We met Judah a few posts ago as the 4th Son of Jacob. The sons of Jacob are the founders of the tribes of Israel. Despite being the 4th son of Jacob, Judah founded the tribe that ultimately gave its name to the people of God at the end of the story of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Jews. We saw in the last post that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was ravaged by a destructive war in the 8th Century BCE—a war that it never really recovered from in a tangible way. This saw the loss of ten tribes whose descendants, in part at least, gave rise to the Samaritans. The Southern Kingdom took its name from the dominant tribe of Judah although it incorporated the territory of the tribe of Benjamin and also included some Levites as they lived scattered among the other tribes.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible various events prefigure the dominant role of tribe of Judah. The earliest of these is the Joseph narrative in the book of Genesis. Judah leads the way in suggesting that he and his brothers rid themselves of the irksome Joseph by selling him to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:26‒28). Much later when Joseph has risen to a position of power and influence in Egypt, it is Judah who plays a lead role. Joseph turns on the emotional blackmail which will really test his brothers by holding Simeon, Judah’s full brother, hostage until the absent younger brother Benjamin is brought to Egypt. Judah offers himself to his father Jacob as surety of Benjamin’s return, thus persuading Jacob that Benjamin can go to Egypt. After Joseph enslaves Benjamin in a ruse it is Judah who pleads for Benjamin’s life. It is at this point that Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers.
Very much later in the story of the people of God, King David from the tribe of Judah arises as a replacement for the failed King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. The foundation of a kingly dynasty from the tribe of Judah is prefigured in Genesis 49 where each of the sons, and thereby the tribes of Israel, are prophesied over by their father Jacob. The kingly motifs are rich when Jacob speaks of Judah:
‘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 sceptre 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.
Genesis 49:8‒10 (NIV)
We will see in the next post that similar language is used in the psalms to speak of King David and his line. As we have seen, the nation of Judah was the surviving nation and on return from exile the people of God took their name from the tribe which gave its name to the nation and they became Jews. One of the challenges in interpreting the role of Judah in the earlier narratives is to what extent this might be viewed as reconstructed history. To put it another way how much of the later history of Israel/Judah is read back into the earlier story? We will look at this issue in a later post.