The most important Israelite tribe stems from line of Judah. Judah is the fourth son of Jacob and Leah. His name comes from the Hebrew root “yahdah,” which means “gratitude.”
King David came from the Tribe of Judah.
The beginning of Judah’s life is marked by treachery and emotional indifference. He convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to traveling slave traders. Then he impregnates his daughter-in-law Tamar.
But then something happens. Judah awakens to a sense of right and wrong. He realizes he had hurt Tamar and acknowledges it saying, “She is more righteous than I.” (Genesis 38:26)
The Ancestor of King David
This act also establishes Judah’s hereditary significance. One of the children born to his daughter-in-law becomes the ancestor of King David. The tribe of Judah becomes the tribe of the Kings of Israel.
Judah’s character transformation becomes more evident in next several chapters of Genesis. When he and his brothers travel to Egypt in search of food during the famine, Judah is their leader and spokesman.
He offers himself up as a hostage to Joseph when Joseph demands the brothers bring bring their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt. When Joseph refuses, Judah succeeds in persuading their father Jacob to allow them to bring Benjamin to Egypt, and pledges to defend Benjamin with his own life.
It is Judah’s plea on behalf of Benjamin that finally leads Joseph to reveal his true identity to his shocked brothers.
The Lone Survivor
Along with the Levites, Judah’s descendants become the only Israelite tribe to survive the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. Three factors account for their survival.
- First, their territorial basis in Jerusalem. Through the ingenuity of King Hezekiah, who came from the tribe of Judah, Jerusalem survived the assault of the Assyrians through the construction of a water tunnel between the Gihon Spring and the Old City.
- Second, their loyalty to King David. After the death of King Saul, the other tribes remained loyal to the Saul’s clan. Only the tribe of Judah supported the ascension of David. David’s success led to the success of the tribe of Judah.
- Third, the tribe of Judah integrated other Israelite and non-Israelite tribes. The tribe of Benjamin was much smaller than Judah, and it eventually assimilated into it. Scholars have also discovered evidence that several Canaanites tribes became part of Judah through conquest and intermarriage.
A Profound Legacy
Several of the Bible’s most significant figures come from the tribe of Judah. Beside King David and Jesus, most of the Hebrew prophets are Judahites.
The word “Jew,” first used in the Book of Esther, is derived from Judah, indicating the disproportionate number of Israelites who came from the tribe of Judah.
The Bible also teaches that the Messiah must come from the Tribe of Judah. Scholars trace this requirement to later generations understanding of the reign of King David as Israel’s golden age.
David united the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and oversaw an era of great conquest and prosperity. The return of one of his descendants to the throne would restore that glory.