“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).
This is one of the great announcements in the Book of Revelation showing Jesus’ power and authority. When Jesus is described as the “Root of David”, it references one of the most well-known biblical characters. We know that Jesus would be descended from David from many Old Testament passages such as 2 Samuel 7:5-16 and Psalm 132:11.
But what about the reference to Jesus as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah?” Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob who all became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. It was important in ancient Israel to know from what tribe you were from. Moses was from the tribe of Levi (Ex 2:1,10). Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin (Rom 11:1). Who was Judah, how did God use him in His plan of redemption? Why is it important that Jesus were descended from the tribe of Judah?
To begin answering these questions, we have to first look at Jacob, his wives and the birth of his sons.
Jacob and His Wives
Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and received God’s promise of much land and many offspring (Gen 28:13-15, Gen 22:17-18). Jacob’s mother Rebecca sent him to Paddan-aram, the land of her father, for protection from his brother Esau and to find a wife (Gen 28:2). When Jacob got there, he found Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban. Jacob loved Rachel and promised Laban to work seven years for the right to marry her (Gen 29:18).
Jacob followed through on his commitment, but Laban was a dishonest man. Instead of giving Rachel to Jacob in marriage, Laban tricked Jacob to marry her older sister, Leah, instead. Laban said it was not customary for the father to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older daughter, but Laban let Jacob marry Rachel as long as he promised to work another seven years (Gen 29:26-27).
The situation was devastating for Leah because the Bible tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Gen 29:30). But God saw Leah’s pain, and “when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Gen 29:31). When Leah began having sons, she hoped it would cause Jacob to love her. She named the firstborn son Reuben saying, “for now my husband will love me” (Gen 29:32). She named her second son Simeon, thinking, “because the Lord has heard that I am hated, He has given me this son also” (Gen 29:33). Her third son was named Levi. She believed that “now this time my husband will be attached to me” (Gen 29:34). But Jacob’s feelings never changed for Leah.
When her fourth son was born, Leah simply said, “This time I will praise the Lord” (Gen 29:35). She named him Judah because Judah sounds like the Hebrew word for praise. This is the first sign that there will be something different about Judah. His birth caused his mother to praise God rather than think about Jacob after Judah’s birth. There were six more sons and a daughter born by Leah, her servant Zilpah, and Rachel’s servant Bilhah. After ten sons and one daughter, God opened Rachel’s womb and she bore two sons to Jacob. The sons were Joseph and Benjamin (Gen 30:22-23, Gen 35:16-27). Jacob favored these two sons, especially Joseph, over his other ten.
God uses three key events in Judah’s life to fulfill His plan of redemption through Jesus Christ.
The First Event: Joseph Sold to Ishmaelites
The first event is a result of the favoritism Jacob showed to Joseph which caused jealousy between him and his ten older brothers. The brothers eventually decided to kill Joseph and tell Jacob that he was killed by an animal (Gen 37:18-20). Judah agreed with this plan and acted with his brothers in trapping Joseph by pushing him into a pit.
While Joseph was trapped, they saw a group of Ishmaelite traders that were coming their way (Gen 37:25). Judah then changed his mind and said:
“‘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”. Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelite traders as a slave and taken into Egypt (Gen 37:26-28).
Did Judah change his mind because of compassion for Joseph, or was he acting out of greed? We do not know, but the important point to remember is that Judah’s decision kept Joseph alive. We know that the decision to not kill Joseph was part of God’s plan. At the end of his life, Joseph told his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20). The “many people” included Judah himself and his descendants of Jesus Christ.
It is important to see that the Bible does not say “you meant evil against me, but God used it for good.” It says that God meant the evil for good. It was not a reaction to the brother’s evil plan unforeseen by God, but it was God’s plan from the beginning. God worked his providential plan of salvation through Judah’s real choice and character to cause His plan to occur.
The Second Event: Tamar
After Judah and his brothers sold Joseph into slavery, the book of Genesis focuses almost entirely on Joseph and his rise to power in Egypt. The first event is his famous resistance to the sexual advances made by the wife of his owner Potiphar in Genesis 39. Before this story is another story of sexual advances involving Judah with a less admirable result.
Judah’s oldest son, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. Er was put to death because of wickedness (Gen 38:7). Judah commanded his next oldest son, Onan, to bear a son on Er’s behalf with Tamar. Onan refused to carry out his duty and he was put to death as well (Gen 38:10). Judah’s next oldest son, Shelah, was too young to perform this duty, but Judah promised him to Tamar once he was old enough (Gen 38:11).
Tamar remained faithful to Judah’s promise, but after Shelah came of age, Judah forgot to give him to Tamar as he promised. When Judah’s wife died, Tamar saw it as an opportunity to have a child and disguised herself as a prostitute in order to sleep with Judah. He did lay with her not knowing who she was, and she became pregnant (Gen 38:12-18).
When Judah learned that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, it was shameful to the family, and he was ready to burn her to death for the adultery he believed she committed (Gen 38:24). Tamar was able to show that she was pregnant by Judah, and he immediately repented of his reaction, saying, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again (Gen 38:26). After this Tamar bore twin sons Perez and Zerah (Gen 38:30).
What is important about these twins, specifically Perez? We see the answer in the genealogy that begins in the Gospel of Matthew. This genealogy traces the ancestry of Jesus from Abraham through Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. Matthew 1:3 says, “and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram” and continues from there.
Although Judah’s sons and Judah himself acted sinfully in what they did, it was part of God’s providential plan that our savior Jesus trace his lineage back to Abraham through Judah and Perez.
To Be Continued
Be sure to learn more about Joab in “Judah - A Character Study Part 2”.
John Piper, Providence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020) 426-427 ↩︎