected to be a tribe of leadership. The other brothers will bow down to Judah. The reference to the lion is a kingly reference. Judah will hold the scepter, a symbol of leadership, along with the ruler’s staff. Of course, the reference of a future King that will hold the scepter and leader’s staff garnering obedience of all nations is a reference to Jesus.
Yet, Judah is the fourth son of Jacob (Israel). His mother is Leah. Before Bilhah was given to Jacob to bear sons for her master Rachel, Leah had four sons, the last being Judah until after the story of the mandrakes in Genesis 30. With so much emphasis on first born sons, this is odd. The first-born son is still considered master today. I had an older brother. There was little doubt who was top dog. Just look at the kingly line of any kingdom, most successors to the throne were first-born sons. Yet, Judah was not the first born, and Judah blessed Ephraim over Manasseh in Genesis 48. Why do we hold to the first born traditions?
Yet, what is even more odd is that I have heard many sermons and Sunday school lessons on the negatives of the first three sons, but none on the positives of Judah. Even in Tim Rice’s musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the focus is totally on Joseph. Judah does not stand out among his brothers for his role, as detailed in the Scriptures.
First, the Negatives:
Reuben was the first born, but he slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah (Genesis 35:22). Bilhah had been given to Rachel as a servant by her father Laban. In Genesis 30, Rachel gives Bilhah to Jacob, since Rachel remained barren. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite. She would eventually produce two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, but they had two older half-brothers, Dan and Naphtali, born of Bilhah. It just wasn’t the incest with his father’s concubine. It was Israel’s favorite wife’s servant. To Reuben’s favor, he talked his brothers out of killing Joseph in Genesis 35, but then he walked away while they were still in a blood thirsty mood, again to his discredit in a leadership role.
Simeon and Levi were the two brothers who are named as being the mass murderers of Shechem in Genesis 34. Jacob had a daughter, Dinah, who was raped by Shechem, son of Hamor, the ruler of the area. The story is graphic. We’ll simply say that the two brothers took the town’s men to the sword. This caused Israel a lot of worry and fear due to the thought of retaliation. Then when the brothers go to Egypt for food, Simeon is the one singled out to be placed into prison. It had been Judah who had suggested Joseph be sold as a slave as a means to save his life, but those wanting to kill Joseph are never mentioned. Since Joseph had Simeon imprisoned, it is possible that the mass murderer was taking the lead in wanting Joseph dead in Genesis 37. Levi, by association with the Shechem mass murder, has been placed into this same curse, according to some, with Simeon, yet Aaron and Moses come from the line of Levi. The Levites will not be given land due to their special responsibilities, but Levi was not as harshly treated as Simeon. Could it be that Simeon led the massacre in Genesis 34 and Levi followed the dominant leader in their killing spree?
This has been what I was taught as the reason for Judah being chosen as the kingly line, but there are positives. I’d like to look at those.
Judah’s positive actions:
Although not an action of Judah, the name ‘Judah’ is thought to be derived from the Hebrew word for “Praise.” Leah said, when he was born, “This time I will praise the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35)
Judah sold Joseph to the traders who were passing by. This may be considered a negative, but he knew that his brothers wanted to kill Joseph, and this was a means of separating Joseph from the grasp of brothers who were known to be able to kill humans. Also note that if Joseph had not been a slave for Potiphar, he would have never been in jail. If he weren’t in jail, he would have never interpreted the dreams of the baker and the cup-bearer. Without interpreting those dreams, he would have never had the chance to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. If you think that there might be another pathway to Pharaoh, remember Genesis 43:32. The Egyptians thought the Hebrews to be disgusting, but maybe that was just their table manners, but shepherds were consider the lowest of the low throughout the fertile crescent at the time (the Angels appeared to the shepherds, the lowest of the low.). Even Joseph doesn’t blame his brothers, saying that their momentary act of jealousy led to God’s salvation of the region during the famine (Genesis 45).
Getting back to Genesis 43, earlier in the chapter, Judah begs his father, Israel, for Benjamin to go, something Joseph had required on their next trip. He takes on the role of Benjamin’s guardian. He swears an eternal condemnation upon himself if he does not bring Benjamin back to his father. If the first-born was so important, why did Reuben not make that pledge or even Levi? Note: Simeon is in jail in Egypt at the time.
He follows through on this vow in Genesis 44. Benjamin is threatened to be placed into slavery, but Judah steps forward. Starting with Gen. 44:18 to the end of the chapter, Judah lays out what he’d promised to his father and begs to be Joseph’s slave in the place of Benjamin. This has parallels with what Jesus did on the cross. Benjamin was innocent of the crime, but Judah was willing to lay down his life for his brother’s. This is where Tim Rice was in error, having the brothers sing in chorus, instead of a Judah solo. The musical was a great feel-good story, but Judah’s willing sacrifice is a crucial point in making Judah’s line as the kingly line.
Upon Judah’s plea to be taken into slavery after being the one to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers in Genesis 45.
In Matthew 1:3, Judah, through Tamar, is the father of Perez. Several generations later, Salmon had a son, Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz married Ruth, who produced a son named Obed. Obed’s son, Jesse, had a few sons, but one was King David, again not a first born. Of course, the genealogy in Matthew 1 is showing the family line from Abraham to Joseph, the father of Jesus.
As Judah had begged Joseph in order to save his brother, Benjamin, Jesus would eventually lay down His life to save those who trust Him with their lives.
Praise the Lord.